Wound healing properties of rosemary extract

Pparsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…” is the familiar refrain from the classic number “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel.While each one of these herbs is associated with some magical powers, rosemary is for memory. So if the erstwhile ‘true love’ mentioned in the song used rosemary she would definitely remember the singer…. And there is a good chance that she would also have had a beautiful complexion!! For its positive effects on skin, rosemary extract has been included in griffin+row’s Nourish and Enrich formulations.

Introducing Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary)

The botanical name for Rosemary is Rosmarinus which is Latin for ‘dew of the sea’. The name is derived from the fact that the plant typically grows on the cliffs and in crevices near the Mediterranean. The species name officinalis refers to the usage of the plant as a medicine and a herb. The common name ‘Rosemary’ may have come from the belief that the plant’s white flowers turned blue when the Virgin Mary draped her cloak on it.

The Rosemary is also referred to as compass plant, polar plant or compass weed. The ancient Greeks called the herb ‘anthos’ (meaning flower), while the French referred to it as ‘incensior’ since it was burned in homes, churches and sick rooms 1. The Spanish called it ‘Romero’ or the ‘Pilgrim’s flower’ plant after the legend that the plant gave shelter to the Virgin Mary during her flight to Egypt 2. Rosemary is one of the most common herbs found growing wild in the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Spain, southern France, Italy and Tunisia. It is also found in isolated places in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt 3. Today, the herb is cultivated in a number of countries where there are small pockets of Mediterranean types of climates. Tunisia, Morocco and Spain remain the leading producers of rosemary. 

Traditional uses of Rosemary 

A common aromatic plant in the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used Rosmarinus officinalis extensively.

The plant has been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs 4.The ancient Greeks believed that garlands of the herb improved one’s concentration and memory. They also associated the plant with friendship and loyalty, making it a regular feature at weddings and funerals. Rosemary was believed to be a gift of Aphrodite 5 suggesting that they were aware of its health and beauty benefits. A popular belief is that a sprig of rosemary placed under one’s pillow will keep away bad dreams 6.

Ancient Romans used the infusion of the herb as a cure for jaundice. Other digestive ailments were also treated with rosemary tea. Topical application of the herb to treat sores, rheumatism and eczema has also been documented 3. Serious cultivation of rosemary may be dated to Charlemagne in the 10th century, who promoted the same in Spain 3. The Romans may have introduced the herb to England in the early part of the 1st century AD where it could be cultivated in the southern regions of the country. Formal cultivation, however, started only in the 14th century. The herb became a common household plant and it was said that only if the mistress of the house was in control did the plant flourish. With time, the medicinal power of rosemary became popular all over Europe. ‘Hungary water’ developed by the queen of Budapest in the early 14th century was actually rosemary steeped in wine and distilled. This concoction was used to alleviate the dowager queen’s severe symptoms of gout and rheumatism. Apparently, the sage who imparted the knowledge of this recipe told the queen that she would regain her youth and vitality. Legend has it that the queen was not only cured but regained such beauty and vigour that the youthful king of Poland actually asked for her hand in marriage 1. In the Middle Ages when witchcraft, wizardry, spell and magic potions ruled the day, rosemary was hung outside the doors of houses to prevent harmful spirits from entering. The Spanish and Italians believed it could ward off the evil influence of witches. The Sicilians associated the plant with fairies. Men even tucked some of the herb in their hatband to ward off the charms of a potential witch 5. Not everything was done to keep evil spirits at bay. At Christmas time rosemary was spread on the floor so that a fresh woody fragrance filled the air as people trod on it. This also automatically disinfected the air, keeping the inmates of the house healthy. The present custom of including a branch of the herb in Christmas wreaths is a throwback on this practice 1.

The camphor content in rosemary made it the cheapest incense to burn at altars and shrines. Since the smoke acted as an insect repellent, the herb was also burned in courtrooms, churches and other public places to deal with infectious diseases.  The herb was even carried in handbags, folded in handkerchiefs and or placed in the heads of walking sticks for easy access during the dreaded plague of 1665 1.

Several herbalists and apothecaries of the 17th century have alluded to the ‘fair complexion’ of persons who used rosemary. Moreover, the extract was used to deal with baldness and hair loss 5.

Herbalists also recommended rosemary infusions for digestive and respiratory ailments. The herb was used to treat anxiety, blood pressure and circulatory problems. The tincture eased muscle fatigue and sprains as well as articular pain in rheumatism and gout 4.

The herb was also used to keep the freshness of certain foods before refrigerators were invented. Even today, butchers in Italy include a sprig of the herb with cut meat, to keep the freshness.

Of course, the liberal use of rosemary in their culinary preparations is well known. The Italians have favoured the fresh herb for stuffing and seasoning. The bittersweet and citrusy flavour blends with both vegetarian and meat-containing dishes 1 5.

Bioactivity and associated components of the plant

The leaf, stem and flowers of the herb contain a number of terpenes and their derivatives. These compounds are present in the extract or the essential oil derived from the herb. The term ‘extract’ and ‘oil’ are used interchangeably although the former is generally used for flavour enhancement in cooking and the latter is meant for medicinal purposes 7. The detailed composition is given below 8 9 10

Terpenes: α- thujene, α- pinene, β-pinene, camphene, β-phellandrene, α- terpinene and γ-terpinene, p-cymene, limonene, α- caryophyllene and β- caryophyllene.

Terpenols: 1,8-cineole, linalool, isopulegol, cis-chrysanthenol, borneol, terpinene-4-ol, α-terpinol.

Terpene esters: Bornyl actetate, geranyl acetate

Terpene oxide: Camphor

Phenolic diterpenes: Carnosol and carnosic acid. 

Carnosol, 1,8 Cineole and Camphor- a spotlight on the main bioactive components 

  • Carnosol is a phenolic diterpene.

This distinct compound found in Rosemary extract is responsible for the high anti-oxidant activity. It has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-cancer activities. It is also supposed to have neurological action 11.

  • 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol) is a terpene oxide.

1,8 cineole is the chemical name of the compound commonly known as eucalyptol or cajeputol. Widely used as a mucolytic and bronchodilator, it also has anti-inflammatory activity. It is used in both topical applications and formulations for its bactericidal, fungicidal and anti-viral action. As an enhancer of percutaneous penetration, it is used in massage oils and skin formulations 12.

  • Camphor is a bicyclic monoterpene ketone.

Synthesised for defence against infectious agents in plants, rosemary retains the camphor in its leaves just as Cinnamomum camphoricum stores the compound in its woody trunk. Camphor is a proven anti-infective, anti-inflammatory, anti- pruritic and analgesic. It is widely used for its medicinal and aromatic properties in topical applications, insect repellents and even rituals for worship 13. The camphor in rosemary extract is also known to remedy alopecia.

General health benefits and uses of Rosemary extract

Rosemary extract is made from the entire plant except the woody portions. However, these days only the leaves are used in the preparation of extracts in order to have some uniformity in preparations.The dried leaves are extracted with an organic solvent (acetone/ethanol/hexane-ethanol) or supercritical carbon dioxide. The colourless volatile oil obtained has strong camphoric- balsamic fragrance. Rosemary extract has been proven to be safe and can be used as an additive in foods or other formulations 14.

Rosemary extract is used in skin formulations since it possesses the following properties:

  • Antioxidant activity: The major antioxidant activity in rosemary extract is associated with carnosic acid and carnosol. These compounds scavenge on free radicals and prevent ageing (and spoiling) of skin or food 15.
  • Anti-bacterial activity: α-pinene, 1,8 cineole (eucalyptol), bornyl acetate and camphor contribute to the anti-bacterial activity of rosemary extract. Both Gram-positive bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (a major pathogen associated with pimples) and Gram –negative bacteria such as coli 16.
  • Anti-fungal activity: Rosemary extract has potent antifungal activity against the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans 16.
  • Wound healing: Artificially inflicted wounds on laboratory animals have been shown to have reduced inflammation, increased wound contraction, regeneration of granular tissue, angiogenesis and collagen deposition with the application of both extract and oil from Rosmarinus officinalis 17.

Rosemary extract has also been associated with anti-cancer and neurological activity.

As an additive, the extract has been found to enhance the shelf life of preserved foods and formulations 14.

Botany and grow it yourself

Rosmarinus officianlis belongs to the mint family of plants that belong to the family Lamiaceae. The rosemary plant is a hardy, dense evergreen shrub. Slender branches grow out of the erect stem and have oppositely placed, stemless smooth green leaves. The leaves have a leathery feel on top while the underside is white, hairy and sticky due to the presence of glands.  Flowers grow in small clusters at the ends of the branches. The French type of rosemary bears white flowers while the Italian type bears bluish-purple flowers. The shrub easily grows to a height of 3 feet and constant pruning is required for intense branching and leaf formation. It can be grown in loose calcareous soil with moderate watering/rainfall. One requisite is adequate sunlight, although potted rosemary can thrive in partial shade. The plant is cultivated by vegetative propagation of stem cuttings. 10-15 cm long cuttings from healthy mother plants are selected for propagation, the leaves removed from the bottom half and the cuttings placed in sandy soil in partial shade. Occasional watering is required for 6-8 weeks after which the plants can be moved to a prepared field. Rosemary may also be grown from seeds which are germinated at low soil temperatures. 8-10 week old seedlings are transferred to the main field or a prepared bed.

In order to obtain maximum plant extract, extensive pruning is recommended to obtain more leaves and to prevent the plant from becoming woody. Once the leaves are harvested, they are dried and the essential oil can be obtained by steam distillation or solvent extraction 18.


Articular pain: Any pain associated with joints is called articular pain. This is especially severe in individuals with rheumatism, arthritis and gout.

Angiogenesis: The process of formation of new blood vessels is called angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is an important aspect of the healing process.

Alopecia: The condition where hair falls out leading to baldness. In the autoimmune condition of Alopecia areata, hair falls out in specific places leading to patches of baldness.   


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