Allantoin was in the news a couple of years back when some researchers made the rather astonishing discovery that it prolonged the life of some species of worm. This is the sort of thing that gets journalists excited and articles duly appeared. Whether or not this means we can extend our lives by taking it in pills is a bit outside my area of expertise, so I’ll pass on that one. But it did make my ears prick up because this is an ingredient I have been using since I first started formulating cosmetics over 30 years ago. It is one of the more useful things in the cosmetic chemist’s toolkit.
First off, what is it? Well it is a natural product. This isn’t something that bothers me particularly one way or the other, but if you prefer your chemicals made by plants rather than chemists you are in luck because it is derived from comfrey. Comfrey is a herb that has a lot of folklore about its medical benefits, and has been examined by pharmaceutical companies for the same reason. In fact there are quite a lot of conditions it can be shown to be effective for from dry skin to sprained ankles. That it is rich in allantoin may well turn out to have something to do with its healing properties. In fact allantoin is found at some level in most reasonably complicated living plants and animals so comfrey doesn’t have a monopoly. Most remarkably allantoin has been shown to be secreted by maggots, and these secretions have a marked wound healing effect. The practice of doctors prior to antiseptics of using maggots on wounds turns out to have been an effective if distasteful approach.
It has been used for a long time in skincare products because it promotes smoother skin. The way it does this isn’t thoroughly understood. What I was told when being introduced to it was that it slowed down wound healing. This doesn’t sound like a good thing, but in fact it is. It stops scar tissue forming. When you think of scar tissue you probably think of the kind of thing that results from a car crash. But in fact there is quite a bit of scar tissue that you don’t see and which makes your skin rougher.
The classic use of allantoin is therefore not surprisingly in shaving products. Shaving is a traumatic experience for the skin being shaved. Even if it doesn’t actually draw blood there is bound to be some kind of damage. Allantoin allows the skin its best chance of recovering.
This is an old idea and has been rather forgotten in recent years. But it is an effective one, and one which should probably be used more widely. I have seen allantoin used in most shaving product formats but I think it makes most sense in after shave balms or lotions. Combine it with a pleasant smell and a good lubricious skin feel and it should be a winner.
The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery Stimulation of Healing in Non-Healing Wounds: By Allantoin Occurring in Maggot Secretions and of Wide Biological Distribution ROBINSON, WILLIAM JBJS: April 1935
Bone, Kerry. “Topical Comfrey Helps Sprained Ankles.” Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Jan. 2001, p. 140. Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.