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Comfrey is not for your face.

November 8, 2017

I have to admit to not knowing that until recently. I’d never really had the need to look into it to be honest, especially given that most cosmetic chemists look to Comfrey only for its Allantoin concentration and allantoin is cheap and abundant enough on its own. But just recently I did have reason to do some digging and this is what I found.


Comfrey is a lovely herb (my stash is shown above. I wonder how that superbly round hole got there…) but it is a herb which contains a few toxic alkaloids. Toxicity being a relative thing Comfrey is still OK to use topically with warnings but the herbal extract is not currently recommended for internal use due to the presence of these powerful naturally occurring chemicals.  I say ‘not currently’ because our understanding of the science and risks of chemicals both natural and synthetic evolves over time.

The alkaloids in question are Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids and we are looking at concentrations of between 0.02-0.5% depending on the species and whether the roots or leaves are taken.  As an aside, the concentration of Allantoin found in Comfrey is said to be between 0.6-4.7%, a cosmetically effective dose is around 0.2% so I’d need to add somewhere between 4.2 – 33% of herb to my cosmetic to get that dose – basically that doesn’t sound very practical to me.  Here is some information on herbs and their alkaloids. 

Even though using Comfrey extract is a poor way to achieve a good dose of Allantoin I still thought about doing it in order to meet my clients requirements for an organically certifiable product that contained the allantoin active.  This became a potential avenue to solve that problem once I realised that while allantoin is a naturally occurring chemical it is not extracted from plants, it is manufactured.  This discovery wasn’t exactly ground-breaking for me as many plant-derived isolates are man-made or what we call ‘nature-identical’ these days but what was annoying to discover was the fact that while allantoin synthesis originated as a natural process, it had been surpassed by a more economical, higher yielding, fully synthetic process that just wouldn’t pass muster with the organic certification bodies.  So pure, 100% active allantoin was out!

So back to Comfrey.

So after discovering Comfrey’s dirty little alkaloid secret (apparently one of them is a human carcinogen) I wanted to confirm how and when this ingredient could be used on skin so off to the TGA I went – do remember that I’m based in Australia and we have the TGA. If you are reading this from any other country you should really check with your therapeutic goods legislators before mixing up a batch of Comfrey cream or whatever.

In 2016 the TGA here in Australia were reviewing the status of Comfrey and following that some changes were made in the schedule. Now I’m not a law specialist – I find it too boring to be honest – but what I did find is this:

  • Comfrey is on a poisons schedule (SUSMP)- schedule 5.
  • THE SUSMP was updated in October 2017 – so very recently – and amendments to comfrey are reflected there.
  • Comfrey is listed in the schedule under its botanical name Symphytum.
  • It is referenced in schedule 10 and 5 and labelling legislation is in part 3 of appendix F.

Basically what all of this boils down to is that Comfrey extract can be used in cosmetics only as a topical (not to be ingested) extract but it can’t be used on the face or the genitals unless your doctor tells you to- yes it does say that:

Warnings comfreysymphytum

Here is a link to the relevant piece of legislation. 

So with that line of investigative science exhausted for my particular application I turned my attention to other ways of getting a bit of Allantoin goodness into a cosmetic face cream and of course, who can forget the humble snail!  Snail secretion extract became a huge thing across Asia a couple of years ago but it was slower to take-off here, you could say it took off at a snail’s pace……  I was always a bit sad about that because no snails need to die to making snail secretion extract AND it is a lovely source of natural polymeric sugars of the Glycosaminoglycan type (same family as Hyaluronic acid and great for skin)  plus, of course, the allantoin.  Also I suspect the snails in the snail farm are treated with a bit more respect than they usually receive from your average veggie gardener or blackbird!  That said, I’m quite convinced it won’t be every body’s cup of tea but at least it’s an option.

Before I go I guess I should re-cap with you on what Allantoin is actually good for shouldn’t I!

Allantoin is usually supplied as a pharmaceutical grade active with high purity, this means that usually 98.5% or more of the white, crystaline material is active Allantoin. Powdered, concentrated actives are great in terms of their small input level and relatively small transportation carbon footprint so in many ways synthetic allantoin is probably a whole lot more eco-friendly than using Comfrey extract.

Here is a summary of its benefits:

  • Increase moisture retention in the skin by increasing the capacity of the corneocytes to bind water.
  • Soften skin by exfoliating dry and damaged cells making this a mild keratolytic active.
  • Irritation prevention.  The active has been found to reduce the irritation potential of other actives including surfactants making it great even in wash-off applications.
  • Improves the skins resilience making this a good ingredient for anti-pollution products as well as restorative skincare.

Parting Comments. 

The natural source of the active I want is not as safe as the synthetic source but the synthetic source is not allowed because of how it is processed.  I spend many an hour pondering this weird reality of ours trying to work out if we are, indeed, making any progress in the world of chemistry. Thank goodness for snails.




9 Comments leave one →
  1. Theresa Christine permalink
    November 9, 2017 12:49 am

    Another great article. Thank you for your research!
    Would you know or has there been tests done to determine the concentration of polymeric sugars vs allantoin? Does this vary per snail species? (Haha…are there different snail species other than your typical garden variety?)
    I would love to be directed to some more studies or articles on snail secretion.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      November 9, 2017 7:33 pm

      Hi Theresa,
      I’d have to look into that for you (exact break down) but am happy to delve a bit deeper. With regards to the snails I am not at all sure if there is a species dependent variation here but I do think that all snails produce this type of slime for protection of their soft bodies. Again, another good question worth a bit of a look.

  2. Stefan Aeberhard permalink
    December 2, 2017 4:46 pm

    You got the wrong WARNING –
    31 Do not use on broken skin
    32 Do not use under occlusive dressing

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      December 11, 2017 10:51 am

      Hi Stefan, I double checked my interpretation of the legal status of this ingredient here in Australia with an Australian legal professional who specialises in cosmetics and pharmaceutical compliance here.

  3. Eli permalink
    November 9, 2020 12:20 am

    You should look at what that toxicity is based on. Its based on a few people who drank copious amounts of the tea quarts of it over a long time and got liver damage which was healed after they stopped. and also the mice study which they used the poisonous alkaloids isolated from the plant in huge amounts on mice which damaged their livers. Unless you’re eating nothing but comphrey leaves it seems unlikely you have anything to worry about. Or if you have a bad liver. They also don’t distinguish between Russian comfrey with high poison level and officianalis or common comfrey which has far less. It seems an unfair label but considering how amazing the plant is it would be a huge threat to big pharma. Considering the side effects of their medicines it is hugely unfair!! Anyway just thought I’d say that so you might look into it further. Sorry I don’t have any of the studies or artical to hand as I have no idea how to ever find things in my history but it didn’t take me long to find the papers on which the ideas are based and although I am no scientist the conclusions and warnings seemed unfounded to the degree they have banned it. Considering the damage of alcohol and cigarettes and all they need is a warning on the pack and not banned. we live in a crazy world. Thankfully the herb is available for people to make their own things with. I used it to regrow my gums after gum disease had ravaged them and also on my skin and it made a lovely difference to my skin. I want to give it somehow to my aunt for her broken vertebrae I have got her a balm but I would like Allan to in without the poisons as she is old and her liver might be vulnerable. I will look for snail Allantoin thanks to your artical. I haven’t even found a synthetic.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      November 15, 2020 10:06 pm

      I am often asked to look into things for people, most of which fail to provide the references which have shaped their doubt. I’m tired now and wish that people would hold up their end of the bargain. Thanks.

  4. Jann permalink
    November 23, 2020 3:07 pm

    People have been eating comfrey salad for many years. I eat it with no ill effects. My cows gorge on it. Animals seem to know what is safe. Elderberry is another example of the fear campaign..It seems somebody would like to frighten us away from effective plant healing and into the embrace of big pharma.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 12, 2021 10:32 am

      People do all manor of things.
      I’m personally a fan of moderation including in how I think. Plant medicine and man-made pharmaceuticals are both useful.

  5. aly permalink
    January 24, 2021 4:16 am

    the alkaloids are poorly absorbed through the skin, according to this very recent study.

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