This story was originally published on Nov. 15, 2019 in Styles. It has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
On TikTok, young people with glowing skin can be seen sipping magic green potions. After adding a few drops of liquid chlorophyll to glasses of water, they drink, and poof! Their complexions clear, their tummies become less bloated, their body odor improves, all typically within a week.
The claims about the seemingly endless powers of chlorophyll are not new, only the social media platforms for making them are. Yet the messaging is as powerful as ever.
In the past year, consumers in the United States spent $6.7 million on supplements of chlorophyll and chlorella (a type of algae), a 17 percent increase from the year before, according to the market research company SPINS. Sales of water with chlorophyll also jumped 356 percent in the same time period.
In an email, a spokeswoman from Whole Foods Market said that chlorophyll supplement sales in their stores increased, too, with some selling out. “We noticed this in waves tied to the first viral TikTok in January and again in March.”
Chlorophyll is all around us: in the verdant trees, in the spinach at the salad bar, in the philodendrons by our windowsills. It’s the primary molecule essential for photosynthesis, absorbing the sunlight and turning it into energy for plants and blue-green algae (a type of bacteria). A phytochemical, chlorophyll puts the green in dark leafy greens.
The therapeutic potential of chlorophyll has intrigued scientists for much of the past century. The ingredient in most over-the-counter chlorophyll products, however, is not a natural compound. When chlorophyll is removed from plants, it breaks down quickly. So to make a more stable compound, companies typically replace one of its elements, magnesium, with another one, usually copper, to make a semi-synthetic chemical called chlorophyllin.
Products containing chlorophyllin — like capsules, gummies, tablets, tinctures, teas and exfoliants — are sold in supermarkets, health food stores and vitamin shops, promising fresher breath, better digestion, more energy and radiant skin.
But amid all the hashtags and hype, does it work?
Does chlorophyll do anything?
Some laboratory studies suggest that chlorophyllin may have antioxidant properties, which help to combat the damage to our cells caused by an excess of harmful molecules known as free radicals. However, most of the available scientific research for chlorophyll and chlorophyllin comes from cellular and animal studies; there haven’t been many human trials.
“There actually isn’t enough scientific evidence to determine if chlorophyll is beneficial for any medical purpose right now,” said Chelsey McIntyre, a pharmacist and managing editor of Natural Medicines, a database that provides information on supplements, herbal medicines and other alternative treatments. The same goes for chlorophyllin, which is often used in supplements, or in food dyes. But their reputation as a multipurpose curative has flourished.
Reports of chlorophyll’s odor-fighting powers wafted out of an army hospital in 1947, where the stench of injured patients filled the corridors. That was, apparently, until a chlorophyll derivative arrived on the scene. “This odor immediately disappeared,” Lt. Col. Warner F. Bowers wrote in The American Journal of Surgery.
Fanned by mass advertising, the lore of chlorophyll grew, especially during the 1950s, when many Americans reached for it in the form of toothpaste, mouthwash, dog food and — yep — cigarettes. Clorets, a gum made with the ingredient, touted breath that became “kissing sweet” in seconds.
Timothy Jay, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, wrote about chlorophyll’s popularity in a book about surprising social mores titled “We Did What?!” He chalked up its current faddishness to a “generational variable.” “Younger consumers are generally not aware of the history of personal care/nutritional claims of the 50s,” he wrote in an email, “so they can be duped like our grandparents were years ago.”
In a 1980 study that tested whether chlorophyllin could help control body and fecal odors as well as chronic constipation and flatulence, researchers gave 62 female nursing home patients chlorophyllin tablets every day for six months. Half of the patients were incontinent (and emitting a foul odor), the other half struggled with constipation and flatulence. Researchers reported improvements in both group’s symptoms, by 85 and 50 percent, respectively.
“It’s hard to objectively measure that effect,” said Dr. Timothy Gardner, a gastroenterologist and an associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. Not only did this study lack a control group, he said, but it has not been replicated in the 41 years since. He thinks a large placebo effect could have explained the results, and said there’s not enough evidence for chlorophyll or chlorophyllin’s use for constipation, flatulence or body odor. The same goes for decreasing bloating, he said, which wasn’t tested in the 1980 study but is a popular claim on TikTok.
Another area where there’s little research is in cancer prevention. Chlorophyllin may reduce the body’s absorption of aflatoxin, a toxin made by fungi that can contaminate food. At the time of a 2001 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Qidong, China, it was a big problem there. Dietary exposure to aflatoxins increases the likelihood of developing hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer.
In the trial, 180 residents of Qidong were told to take three pills a day, one before each meal. They either received three, 100-milligram doses of chlorophyllin or three placebo pills. Urine samples showed that those who took the chlorophyllin for four months had a 55 percent reduction in aflatoxin DNA damage biomarkers than those who took the placebo.
“The efficacy was demonstrated by the reduction in the DNA damage,” said John D. Groopman, a professor of preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and an author of the study. He added that there were no adverse effects. But the trial did not continue for a long period or examine whether rates of cancer decreased, he said.
While the work on aflatoxin was exciting when it emerged, Timothy R. Rebbeck, a professor of cancer prevention at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said that, without more data, there’s not enough of a link to warrant the widespread use of chlorophyllin by consumers. “I am not sure we could expect it to have an impact on any other population, or perhaps even any other cancer,” Dr. Rebbeck said in an email interview.