Supermodels as well as film and TV stars, like Miranda Kerr, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Millie Mackintosh, and Jennifer Aniston (to name just a handful) have been raving about a green algae supplement called chlorella.
In interviews and across Instagram, claims about the supplement helping to transform skin have been growing with some even claiming it’s a miracle anti-ageing product.
Of course, we’re immediately sceptical of such bold claims so we wanted to take a look at the science behind the supplement. Plus we explain what chlorella is, and why everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon.
FURTHER READING: Best anti-ageing cream for targeting wrinkles and fine lines
Chlorella is a single-celled species of algae found in freshwater, which means you’ll likely find it growing in ponds and lakes in Southeast Asia and Australia. It gets its name from the Greek word ‘chloros’ – meaning green – and the Latin word ‘ella’, which means small.
It is said to be one of the earliest forms of life, with scientists believing it to be approximately 2 billion years old. Despite its age, chlorella has only been consumed by humans since the early part of the last century. The Japanese were among the first to start using chlorella as a supplement before its popularity and benefits spread to Europe and America.
Chlorella is used as a nutritional supplement, which is available in tablet, liquid and powder form.
There are more 30 different species of chlorella, but only two are largely used in supplements – chlorella Vulgaris and chlorella pyrenoidosa. The whole of the plant is used in the production of these supplements and medicine, because it’s jam-packed full of nutrients, and chlorella supplements are great if you want to add more healthy green-style benefits to your diet.
Chlorella was first described as a superfood in the 1940s when it was used as a cheap source of protein during the War, and when other foods were rationed.
In fact, it contains up to 70% protein, as well as nine essential amino acids, which makes it a popular choice among vegans looking to replace meat-based protein.
The algae has also been extensively researched, and other chlorella benefits uncovered include:
A study from Agricultural University of Athens found that strains of chlorella contain powerful antioxidants, molecules that have been found to reduce oxygen free radicals, one of the main culprits thought to be behind ageing skin and can be caused by pollution to stress.
As you can read in our Skin Food guide, when we breathe in oxygen our body can split it into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Because electrons work better in pairs, the single, split electrons become unstable and roam around the body looking for a partner.
It’s these split electrons that are known as free radicals. When moderated, free radicals can help boost energy levels and our immune system, and the way we keep them in check is via antioxidants.
If the levels of free radicals get too high, or we don’t have enough antioxidants to battle them – which can be caused by smoking, drinking alcohol, pollution, fried foods, and more – the free radicals can begin damaging our cells, and our DNA. This stress has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease as well as being a cause of premature ageing.
What’s more, in the same study from Athens, chlorella was found to inhibit the production of an enzyme called elastase. Elastase acts to break down a protein found in our skin called elastin, and elastin is part of the scaffolding of our skin.
While collagen provides our skin with its firmness, elastin gives it its elasticity and improves its ability to rebound when pinched or pulled. Less elastin means less elasticity, which leads inevitably to skin sagging and wrinkles. By inhibiting the elastase enzyme chlorella can help prevent wrinkles.
A study in Japan from 2016 found that extracts from the chlorella algae correlated with a reduction in the size of animal fat cells normally seen when consuming a high-fat diet.
Chlorella is also rich in iron. Iron is important because it helps maintain the function of haemoglobin, the substance that transports oxygen in the blood. It also helps with energy production and the regulation of body temperature. This makes the chlorella supplement another popular choice among vegans, or people on plant-based diets who aren’t getting enough iron from food alone.
Research from 2017, which revisited previous studies on chlorella benefits to see if they still stood true, found that algae can support our gut microbiomes. These are the micro-organisms that live in our digestive system and keeping these microbiomes healthy have been linked to various things including weight loss, improving immune function, and boosting energy.
Various studies have also shown chlorella benefits extend to improving the efficiency of the body’s energy production and how well we remove lactic acid. It can also improve VO2max4, which is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise, and chlorella can reduce the impact of intense exercise on the immune system.
While you can buy chlorella in its raw form, it doesn’t taste particularly great, it’s not that easy to come by, and, according to clinical nutritional therapist, Michael McInerney, it’s not effective.
“Chlorella in its true form is indigestible as it is protected by an extremely tough outer cell wall,” he explains. “This cell wall needs to be processed to release the active constituents from inside, otherwise it remains indigestible.’
By comparison, chlorella supplements are very common and found in many health stores. They’re also available in the form of tablets, and powder.
As you can read in our beauty supplements guide, powders are super easy to add to drinks and food, but tablets are also convenient and they both work effectively so it’s up to you and your lifestyle which one you opt for.
Holland & Barrett sells a range of its own-brand chlorella tablets and powder, with prices starting at £10.99 for 120 tablets , or 9p a tablet – far from cheap, but more affordable than many anti-ageing creams! You can also get chlorella from Pukka, Naturya, and Green Origins from Holland & Barrett online, and instore.
If you can stretch your budget a little more, there is also a brand called Sun Chlorella which promises a higher-quality chlorella supplement. The Sun Chlorella brand is available in tablets or powder and in it uses a unique technique to break down the cell wall.
Typically, chlorella’s cell wall is cracked, broken, or dried, which research has shown can reduce the number of active constituents produced in each batch to around 50-55%. Sun Chlorella uses Dyno Mill technology to ‘pulverise’ the cell wall, which the same independent research has shown produces a yield between 85-90% of the active constituents.
You can get 300 tablets of Sun Chlorella for £21.99, which although means you’re paying more upfront, you’re actually paying 7p a tablet. So this works out cheaper overall. You can buy Sun Chlorella from Amazon, or the brand’s online shop.
Victoria is founder and editor-in-chief of mamabella, freelance journalist and Mum. She has a passion for empowering people to feel beautiful whatever their age, size, skin type and budget