Hemp, once a thriving American crop, is returning to the front as a rich and nourishing ingredient in modern beauty products
By Kelli Rosen
George Washington grew it on his plantation. So did Thomas Jefferson. The original drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on sheets made from it, as was the Magna Charta. The Chinese first cultivated it to make cloth more than 12,000 years ago. And for centuries, our ancestors expanded its uses to include building materials, fuel, food and personal care items.
Hemp used to be a staple crop in the United States, and still is around the globe. Despite the many products that can be made from it, hemp is related to the marijuana plant, so it has been banned in the United States since 1937. Hemp was and is valued for the tough fiber in its stalk that can be made into canvas, rope, paper, cloth and many other products. However, as is well known, various parts of hemp's cousin, marijuana, can be used as a narcotic that produces a mild euphoria. In 1930, Congress established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and Harry Anslinger, its director, declared marijuana a national threat. Anslinger's crusade against marijuana led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which made marijuana and hemp banned substances. After all, the argument went, hemp may contain traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the hallucinogenic substance in marijuana.
Can the taboo ever be lifted? Change is in the air, driven largely by the commercial possibilities the plant offers. In 1998, the plant was re-legalized for cultivation in Canada. Varieties of hemp, particularly a taller, stalkier variety, are bred to contain almost no narcotic substance. The cosmetics industry, among others, has realized that the benefits of the plant outweigh its supposed evils, and hemp oil extracted from hemp seeds is fast becoming a favorite ingredient in skin care products. Today, companies offer an abundance of moisturizers containing hemp oil, including soap, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, lip balm and body lotion. In fact, hemp is becoming so popular that retail sales of all products for 2000—body care items included—soared to $150 million worldwide, with sales in the United States accounting for more than half of that overall figure.
The Basics: Rich In EFAs
Hemp is easy to cultivate. It grows rapidly, adapts to almost any climate, and can be processed with little water, fertilizers or pesticides. And even though it shares the same botanical name—Cannabis sativa—as marijuana, hemp contains less than 1 percent of THC.
But while unsuited to recreational use, hemp's nutritional attributes are plentiful, including an impressive fatty acid profile. More than 75 percent of the fatty acids in hemp oil are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), the highest percentage found in any oil. Most of these PUFAs are considered essential fatty acids (EFAs), namely omega 6 linoleic acid and omega 3 alpha-linoleic acid. The ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s in hemp oil is 3:1, considered an ideal balance that perfectly matches the needs of the human body.
Since hemp oil is a rich source of EFAs, taking hemp oil internally as part of a healthy diet may help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular lower cholesterol and reduce the blood's tendency to clot. And since hemp oil has a natural anti-inflammatory effect, it may also be helpful in treating arthritis and autoimmune disorders, according to Kelley Fitzpatrick, CN, president of the nonprofit industry association Saskatchewan Nutraceutical
When applied topically, products containing hemp oil also may benefit the skin. Many factors can contribute to dry skin: sun exposure, harsh soaps, and age, to name a few. One of the skin's main functions is to serve as a barrier and protect the body from excessive water loss. In order for skin to function properly though, it needs a healthy supply of EFAs. Both omega 6s and omega 3s have been shown to possess emollient and lubricating properties.
The Bonus: GLA, Too
According to Fitzpatrick, hemp oil is also a rich source of the omega 6 PUFA gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which contributes to the oil's topical benefits for skin. Although not technically considered an EFA, since our bodies can enzymatically convert omega 6 into GLA, factors such as aging, poor diet and obesity can inhibit the synthesis of GLA, causing its deficiency.
Multiple published studies have shown that both topical application of and supplementation with EFAs—including GLA—can help alleviate a variety of skin problems such as dryness, eczema and psoriasis. No specific clinical trials have been conducted on hemp oil; however, its topical benefits can be extrapolated from tests with similar oils. Fitzpatrick points out that both borage and flaxseed oils have been studied extensively and both have been clinically proven to have significant beneficial effects on the skin thanks to their EFA constituents. This bodes well for hemp.
"The unique thing about hemp is that it contains a very interesting combination of fatty acids," says Fitzpatrick. "Borage oil contains a high amount of omega 6 GLA and flaxseed oil contains a high amount of omega 3s. Hemp oil contains both."
While it's impossible to recapture the luster of young skin, Fitzpatrick says, hemp oil can help because it is loaded with other antioxidants and minerals such as vitamin E and beta-carotene that help to preserve skin, deter age spots and reduce wrinkles. "Hemp product lines have remained extremely popular with the consumer, and that alone has to mean something," she says. It's true: Hemp products are flying off the shelves in mainstream as well as specialty stores, and barring any unforeseen legislation, supply will continue to grow with demand. If you suffer from a serious skin problem, it's always a good idea to check with your health care practitioner before applying anything new. But if you're searching for an effective moisturizer, look for hemp oil as an ingredient in your next bottle of lotion. You've got nothing to lose but dry skin.
Kelli Rosen is a freelance writer who specializes in topics relating to wellness.