Ovine (or sheep) placenta is currently being used in supplements and as a cosmetic treatment, the latest health fad handed down to us by A-list celebrities.
About Ovine or Sheep Placenta
For the last several years, use of ovine or sheep placenta in supplements and as a cosmetic procedure has gradually increased. A May 2014 article in the Daily Mail reported that Simon Cowell and Victoria Beckham were supposedly devotees of the alleged cosmetic benefits of sheep placenta facials. Eight months prior to that story, the Huffington Post stated that one of Jennifer Aniston’s favorite beauty formulas was allegedly the placenta pill.
The trend appears to continue in March of 2015, as Yahoo Celebrity UK reported that Harry Styles, a member of the boy-band One Direction, has been paying paying for sheep placenta facials to improve his complexion.
Placenta is essentially an organ that develops in the uterus along with a fetus in many mammals (including humans). The placenta attaches the fetus to the wall of the uterus through the umbilical cord, and acts as a transport channel for the exchange of nutrients, wastes, gases, antibodies, and hormones. When a placental mammal is born, the placenta is usually expelled minutes after the birth.
The appeal of using placenta for cosmetic procedures and as a supplement seems to be in the belief that it is nutritionally rich and supposedly imparts anti-aging benefits due to improved blood flow, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties. Annie Chiu, a dermatologist in Los Angelos, was quoted in the Huffington Post explaining the trend and why sheep placenta is used:
“Placenta is a super-potent ingredient and has a lot of growth factors and proteins that boost collagen production. I carry out facials using sheep placenta, because their DNA has been found to have the closest structure to that of a human. There has been a huge boom in Hollywood since celebrities started using it and people saw the incredible effects. You need to use it every day for two months to see results.”
Among some, ovine or sheep placenta is even being glorified as a replacement for Botox injections and facelifts. There are claims that placenta contains stem cells which can stimulate collagen production and rebuild cells, thus tightening the skin and curing wrinkles. An article making these claims appeared in the Daily Mail in 2011, and another appeared in the Huffington Post in 2013. Both of these articles include short interviews with doctors who speak of research that backs up their claims, yet the legitimacy of these studies seems to be difficult to establish.
In Male Supplements
In addition to its use as a cosmetic ingredient, ovine placenta powder is also used in male supplements aimed at boosting testosterone. One such supplement is Cellucor P6 Extreme. Cellucor claims that ovine placenta powder is “a natural HCG agonist.”
While many bodybuilding forums note the inclusion of ovine placenta powder, along with claims that it boosts testosterone, studies bolstering these claims are also lacking.
Skeptics Respond to Ovine or Sheep Placenta Claims
An April 2013 article in the Daily Mail describes the sheep placenta industry and takes a more skeptical viewpoint regarding the use of ovine placenta in supplements and cosmetic products. The article describes how approximately 20 tons of sheep placenta are processed annually in New Zealand. Licensed farmers collect the placenta in buckets and then freeze them in preparation for sale to companies that process placenta for use in dietary supplements and cosmetic serums. After these companies purchase the frozen placenta, they are taken through a process which includes thawing, washing, filtration, freeze drying, and sterilization. Then the processed placenta are resold to companies that create cosmetics and supplements.
There is quote within the article from Paula Begoun, a beauty expert who debunks skincare rumors and cons. She asks how dead stem cells could possibly benefit living skin:
“Stem cells do not work as claimed. In fact, they likely have no effect at all because stem cells must be alive to function, and by the time the delicate cells are added to skincare products, they are long dead and, therefore, useless. Currently, there is no published research showing stem cell extracts can affect stem cells in human skin.”
The article also features a quote from Dr. Sam Bunting, a cosmetic dermatologist who reiterates Begoun’s skepticism, “Having seen experiments on cell cultures, I know how fragile they are, how they need to be fed and preserved at precisely the right temperature. The idea that they can survive in a pot of cream on a shelf is biologically implausible.” In addition, Dr. Bunting points out that stem cells would also need to penetrate the skin in order to operate effectively. In the case of cosmetic serums, there is not enough diffusion into the skin to even make live stem cells productive.
As for consuming placenta, A February 2014 article from the New Zealand Herald features a brief quote from Stephen Robson, vice-president of women’s health at The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He spoke of the lack of evidence in relation to the health benefits of eating placenta, and expressed his belief that any perceived benefits could be chalked up to the placebo effect.
Finally, a user wrote into WebMD Answers in December of 2013 asking if sheep placenta pills really worked. The user specifically asked about the supposed anti-aging properties and health benefits of ovine placenta. An answer came from Dr. Rod Moser, who has been a primary care physician assistant for nearly 40 years. His answer, “My opinion is that sheep placenta products are pure quackery…absolutely worthless.”
Placenta May Contain Estrogen and Oxytocin
Accurate information on ovine or sheep placenta has admittedly been difficult to locate. This may be due to the fact that usage in cosmetic procedures and supplements is a fairly recent trend, and scientific research has not yet caught up with the public’s interest. A search for ovine placenta studies on Google Scholar and in the U.S. National Library of Medicine reveals little in relation to the supposed anti-aging properties of sheep placenta. One thing seems certain, when it comes to caring for your skin, there are other methods which have already been thoroughly researched and are much less expensive that using sheep placenta.
One interesting bit of information that I did find evidence for is that placenta may contain the female sex hormone estrogen. Dr. Dan Dhunna, who specializes in Botox injections and other beauty treatments at London’s Courthouse Clinics, made the following statement to the Daily Mail:
“While I don’t think it’s stem cells having an effect, placenta is rich in growth factors and antioxidants which we know have penetrative ability, but crucially, it’s also very rich in oestradiol, a form of oestrogen. Hormones can definitely penetrate the skin — some HRT is given in patch form — and oestrogen is crucial for healthy, youthful skin.”
Some of the ovine placenta research that I found through the U.S. National Library of Medicine seemed to indicate that placenta may also operate similar to oxytocin, which can quicken the process of childbirth. One study claimed that dried sheep placenta had traditionally been used to facilitate labor, and included experiments in which 1 gram of dried placenta powder was administered to a variety of animals in order to study possible effects. The study concluded that dried placenta has some effects similar to oxytocin, and could potentially be used to induce labor and quicken childbirth. Given these findings, pregnant women would be wise to avoid ingesting ovine placenta powder.
Google Trends History
The Google Trends graph below displays interest in “sheep placenta” over time. Interest appears to have gradually increased through time, and seems to be experiencing a peak surge in interest. A similar explosion of interest occurred in March of 2012.
Ovine or sheep placenta powder is gaining popularity as a dietary supplement, testosterone booster, and cosmetic facial application due to alleged anti-aging properties. Opinions of doctors appear to be mixed in spite of a lack of information and scientific research on the subject. Placenta may contain estrogen and an oxytocin-like substance. For this reason, pregnant women may want to avoid ingesting ovine placenta powder because it may contribute to potential labor induction. There are a lack of studies to confirm claims that ovine placenta powder is an effective supplement for the purpose of increasing testosterone.
Updated March 12, 2015
Originally published August 2014