Rooibos is a plant, Aspalathus linearis, native to the West Cape province of South Africa. It is used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea, sometimes called Red Tea, which is often touted for its health benefits. In addition to its use as an herbal tea, rooibos has been used in creams, cosmetics, sunscreen, and other skin care products which are used topically (applied directly to the skin). A similar plant, honeybush, is related to rooibos and is also used to make a similar tea, often called bush tea.
Rooibos is frequently marketed for its antioxidants, which are said to have similar cancer-preventing activity to the antioxidants in green tea and other tea. Honeybush is often studied alongside rooibos, and it is also known to contain antioxidants and is generally thought to have similar properties. Both of these plants show promise for preventing skin cancer, as well as other forms of cancer. This article surveys some of the recent scientific studies surrounding rooibos, honeybush, skin cancer, and cancer in general.
Can topical use of rooibos in skin care products prevent skin cancer?
There is fairly strong evidence from studies on mice that suggests the topical use of rooibos may be useful for preventing skin cancer. A study on mice, with its results published in 2005, found that extracts of rooibos, honeybush, and green tea strongly inhibited the formation of skin tumors, when the mice were exposed to a chemical known to cause skin tumors. All extracts showed strong effects, but green tea was found to be the most effective.
A more recent study exposed mice to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, in order to replicate the effect of sun radiation and sunburn, and studied the degree to which rooibos and honeybush prevented tumors. The study found that both rooibos and honeybush reduced the rate of tumor formation, and also greatly reduced the size of tumors that did form. These results suggest that rooibos and honeybush have benefits in terms of prevention of skin cancer, when included in skin care products and sunscreens.
Although these results are promising, human studies have not yet been conducted, and little is known about the possible dosing necessary to achieve concrete benefits in terms of prevention of skin cancer.
Can drinking rooibos tea prevent skin cancer or other cancers?
There is a significant scientific evidence suggesting that antioxidants in rooibos tea could prevent cancer, although the effects of rooibos tea on skin cancer in particular have not been studied yet. Skin cancer is the result of long-term damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Although only topical use of rooibos has been studied for protecting against UV radiation, there is evidence that drinking rooibos tea can protect against another form of radiation, gamma rays.
Gamma rays are given off by some radioactive materials, and are one of the most damaging types of radiation, causing radiation sickness and cancer even when no visible burns are caused. Quite remarkably, a study on mice, feeding them rooibos tea, found that drinking rooibos tea resented in significant protection against radiation damage caused by gamma rays. The study even identified a particular flavonoid, luteolin, which was found to explain this effect, through its action as an antioxidant. While it is not known whether these effects would translate to the damage caused by ultraviolet radiation, and whether or not it would translate into prevention of skin cancer in humans drinking rooibos, it does show that rooibos contains potent antioxidants which have the potential to prevent cancer caused by some forms of radiation damage.
Rooibos tea is a delicious, caffeine-free beverage which is safe for regular consumption. Although little is known about whether drinking rooibos tea could actually prevent skin cancer, there is evidence that doing so can protect against certain kinds of radiation damage. There is stronger scientific evidence that the topical use of rooibos in sunscreens and skin care products can prevent skin cancer. Rooibos tea also has health benefits beyond those mentioned in this article. Drinking moderate amounts of rooibos tea certainly can not hurt, and is probably a very good idea.