Oregon Grape / Mahonia Aquifolium

A review of Oregon Grape (mahonia aquifolium) as a treatment for psoriasis.

Grade D

Mahonia aquifolium is an evergreen shrub common to the Northwest of the United States. It is a member of the family Berberidaceae, with the common name of Oregon Grape or Barberry. All of these different common and Latin names lead to much confusion, and the plant and its extracts are referred to as Oregon Grape or Oregon Grape Root, Mahonia or Mahonia Aquifolium, Berberis or Berberis Aquifolium, Barberry, M-Folia (this is a brand name in Europe), and many more.

Do not confuse this plant and its extracts with everyday grape or grape seed extracts or oils. They have little in common.

Mahonia (as I will refer to it from now on) has been used by herbalists and homeopaths for quite some time now. Studies have shown that chemicals in the bark, root, or berries of the plant (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to them as Berberines) do indeed exhibit antipsoriatic properties. However, some studies have shown that this effect is not particularly strong, and most of the rest of the research on these chemicals is faulty in some way or another (see this Herb Research Foundation Article for some specifics on one faulty study, in which the people who ran the study admit to its faults).

Creams and other delivery methods for Mahonia have been developed and are sold by many different manufacturers. These include Prime Pharmaceuticals in Canada, and Taylor-Jackson in the United Kingdom, two of the web sites that still seem to be in working order which sell Mahonia products.

Prime Pharmaceutical Corporation

August 3, 2002, Update: I have been contacted by Prime Pharmaceutical Corporation Vice President and Director of Marketing and Sales Robert Bennett. Mr. Bennett informs me that the reason the Primapharm web site has been down the last two years is that the company has basically gutted itself, changed direction, and is now close to bringing their newest product, DermaMax, to market.

I get the impression that they will not be marketing the product direct to consumers on a web page, and am told that they will be targeting dermatologists, who will make the decisions about whether or not the product should be used by any particular patients (though the product will be over-the-counter, not prescription-only).

Their new web site, www.primepharmaceutical.com, certainly has a much different “look and feel” than the prior one, and emphasizes very different things about the company and the product. A press release available there even claims that a team of University collaborators has successfully synthesized a “key alkaloid” (apparently in the berberine family), which could, I believe, eventually lead to a purer, safer, and perhaps more effective product.

Mr. Bennett spoke of “poor marketing decisions” by the “original management team” which “had no experience in pharmaceuticals, dermatology or psoriasis” without, at the same time, sounding apologetic in any way. And he shouldn’t have to. The actions of his predecessors are not his responsibility, nor should they reflect badly on the new face the company is presenting to the world.

As such, I leave the original review, below, here and intact only for historical purposes. According to Mr. Bennett, there are still “quite a few loyal repeat customers” (so it would appear that PRIMEDERM is still being sold, even though it’s not being marketed), and people may also run across the old product name when searching the web or the newsgroups. To give Mr. Bennett, Mr. Quinto (the new CEO), and the new Prime Pharmaceutical Corporation a fair chance, none of what follows about the old company should be considered when deciding whether or not to use DermaMax, or any other new product they bring forward in the future.

Original Review

Prime (as I will call this company from here on) sells a Mahonia cream called PRIMADERM (their capitalization, not mine). Their site changes so quickly it’s very difficult to keep up-to-date. This company has made many marketing mistakes in the months since I first saw their site, some of which they are still making. The most horrific of their marketing schemes has been the fake before-and-after photos, which really should enrage consumers, rather than entice them.

Prime makes a lot of noise about the scientific research that’s been done on berberines. As I said above, though, this research is often flawed, by small numbers of participants, invalid or absent controls, and/or badly-designed success measurements (just to name a few problems). Prime ignores all these problems, even though they are quite obvious just from reading the study abstracts that Prime itself publishes. What they publish, however, is also dependent on the results of the study, which is illustrated best by the fact that they list the title of a comparison study between Mahonia and dithranol (anthralin), yet they don’t show an abstract for this study, which concluded that while Mahonia does have an effect, dithranol’s effect is larger.

Prime makes much of their testimonials, which are, of course, meaningless (although they finally had the decency to remove the two scanned-in response forms which showed home addresses of two customers). They make much of their advisory board, which is, of course, meaningless. If the research they publish doesn’t sway you, they seem to want to try to throw a bunch of MDs and PhDs at the potential customer. At least one of their advisory board is also listed in the research, so it would seem natural that he would report the cream as working very well. Prime also makes much of how their facilities are approved by the FDA and Health Canda, but who cares? What’s important is whether or not the treatment itself is approved.

And speaking of approval, as of this writing, Prime has sent out a press release which claims that PRIMADERM is approved for human use by Health Canada. A search of the online database and Notices of Compliance, however, turns up no mention of Prime, nor of PRIMADERM. Prime offers two scanned-in forms which they claim are Health Canada’s “approval” of PRIMADERM. According to Health Canada, this is indeed approval, but as of this writing Prime has not completed the approval process (submission of the final label upon the first sale of the drug to a Canadian resident), which is why nothing turns up in the databases.

We know, however, that Prime was trying to sell PRIMADERM prior to its approval, which, in my opinion, if it isn’t already, should be a criminal activity.

Prime mentions no side effects whatsoever, even though adverse reactions (itching and burning sensations) have been noted in at least one clinical trial. Out of 82 patients, 4 reported these effects. Why other studies don’t report a similar 4.8% rate of side effects is unknown.

Prime also makes claims of their product being “new” and “unique,” yet they also publish a short history of the use of Mahonia which claims that the plant has been used throughout human history to alleviate all sorts of disorders (how the ancient Egyptians had access to a plant which grows only in the Northwest US, I don’t know). Perhaps Prime’s particular combination of Mahonia in a cream base really is new and unique, but these claims seem awfully misleading. The fact that they also call PRIMADERM “Nature’s Forgotten Rememdy” is laughable, considering that there are at least three other approved Mahonia products on the market in Canada alone. Perhaps they mean that they (Prime) had forgotten about it, since it’s clear that many other people have not.

End of Original Review

May 3, 2010, Update: The latest incarnation of Prime’s Web site is all about their “new” and proprietary treatment for psoriasis, something called “Reliéva.” They claim it works better than Dovonex and they’re all a-flutter about how wonderful this new stuff is going to be for their shareholders. The site claims the product is ready for market “now,” and even offer up the URL of a new Web site to visit, www.relieva.caBroken Link, which doesn’t seem to exist, and a check of the domain name shows that it isn’t even owned by anyone as of this writing.

The site does mention a clinical trial of the new product, executed by a company called Global Clinicals, Inc. Going to their site, I found their study listed, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics. Sure enough, the substance under test is still Mahonia aquifolium.

So, the latest news on the Prime Pharmaceutical Web site appears to be well over three years old, the site for their new product which will make gazillions of dollars is defunct, and their supposedly impressive study of four years ago was published in a journal only slightly more well-regarded than the execrable Medical Hypotheses. All of this indicates to me that Prime is very, very far away from becoming the “world-class dermatology company“ they the Web site claims they’re poised to be, and that the management team with “an impressive history of success in the dermatological arena” has backed a loser in Mahonia.

Taylor-Jackson Health Products

Taylor-Jackson is a British company which sells M-Folia, a brand name for another Mahonia cream. They make many of the same types of claims as Prime Pharmaceuticals (above), and use many of the same types of misleading marketing tactics. This section will mainly be a discussion of what sets Taylor-Jackson’s page apart from Prime’s.

The first thing I noticed was that Taylor-Jackson (TJ, from now on) seems to value science last in their five-point guarantee. First is that their products are lanolin-free. The other three points, in order, are “cruelty-free,” “suitable for vegetarians,” and “made to the highest standards.” Perhaps these points are listed in no particular order, but were it me, I still would have put the scientific research first (even though much of it is flawed). Thinking about this more, what does it say about a company that it thinks that being lanolin- or cruelty-free is something they need to “guarantee?” Aren’t these things facts? Shouldn’t they simply make these claims, and then guarantee the customer’s satisfaction?

At the bottom of the web page, in tiny type, is some sort of UK “registration” information. I will follow up on this information as soon as I can, because I don’t know the UK laws, and whether by publishing this information TJ is claiming that their product is approved for use in the UK.

On TJ’s research page, they claim the plant has been used for skin and digestive problems, as well as the incredibly vague (and probably impossible to define) “impure blood conditions.”

TJ also publishes many of the same study abstracts (or nearly so) that Prime does, and reaches the same conclusion based on the same faulty research. What is truly amazing about TJ’s claims, though, is that they state, at one point, “Mahonia aquifolium is a completely natural plant extract, and no adverse side effects have been observed in any tests to date,” and then just a couple of study summaries down they quote an abstract which mentions four cases of adverse effects. Did they not read these things before publishing them? This is such a blatant case of false advertising that it’s a wonder the British authorities haven’t required modifications to their site.


See also the NPF’s Psoriasis Resource magazine, July 1999, pages 4 through 6.