In the 2004 movie, Three Extremes, Chinese actress Bai Ling raised eyebrows playing an unlicensed midwife who makes dumplings out of aborted foetus and placentas. She sold them to rich women who believed that consuming them would reverse the signs of aging.
Although Bai herself claims to be disgusted by the idea of eating placentas, there are rumours aplenty of other celebrities who do it in the hope of improving their health by regaining a youthful complexion.
Singaporean actor Andew Seow,36, for one, has been waiting for years to get his hands in a placenta. He said “I have seen people who have taken it, and I believe it works.” He says he has heard stories that youthful looking Taiwanese actress Lin Ching-hsia, 53, was taught by her mother to “slice it and eat it with porridge”. Then there is another un-named actress, who, after giving birth, had “super skin, a super chest and a super butt” because she is known to have eaten the organ which is “full of amino acids and proteins”, he says.
Despite being vegetarian, Seow does not baulk at the thought of consuming something which, when raw, resembles a slimy, bloody liver. “A placenta”, he says, “naturally comes out with the baby, if it is not used, it is just wasted.”
Origins of Species
A placenta is an organ rich in blood vessels that develops in female mammals during pregnancy. It lines the uterine wall and partially envelopes the foetus, to which it is attached by the umbilical cord. At full term, it is about 18 cm long and 5 cm thick. It is expelled during child birth, forming part of the after birth. Its function is to transfer oxygen and nutrients from mother to the foetus. It also releases carbon dioxide and waste from the foetus through the umbilical cord to be disposed by of the mother.
Dr Peter Chew, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, says that though people have been talking about “frying, drying and eating placentas” for years, his patients rarely ask to keep theirs. He says: “Placenta are full of hormones, so theoretically, they should improve the complexion, even though there’s no medical evidence to support this.”
As for the possibility of dangerous side effect from consuming it, he says “there’s no harm, seeing it’s your own body’s organ.” But to be on the safe side, he recommends cooking the placenta before consumption.
Dr Douglas Ong, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, says KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) “used to have a placenta fridge whose contents were sold to cosmetic companies”. KKH is unable to verify his claims but a spokesman says that if it existed, it would probably have been “a long, long time ago”. Dr Ong claims the practice stopped after ‘HIV and other viruses came on the scene”.
He is uneasy about mothers consuming their placenta, terming it “borderline cannibalism”. He says: “Women will go to great lengths for beauty but there are other ways to achieve good skin.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) experts claim the human placenta has been eaten by the Chinese for 2500 years.
Dr Low Chai Ling, a medical director at an established medical institution, says “the Chinese believe it contains “qi” (Chinese for life force) and use it as a remedy for a whole range of problems such as lethargy, rejuvenating ageing skin and promoting breast milk production”.
In Singapore, human placenta from China is readily available in a dried form from Chinese medical halls.
Professor Xu Yi Jun, a physician from a renowned TCM Center, prescribes consuming 2g to 3g of powdered placenta daily to increase fertility and blood circulation and to make the body more resistant to disease.
You can also find it commonly used in beauty salons in various forms. In a certain beauty salon in Mandarin Hotel Shopping Arcade, it offers a health tonic, facial essence and hair tonic said to contain human placenta. Another major spa chain touts its placenta facial that uses sheep placenta as “an alternative to Botox”.
According to a spokesperson for the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), “placenta from both human and animal origin is currently allowed in cosmetic products”. However, “dealers of eye and dental products are required to provide supporting evidence of safety”. But as facial creams and face masks are considered “low risk” products, they are not subject to HSA approval.
The Food Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States classifies animal extract from organs such as placenta as potentially dangerous.
Out of 12 doctors spoke to, only two admitted to prescribing placenta extract treatments, although one does not administer injections.
While most doctors avoided commenting on placenta and its supposed cosmetic merits, five, including Dr Chua Jun Jin, a consultant plastic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Center, agree that there is not enough medical evidence to show that it works.
Comparing placenta therapy to birds’ nest and snake oil, Dr Chua says: “some people may swear by it, but if it was such a potent ingredient, there would be people studying it in great depth.”
One doctor, who prefers to remain unnamed for fear of backlash from other doctors, admits to injecting human placenta essence by request in small quantities on the face and body. But “the patient has to bring in her own supply”. He also has not seen any adverse side effect as a result. He believes the only reason the treatment is controversial is not because it is dangerous, but because “it was not taught in medical school, but simply evolved with the practice of medicine”.
Dr Wong Yok Meng, who specialises in detoxification and preventive medicine against ageing, has been prescribing human placenta treatments for the past 10 years.
Although he says he does not inject placenta extracts directly into the body, he prescribes topical and oral human placenta extract treatments to rejuvenate the skin of his patients, most of whom are female and aged above 40.
He observes that the treatment “does not get rid of wrinkles, but helps to give skin a youthful look by smoothening fine lines and increasing cell renewal”.
A month’s dosage of oral placenta extract costs around S$500, while a topical solution for the face costs around S$100. Dr Wong says he has not seen any negative effects in any of his patients.
But one concern Dr Joyce Lim, a renowned dermatologist, has with the use of placenta extract in injections and medicines is that it involves “the transmission of genetic material and may cause allergies”.
Indeed, in a case reported by Yomiuri Shubun paper last January, a Japanese woman in her 40s developed acute liver disease after being injected with human placenta essence at a Tokyo beauty center.
Perhaps, the next time before you consider consuming this unusual delicacy, do stop and think whether it is worth risking your health all in the name of beauty.