Ask G

Ask us: Can petty spurge treat skin cancer?

We find out what petty spurge is and if it could be used to tackle some forms of skin cancer.

I’ve heard there’s a plant called the Cancer Weed which can be used to treat sunspots and carcinomas. Is this correct, and can you tell me more about it?
– Carmel, Atarmon, NSW.


Petty spurge can be difficult to identify correctly to the untrained eye, so always be certain before applying anything to your skin. Please seek professional advice before commencing any treatment.

- Advertisement -

So-called 'Cancer Weed' does exist, though it is more commonly known as petty spurge or radium weed (Euphorbia peplus).

It is a herb introduced from Asia and Europe and the white sap has historically been used to treat small (non-melanoma) skin cancers.

There’s a folk saying: “wherever a herb is seen growing abundantly as a naturalised plant, man [or woman] has a need of it,” and true this may be in a country like Australia where the rate of skin cancer is the highest in the world.

Basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common human cancers, and most Australians will develop one or more of these during their lifetime. In Queensland, the mortality rate is about 50 per cent.

Petty spurge is a common weed mainly found in southern Queensland, but it will grow anywhere the seed falls and thrives in areas that are shaded and well watered. It is suitable for anyone to grow, even in the smallest of gardens. It closely resembles scarlet pimpernel and chickweed, and is also known as the radium plant, or milkweed.

The plant is poisonous so should not be ingested, and can burn unaffected skin, so it should kept well away from the lips and eyes.

To use the weed, people apply the sap once or twice daily to sunspots (basal cell carcinomas) until it becomes red and irritated, eventually scabbing after a few days. The scab is then left to fall off naturally, to ensure no scar is left behind. This method of using the sap of the petty spurge is sometimes also used to treat warts.

However, Professor Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, points out that seeking treatment from your doctor must be your first priority.

Olver told Green Lifestyle: “It's important that anyone who has any type of skin cancer, or suspected skin cancer, speak to their GP to get a proper diagnosis”.

“It's an old wives tale that petty spurge can be used to treat non-melanoma skin cancers. While there have been some studies which have shown that there is potential for components of the weed to be developed into medical treatments in the future, it could be potentially dangerous for individuals to ignore their doctor's advice and use home remedies,” said Olver.

A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology here, from research conducted at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, showed the plant may be useful for topical medicines as it has an agent that seems to be effective in destroying the cells from range of cancers. A pilot trial of 41 Brisbane-based patients found a preparation of petty spurge to be 95 per cent effective in killing basal and squamous cell carcinomas under 16 mm in diameter. The active ingredient, ingenol mebutate, in petty spurge sap can even selectively target leukemia cells, even in very small doses.

As of 2009, the treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer costs over $200 million in Australia. In the future, it is possible this weed could help slash the costs to the Australian health system, and perhaps reduce the need for plastic surgeries to remove cancerous skin cells.

If you think you want to give petty spurge a go, you can get a certified-organic plant sent to you from a this nursery, but it's not possible to post petty spurge to Western Australia or Tasmainia.

It goes without saying, avoid the sun between 11am and 2pm, and always remember to 'slip, slop, slap'! If you do need to be in the sun, cover up with a long-sleeved shirt, a hat, and sunnies, and be sure to wear sunscreen to prevent those sunspots in the first place! Read our review of a new, all-natural sunscreen you could choose here.