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Alkanna Root

Scientific Name(s): Alkanna tinctoria (L.)
Common Name(s): Alkanet, Alkannawurzel, Alkermeswurzel, Anchusa tinctoria, Dyers's Bugloss, Henna, Orchanet, Racine d'alcanna, Racine d'orcanette, Radix anchusea, Rote ochsenzungenwurzel, Schminkwurzel

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Nov 3, 2021.

Clinical Overview


Alkanna is an astringent and a source of red pigment used in cosmetics. It was traditionally used topically for the treatment of skin wounds and diseases. Orally, alkanna root has been used for diarrhea and gastric ulcers. Alkanna root has demonstrated radical scavenging activity, suggesting potential antiaging effects; however, clinical trial information is lacking.


No recent clinical data justify human dosage.


Contraindications have not been identified.


Documented adverse effects. Contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Avoid use.


The pyrrolizidine alkaloid components of alkanna root are substrates for the cytochrome P450 3A4 isoenzyme. Inducers of this isoenzyme, including rifampin, St. John's wort, and phenobarbital, may increase the conversion of pyrrolizidine alkaloids to toxic metabolites.

Adverse Reactions

Alkanna root may cause acute liver failure, cirrhosis, pneumonitis, pulmonary hypertension, or heart failure.


Alkanna root may cause hepatic and/or lung toxicity because of the pyrrolizidine alkaloid components.

Scientific Family

  • Boraginaceae (Borage)


Alkanna is a biennial or perennial herbaceous plant growing from 0.3 to 0.6 m in height with pubescent lanceolate leaves. It bears blue to purple trumpet-shaped flowers arranged in loose, 1-sided scorpioid racemes. The dried cylindrical, fissured rhizome has exfoliating, brittle, and dark purple bark on the outside and remains of bristly leaf and stem pieces near the crown region.PLANTS 2017, Bisset 1994 While native to southern Europe, the plant is also grown in and imported from Albania, India, Egypt, and Turkey.Bisset 1994, Roeder 1995 Alkanna root belongs to the plant family Boraginaceae and contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that aid in plant defense against insect herbivores. Although pyrrolizidine alkaloids are found in all plant organs, they are concentrated in the roots of these plants.Chojkier 2003

Alkanna should not be confused with another plant also known as alkanet, but which is the related Anchusa officinalis L. of the same family (Borage).(USDA) A decoction (tea) of A. officinalis leaves and roots for coughs and chest disorders was described in older herbals.Reader's Digest 1986


Alkanna and related plants have long been referred to as henna and used as a dye for cloth. Alkanna has also been used to impart a red color to fats, oils, and waxes.Bisset 1994 The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460 to 370 BC) recorded the use of alkanna root for the treatment of skin ulcers, and the botanist Theophrastus (ca. 371 to 287 BC) suggested that it could be used as a dye and in medications. Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides (ca. 49 to 90 AD) also described alkanna's properties.Papageorgiou 2008

Today, alkanna root is used almost exclusively as a cosmetic dye.Bisset 1994 Orally, it has been used for diarrhea and gastric ulcers. Traditionally, topical alkanna root has been used to treat skin wounds and diseases.


Alkanna root contains a mixture of red pigments found in the bark at levels of up to 5% to 6%. These consist mainly of fat-soluble naphthazarin (5,8-dihydroxy-1, 4-naphthaquinone) components, such as alkannin and related esters.Bisset 1994, Papageorgiou 1980, Tung 2013 The red pigments are soluble in fatty oils, which makes them useful for the detection of oily materials in microscopic powders during histological examination. Like some other members of the Borage family, pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been found in Alkanna tinctoria, but levels have not been determined.Bisset 1994 The alkannin esters of beta, beta-dimethylacrylic acid, beta-acetoxy-isovaleric acid, isovaleric acid, and angelic acid have also been isolated from the root.Papageorgiou 1978

Uses and Pharmacology

Cancer cell effects

Anti-proliferative activity against human cancer cell lines has been reported.Tung 2013

Potential antiaging effects

Alkanna root has demonstrated antioxidant effects. One study found that both monomeric and oligomeric alkannin exhibited high radical scavenging activity. Additionally, an olive oil extract containing A. tinctoria possessed radical scavenging activity at room temperature; however, when it was heated, this activity was decreased.Assimopoulou 2005

Wound healing/Antimicrobial activity

Animal data

Crude extracts of A. tinctoria, demonstarte antimicrobial activity in screening.Sengul 2009, Khan 2015 Alkannin has been shown to exert activity against gram-positive bacteria, gram-negative bacteria, and fungi. Additionally, alkannin may exert bactericidal action on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria that forms biofilms against wound healing.Papageorgiou 2008

A. tinctoria has been studied in male rabbits with partial thickness, severe, and olive oil burns. A solution of A. tinctoria 16% was applied twice daily to the left side of the animal. The right side served as a control. Partial thickness burn wounds were completely healed in 7 to 10 days, and olive oil burn wounds were healed in 26 days. However, severe burn wounds were unresponsive to A. tinctoria.Ogurtan 2002

Clinical data

The esteric pigments displayed antibiotic and wound-healing properties in an older clinical study enrolling 72 patients with ulcus cruris (indolent leg ulcers).Papageorgiou 1978

More recently, a clinical study (n=60) demonstrated improved wound healing rates with application of topical A. tinctoria ointment.Kheiri 2017


No recent clinical data justify human dosage.

Pregnancy / Lactation

Documented adverse effects. Contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Avoid use.McGuffin 1997 Animal studies in rats have shown that pyrrolizidine alkaloid-induced toxicity can affect offspring, with suckling young rats more likely to develop pyrrolizidine alkaloid-induced hepatotoxicity than their mothers.Roeder 1995, Schoental 1968


Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are substrates for the cytochrome P450 3A4 isoenzyme. Inducers of this enzyme, including rifampin, St. John's wort, and phenobarbital, may increase the conversion of pyrrolizidine alkaloids to toxic metabolites.Chojkier 2003

Adverse Reactions

Alkanna root may cause acute liver failure, cirrhosis, pneumonitis, pulmonary hypertension, or heart failure. Toxic byproducts from the hepatic metabolism of pyrrolizidine alkaloids are transported to the lungs where they may cause pulmonary toxicity. Sinusoidal-obstruction syndrome, also known as venoocclusive disease, is a hepatic complication associated with bone marrow transplantation that may occur in patients consuming products containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been shown to be carcinogenic in animals, specifically associated with hepatocellular and squamous cell carcinomas and liver angiosarcomas.Chojkier 2003


The pyrrolizidine alkaloid components in alkanna root may cause liver and/or lung toxicity. The most hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids include the cyclic diesters, such as retrorsine and senecionine. Fulvine and monocrotaline have been implicated in causing liver and pulmonary toxicities.Chojkier 2003 Specifically, pyrrolizidine alkaloids cause liver cell enlargement, disturbances in liver cell metabolism with functional losses, and fatty degeneration in the liver.Roeder 1995



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This product may adversely interact with certain health and medical conditions, other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, foods, or other dietary supplements. This product may be unsafe when used before surgery or other medical procedures. It is important to fully inform your doctor about the herbal, vitamins, mineral or any other supplements you are taking before any kind of surgery or medical procedure. With the exception of certain products that are generally recognized as safe in normal quantities, including use of folic acid and prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, this product has not been sufficiently studied to determine whether it is safe to use during pregnancy or nursing or by persons younger than 2 years of age.

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Bisset NG, trans-ed. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for Practice on a Scientific Basis. Stuttgart, Germany: Medpharm Scientific Publishers; 1994.
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Khan UA, Rahman H, Qasim M, et al. Alkanna tinctoria leaves extracts: a prospective remedy against multidrug resistant human pathogenic bacteria. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2015;15:127.25902854
Kheiri A, Amini S, Javidan AN, et al. The effects of Alkanna tinctoria Tausch on split-thickness skin graft donor site management: a randomized, blinded placebo-controlled trial. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):253.28482839
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Ogurtan Z, Hatipoglu F, Ceylan C. The effect of Alkanna tinctoria Tausch on burn wound healing in rabbits. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr. 2002;109(11):481-485.12494554
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Papageorgiou VP, Digenis GA. Isolation of two new alkannin esters from Alkanna tinctoria. Planta Med. 1980;39(5):81-84.
Roeder E. Medicinal plants in Europe containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Pharmazie. 1995;50(2):83-98.7700976
Schoental R. Toxicology and carcinogenic action of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Cancer Res. 1968;28(11):2237-2246.4302035
Sengul M, Yildiz H, Gungor N, Cetin B, Eser Z, Ercisli S. Total phenolic content, antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of some medicinal plants. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2009;22(1):102-106.19168430
Tung NH, Du GJ, Yuan CS, Shoyama Y, Wang CZ. Isolation and chemopreventive evaluation of novel naphthoquinone compounds from Alkanna tinctoria. Anticancer Drugs. 2013;24(10):1058-1068.24025561
Tung NH, Du GJ, Wang CZ, et al. Naphthoquinone components from Alkanna tinctoria (L.) Tausch show significant antiproliferative effects on human colorectal cancer cells. Phytother Res. 2013;27(1):66-70.

Further information

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