Elderberry extracts, supplements, and skin care products are causing a buzz in the world of natural beauty and cosmetics, and for good reason.
Healthy, radiant skin is desirable not only because it’s pleasing to the eye, but also because we (correctly) associate a natural glow with a high level of wellness.
That’s not to say that health or beauty are skin deep, but rather that smooth, clear skin and overall health are linked — and a holistic approach to wellness should account for both.
Along with its well-deserved reputation for supporting beautiful skin, elderberry also has a host of applications as a traditional remedy, some of which are now being borne out in peer-reviewed scientific research.
In this article, you’ll learn about the different types of elderberry and elderflower, their health and cosmetic benefits, how to use them safely, side effects, and more.
What are Elderberry and Elderflower?
Elderberry is the common name of a genus of flowering plants known as Sambucus.
The best-known and most studied Sambucus species, Sambucus nigra or black elderberry, produces berries (called elderberries) and flowers (called elderflowers), both of which have a long history of use in traditional medicine and folk medicine. (1)
Sambucus species are found throughout the world, and ethnobotanical research suggests they’re one of the most commonly used medicinal plants of all time (1).
According to a 2014 evidence-based systematic review of elderberry and elderflower, around a dozen different Sambucus species produce berries with similar chemical components and may be used similarly in folk medicine as well as scientific research. (1)
Elderberries are a striking, intense shade of bluish purple due to their high levels of anthocyanins. (2) Anthocyanidins are powerful plant-based antioxidant flavonoids that also occur naturally in blackberries, blueberries, and red and black grapes. (2)
However, the bark, leaves, seeds, and raw or unripe fruit also contain a glycoside (sugar-based molecule) called sambunigrin, which can be toxic when consumed. (1) Never consume elderberries or flowers raw — only thoroughly cooked — and avoid eating other parts of the plant altogether.
Sambucus nigra and related species have been used in many different ways by different cultures, including Europeans, Egyptians, and Native Americans (1):
- Mixing the berries with sage, lemon juice, vinegar, or honey to treat colds, laryngitis, flu, and shortness of breath.
- Elder leaves to relieve pain and support healing when applied as a poultice.
- Elderflower as an insect repellent.
- The plant or its components have been applied to skin to relieve rheumatism, swelling, and inflammation.
- Flowers and leaves for pain relief, swelling, inflammation, and diuresis (urination).
- External use of the boiled leaves for sitz baths.
- Aged bark for diuretic, laxative, or emetic (vomiting) purposes.
The berries are also used traditionally in some cultures to flavor food and to prepare elderberry wine or pies, and to dye or scent skin care products and perfumes.
5 Health and Cosmetic Benefits of Elderberry
1. Elderberry May Support Healthy, Beautiful Skin
Elderberry fruit has long been recognized in traditional medicinal systems for its ability to support healthy skin. (1)
According to a 2020 review, well-established traditional uses also include application of elderberry for skin injuries like burns and wounds, but more pharmacological validation is needed. (3)
A 2019 study of Sambucus nigra (black elderberry) in human skin keratinocytes evaluated the skin anti-aging effects of the berries. (4)
Researchers measured recovery effects of elderberry extract in keratinocytes (skin cells) that had been exposed to damaging UVB radiation and found that the elderberry showed “good efficiency on scavenging free radicals” and supported a healthy anti-inflammatory response, helping to relieve UVB-induced skin damage.
The scientists concluded that elderberry could be helpful for cosmetic applications such as supporting healthy skin despite photodamage that would normally result in visible skin aging. (4)
2. Elderberry May Support Cellular Health
Sambucus nigra and its berries may support the health of your skin and other cells from the inside out thanks to their high levels of anthocyanins. (2)
Anthocyanins are powerhouse antioxidants found in elderberries and other dark blue and purple fruits and veggies. (2)
Because they can scavenge damaging free radicals, getting more anthocyanins in your diet can help prevent damage to cells. A 2020 review found that consuming plenty of anthocyanins is beneficial for overall health, and that no negative effects have been observed — even at very high intake levels. (2)
3. Elderberry May Support Cardiovascular Health
According to a 2019 review, anthocyanins in elderberries may support heart and cardiovascular health. (5)
Currently, the state of the research is promising, but most scientists agree that larger clinical trials of elderberry would be helpful to learn more about its possible heart health benefits.
4. Elderberry May Support Healthy Gums
Healthy gums are not only an essential part of good dental health, but are also associated with a lower risk of other health problems. (7) If you want to optimize your overall health, oral health is something you can’t afford to overlook.
In a 2014 evidence-based systematic review of Sambucus nigra by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration of Harvard Medical School, researchers concluded that elderberry may support gingival (gum) and oral health, although additional research with well-designed clinical trials is needed to draw conclusions about its effectiveness. (1)
5. Elderberry Supplementation May Support Respiratory Wellness
A growing body of research suggests that taking black elderberry supplements, particularly extracts, appears to be beneficial for supporting respiratory wellness.
A 2019 meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials (RCTs) concluded that anthocyanins, especially the ones found in elderberries, support a healthy immune system and may support respiratory health. (8)
A separate 2020 review of the effects of Sambucus nigra berries examined evidence from five clinical studies involving 936 adult participants and highlighted similar promising findings. (9)
How to Use Elderberry or Elderflower to Support Health and Wellness
There are potentially dozens of different ways to take elderberry or elderflower. However, not all of them are safe without the guidance of a trustworthy herbalist, and especially not if you’re inexperienced.
Evidence suggests the risk of health problems from consuming elderberries is very low as long as you boil or cook the berries thoroughly before consuming. (1) All of the methods below are derived from peer-reviewed studies that did not report any significant adverse effects:
- General wellness: 3-5 grams of elderflowers steeped in a cup of boiling water for 10-15 minutes, taken by mouth three times daily.
- Heart health: two capsules of 500 mg extract each (total dose equivalent to 125 mg of anthocyanin, or approximately 25 g of elderberries) taken twice daily morning and night for 12 weeks.
- Healthy cholesterol levels: 400 mg of spray-dried capsules containing 10% anthocyanins three times per day (equivalent to 5 ml of elderberry juice) for two weeks.
- Respiratory support: 15 ml of elderberry syrup, four times daily for five days.
Most commercial elderberry or elderflower supplements or extracts come with usage instructions, in which case it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s guidance, because the dosage and specific compounds found in different brands may vary.
Is it OK to Take Elderberry Everyday?
Studies suggest that taking elderberry daily is OK, but may be unnecessary. If you’re using elderberry for general health, it’s normal to take a low daily dose. But if you’re taking it for a specific purpose, like respiratory support, you’ll use a higher dose each day for a briefer period. (9)
Safety and Side Effects of Elderberry
Current studies suggest elderberry is safe with minimal or no side effects when used properly. In some documented cases, patients receiving elderberry actually experience fewer adverse effects than patients who are receiving placebo or other treatments. (9)
The proper and safe usage of elderberry requires the removal or breakdown of the toxic compound sambunigrin. Sambunigrin is cyanogenic, meaning it releases poisonous cyanide when it is chewed, consumed, or digested.
Elderberry supplements, extracts, and syrups from reputable manufacturers do not contain dangerous levels of sambunigrin.
Thoroughly cooking or boiling the berries or flowers of Sambucus results in the breakdown of sambunigrin, reducing the toxicity risk from consuming cooked versus raw elderberries or elderflowers. (6)
Consuming leaves, bark, root, seeds, or other parts of the plant is not advised. See a physician or call poison control immediately if you think you consumed a toxic or uncooked part of the elderberry plant.
Right now, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that elderberry or elderflower or supplements or extracts derived from them are safe for pregnant or lactating women. (9)
If you’re interested in safe, all-natural herbal remedies with a history of thousands of years of traditional usage all over the world, Sambucus berries and flowers are excellent choices.
While it’s probably best known for skin health benefits currently, elderberry also appears to be beneficial for cellular health, heart health, oral health, and respiratory wellness.
High-quality elderberry supplements are nontoxic, but remember that the Sambucus plant contains a toxin called sambunigrin that can be poisonous if you don’t use caution.