Biology Student Rediscovers Ancient Secret for Fighting Skin Infections

Dr. Janet Zand

February 28, 2020

What would you do if you were desperately trying to come up with a topic for your senior thesis? That’s the situation Emory University biology major Xinyi Huang found herself in a few years ago.

Fortunately for anyone who wants naturally healthy skin, she decided to go for a walk. That’s because what she found on that walk has opened up some ancient secrets of natural skin care.

On that walk, Huang spotted a ginkgo tree. Growing up in China, Huang had occasionally eaten ginkgo seeds. And she had a vague sense that ginkgo was important to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But she wasn’t sure what benefits the tree offered – or whether modern science backed up TCM’s claims.

Luckily for Huang, she was in a good place to find out. That’s because Emory is home to a copy of the Ben Cao Gang Mu (Compendium of Materia Medica). Emory’s copy is from 1826. But the tome dates back to the 16th century, when Li Shi-Zhen compiled the work during the Ming Dynasty.

Huang was somewhat familiar with the Ben Cao Gang Mu. But she’d seen only small, highly abridged versions. She wondered what this 10-volume work might have to say about ginkgo. As a student at Emory, she was able to go straight to the source to find out.

What She Found Is Changing Modern Skin Care

Huang turned to the “Grains, Vegetables, Fruits” volume for information about ginkgo. Li Shi-Zhen had a lot to say about ginkgo seeds in particular. In fact, he included 17 different ways the seeds could be used topically. He recommended using the seeds for everything from chapped skin to dog bites.

These topical applications surprised Huang. She was familiar with ginkgo seeds as a flavorful soup ingredient – though her parents always warned her never to eat more than five at once. (Li Shi-Zhen backed her parents up on that one). But she didn’t know they could help the skin.

Li Shi-Zhen suggested grinding the seeds and forming a paste by mixing the ground seeds with rice wine, another form of alcohol, or rapeseed oil. TCM practitioners could then apply this paste to diseased or wounded skin.

Huang wondered whether this remedy was truly effective and, if so, why it worked. She knew she’d found a great topic for her thesis.

Powerful Antibacterial for the Skin

Huang began researching ginkgo seeds. She found studies indicating that the coating of the seeds had some antibacterial effects against a few strains of harmful gut bacteria.

Gingko leaves seem to have antibacterial effects as well. They also fought against certain gut bacteria. And they worked against S. aureus, a skin invader. But could the seeds fight skin pathogens as well? If so, this would help explain the TCM advice.

Once again, Huang was in the right place to get some answers. She’d already been volunteering in the lab of Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor at Emory.

Quave works at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and in the School of Medicine’s dermatology department. She is particularly interested in discovering solutions to antibiotic resistance. Skin pathogens – and natural remedies that fight them – are key to her work. Huang’s interest in topical applications of ginkgo seeds was a natural fit for her lab.

Huang set out to investigate ginkgo’s antibacterial properties. She was able to return to the source of her inspiration and collect seeds from campus trees. Had she been in China, she might have been able to gather seeds from the same trees that Li Shi-Zhen used. No, not the same grove of trees. The same trees. That’s because ginkgo trees can live for over 1,000 years! Some ginkgo trees in China are purported to be more than 2,500 years old. Clearly, they have some sort of “anti-aging” properties worth studying!

Huang also bought fresh seeds from a nearby farmer’s market. Plus, she gathered pure forms of nine chemicals already known to be present in ginkgo.

Solving Antibiotic Resistance?

Researchers in the Quave lab then prepared extracts of the ginkgo seeds. They did their best to follow Li Shi-Zhen’s instructions. They created extracts using water, ethanol, and rapeseed oil using ginkgo seed nuts, immature gingko seeds, and ginkgo seed coats.

Once the extracts were ready, it was time to evaluate their antibacterial activity. The researchers tested the extracts’ power against 12 different strains of bacteria.

They found that the seed coat extracts and the immature seeds were able to fight three different strains: C. acnes, S. aureus, and S. pyogenes. The researchers were able to further isolate a specific component, ginkgolic acid C15:1, as potentially playing a key role in the fight against microbes.

There is a downside to this discovery. Ginkgolic acid C15:1, in concentrated form, is toxic to skin cells. So don’t run out and replace your hand sanitizer just yet. And this research is still in early stages. Huang hasn’t yet been able to conduct animal or human trials to determine whether ginkgo seed extracts can help fight skin pathogens in the “real world.”

Still, this discovery is an important step along the path to solutions to antibiotic resistance. We’ve seen plenty of instances in which a whole can be beneficial even when a part is toxic. So using the whole ginkgo seed may provide a way to harness the antimicrobial benefits of this potent acid without destroying skin cells in the process. After all, it seems that Li Shi-Zhen was able to do it!

Topical Use Is New Territory for Modern Science

This research also helps further confirm the wisdom of TCM practitioners. Even in the 16th century, they could certainly tell the difference between a substance that was toxic to the skin and one that was beneficial. Huang’s study is helping us understand the source of the benefits.

Interest in ginkgo isn’t new. In fact, many natural practitioners commonly recommend ginkgo extract as a booster of cognitive function. Some people also use it to treat anxiety, eye disorders, and even bladder infections. But most of the existing research focuses on the leaves – and internal applications. Huang’s research on the seeds and topical applications is unique and important.

You probably know that antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. Our overuse of antibiotics is creating “superbugs” that are proving quite hard to kill. One of the pathogens ginkgo combats, S. aureus, comes in a form you may know of: methicillin-resistant S. aureus, or MRSA. Huang’s findings could lead to a new way to fight this dangerous infection.

The Problem With Extensive Hand Washing

Huang’s research is still in its infancy, so it’s not providing us with the solutions you need right now – at least not topically. The immediate problem is that you need to do all you can to avoid MRSA. I hope ginkgo will be provide us with a way to do that in the near future.

But for now, one of the best ways to avoid this and other dangerous bacteria is simply to wash your hands. The UK’s National Health Service began focusing on reducing infections like MRSA in health care settings 20 years ago. And it started by encouraging healthcare workers to wash their hands more frequently.

This step definitely helped. Infections have decreased. But according to a study by researchers at The University of Manchester, something else has increased: dermatitis among healthcare workers.

In fact, from 1996 to 2012, reports of dermatitis to a national database The University of Manchester runs increased a whopping 4.5 times. This is a dangerous problem to run into, and not simply because it can be a source of frustration or irritation to healthcare workers and other frequent hand-washers. Broken or damaged skin is more susceptible to infection.

Obviously, healthcare workers can’t stop washing their hands. And you shouldn’t either. The study’s authors are encouraging companies to develop less irritating cleansing products to reduce instances of dermatitis. Several chamomile or calendula soaps are gentler than common hand soaps. You can experiment to see if some soaps are gentler on your hands than others. But you still need to wash to avoid infections.

After you wash your hands, apply a soothing moisturizer. Look for products with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, natural oils, and powerful antioxidants. Chamomile, calendula, green tea, honeysuckle, lavender, goat milk, and sunflower and coconut oils are all great choices.

These ingredients work together to help your skin hold on to moisture. If your skin is particularly dry, try applying coconut or avocado oil to your hands. Then cover them with cotton gloves. Leave the gloves on for a few hours or overnight to give your skin a chance to recover.

These strategies will help you keep your skin soft, healthy, and free of infection. Until Huang finishes her research on the antibacterial effects of the ginkgo seed we’ll have to wait for products to help solve these problems. But I’m glad to know we have such bright researchers tackling this important issue of antibiotic resistance.

This recent attention to ginkgo is very promising for demonstrating its natural antibacterial properties. It is an impressive addition to the natural antibacterial arsenal.

And of course, we should all be hopeful that we can solve antibiotic resistance. It’s a big problem we need to fight together. Good hygiene is a great place to start.

The next time you need inspiration, follow Huang’s example: Go for a walk. If nothing else, you’ll get your blood flowing and boost circulation to your skin. Just remember to wash your hands when you get back. And don’t forget to put on sunscreen before you head out the door!

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