Chlorophyll is a substance found in nearly all species of green plants and because of its important role in keeping them alive, is vital to the survival of everything on the planet. The chlorophyll in plants is what gives them their green color, and the substance is sometimes referred to as a pigment. Several types of chlorophyll exist, each with its own molecular structure, but all of the varieties are made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and magnesium.
In plants, the chlorophyll contained in the leaves and stalks absorbs sunlight, particularly the portion of white light that is blue and red. Once the light is absorbed by the chlorophyll, the electrons in its molecules become excited, leading to a chemical reaction that produces sugar. Plants then take this sugar and use it to create the energy necessary for them to grow and survive. Due to its function, chlorophyll is primarily what makes it possible for plant species to produce their own food and not have to rely on consuming other organisms to sustain themselves.
Scientists Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier first isolated chlorophyll from plants in 1817, but it was not until 1940 that the actual chemical structure of chlorophyll was discovered. The German organic chemist Hans Fischer is credited with the achievement, and his work paved the way for further investigation into the functions and benefits of chlorophyll.
Chlorophyll is not soluble in water, meaning that in its pure form, it must be mixed with oils. This has traditionally made it difficult to use genuine, natural chlorophyll in skin care and other products. To further complicate the matter, until 1997, there was no way to include pure chlorophyll in products without a stabilizing agent since the ingredient is prone to breaking down once isolated. Even with the invention of a free-drying method used to create more stable chlorophyll molecules, it remains difficult to use the ingredient in its pure form.
These difficulties have led to the development of chlorophyllin, a substance derived from chlorophyll, which can be manufactured in laboratories and in industrial settings. Chlorophyllin typically contains chlorophyll mixed with either sodium or copper, and it is usually the substance found in products that list chlorophyll among their ingredients.
Chlorophyllin is often used as an additive in skin care and personal hygiene products and is a popular natural colorant for products that are green. The ingredient also has natural odor-absorbing abilities, making it useful in soaps, body sprays and deodorants. Since chlorophyll is safe to consume, some mouthwashes and toothpastes also contain the ingredient and use it as a breath freshener. When used as a colorant or additive, chlorophyllin is sometimes called green 3 and E140.
Research has found that both pure chlorophyll and chlorophyllin function as antioxidants, molecules that reduce oxidative damage on the body. Oxidative damage is the agent that drives the aging process, including the development of fine lines and wrinkles. Because chlorophyll interacts with the harmful molecules that lead to oxidative damage, it functions as a skin protectant, slowing down the visible aging process. Chlorophyll is often found in creams, lotions and serums that are meant to prevent wrinkles and may be combined other antioxidants, including vitamins A, C and E.
Chlorophyll and its derivatives also have the ability to absorb sunlight, and when applied to the skin, decrease exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays. The sun-protective nature of chlorophyll is not strong enough for it to function as an active ingredient in sunblocks and sunscreens; however, manufacturers may add it to moisturizers and other products that contain a mild sunscreen. In these formulas, chlorophyll functions as a supportive ingredient and enhances the effectiveness of formulas.
Another benefit of chlorophyll lies in its ability to discourage the growth of bacteria and to kill bacteria that are already present on the skin. Some products used to treat acne blemishes contain chlorophyll or chlorophyllin, which helps to eliminate the infections in the pores that lead to breakouts. Chlorophyll can also be used in antibacterial soaps and cleansers.
Due to its natural origins, chlorophyll is generally regarded as a safe ingredient. Typically, both the synthetic and natural forms of chlorophyll do not cause side effects or irritation when included in skin care products, though some people may experience sensitivities to other substances used in formulas that contain the ingredient.