Environmental Dermatology

Botanical Briefs: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

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Chelerythrine blocks production of cyclooxygenase 2 and prostaglandin E2.15 This pathway modification results in anti-inflammatory effects that can help treat arthritis, edema, and other inflammatory conditions.16 Moreover, sanguinarine has demonstrated efficacy in numerous anticancer pathways,17 including downregulation of intercellular adhesion molecules, vascular cell adhesion molecules, and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).18-20 Blocking VEGF is one way to inhibit angiogenesis,21 which is upregulated in tumor formation, thus sanguinarine can have an antiproliferative anticancer effect.22 Sanguinarine also upregulates molecules such as nuclear factor–κB and the protease enzymes known as caspases to cause proapoptotic effects, furthering its antitumor potential.23,24

Treatment of Dermatologic Conditions

The initial technique of Mohs micrographic surgery employed a chemopaste that utilized an extract of S canadensis to preserve tissue.25 Outside the dermatologist’s office, bloodroot is used as a topical home remedy for a variety of cutaneous conditions, including cancer, skin tags, and warts.26 Bloodroot is advertised as black salve, an alternative anticancer treatment.27,28

As useful as this natural agent sounds, it has a pitfall: The alkaloids of S canadensis are nonspecific in their cytotoxicity, damaging neoplastic and healthy tissue.29 This cytotoxic effect can cause escharification through diffuse tissue destruction and has been observed to result in formation of a keloid scar.30 The alkaloids in black salve also have been shown to cause skin erosions and cellular atypia.28,31 Therefore, the utility of this escharotic in medical treatment is limited.32 Fortuitously, oral antibiotics and wound care can help address this adverse effect.28

Bloodroot was once used as a mouth rinse and toothpaste to treat gingivitis, but this application was later associated with oral leukoplakia, a premalignant condition.33 Leukoplakia associated with S canadensis extract often is unremitting. Immediate discontinuation of the offending agent produces little regression, suggesting that cellular damage is irreversible.34

Final Thoughts

Although bloodroot demonstrates efficacy as a phytotherapeutic, it does come with notable toxicity. Physicians should warn patients of the unwanted cosmetic effects of black salve, especially oral products that incorporate sanguinarine. Adverse effects on the oropharynx can be irreversible, though the eschar associated with black salve can be treated with a topical or oral corticosteroid.29


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