Deep Dive: Mushrooms in Skincare
Mushrooms have long been believed to possess healing powers. An ice age mummy known as Otzi was discovered with one species of mushroom strung around his neckline and another variety he carried in a pouch; one had medicinal properties and another served as fire tinder. Fast forward a couple millennia to ancient Greece, where physician Hippocrates formally classified the amadou mushroom as a powerful anti-inflammatory, and later yet, to when 5th century alchemist Tao Hongjing touted the medicinal wonders of mushrooms, too.
While today’s sparkling 21st century skincare shelves are brimming with multisyllabic, science-y sounding ingredients — such as polyglutamic acid, niacinamide, and hydroquinone — the earthy stuff, including mushrooms, is still heralded. In fact, in 2019 natural brands accounted for 30% of the $5.9 billion-dollar industry, which represented a 14% jump in sales from 2018.
In other words, consumers are happily spending their dollars on products, both mass and prestige, formulated with from-the-earth ingredients. Among those, mushrooms are experiencing a notable resurgence largely due to the adaptogenic boom!
A Modern Mushroom Movement
“For centuries, people across the world have incorporated mushrooms into their diets, into medicinal tinctures and treatments, and into topical cosmetic formulations,” says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. Today, various types of mushrooms — including shiitake, reishi (lingzhi), chaga, lion’s mane, tremella, maitake, and oyster are utilized in creams, lotions, ointments, and serums.
The list of claimed benefits for topical applications is impressive. Generally speaking, mushroom extracts are shown to be rich in vitamins, phenolics and polyphenolics, terpenoids (anti-cancer properties), selenium, and polysaccharides, which boast antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-tyrosinase (skin lightening), and moisturizing effects.
Let’s break it down a bit more by homing in on some of the most prevalent mushrooms found in today’s skincare products:
- Shiitake: This button-like mushroom boasts antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits. Dr. King says, “One of the phenolic compounds found in shiitake mushrooms, and some other mushroom species, as well, is kojic acid. Kojic acid has been found to work as a skin lightener and therefore is found in many skincare topicals that claim to help with age spots and discolorations. This is because Kojic acid is thought to help inhibit melanin production on the surface of treated skin.”
- Tremella: Delicate and pillow-y in appearance, the tremella mushroom has demonstrated an ability to reduce oxidative stress on the skin and also has some powerful moisturizing abilities. Interestingly, one tremella study found polysaccharides offered better moisture retention capacity than 0.02% hyaluronic acid. Like shiitake, this mushroom might also help improve skin discoloration.
- Lion’s Mane: Named after its resemblance to the king of the jungle, early studies have shown lion’s mane to assist in wound-healing. This, along with its broader qualities, might render it a legit contender for anti-aging and skin-soothing products.
- Chaga: A favorite among adaptogenic topicals and ingestibles, the chaga mushroom boasts antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-viral properties. A 2014 study also founded it inhibited tyrosinase activity to aid in skin lightening.
- Maitake: King tells us the maitake mushroom — similar in appearance to an oyster mushroom and sometimes referred to as the “dancing mushroom” — contains glycosides, which also boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Reishi: Thick, vibrantly red reishi mushrooms help skin retain moisture thanks to their high polysaccharide content. Their ganoderic acid component could also help promote skin renewal.
The community confidence in mushrooms comes in part from hearty anecdotal evidence collected across the ages and the globe. There are also a small handful of compelling scientific studies, including those linked above, and this broader study published in 2016.
Some Room for Pause
All that praise and scientific data aside, it’s the consumer’s responsibility to practice some healthy caution here. The reality is that mushrooms still fall into the category of medicinal herb, and they should be treated as such. Another reality is that many of those science-y sounding ingredients we listed at the top of this article, along with plenty of others, have more robust data surrounding their usage in skincare.
Dr. King says it perfectly: “Because of the bioactive compounds found in mushrooms, I do think there are real potential benefits possible for our skin when using them topically. However, I also think we need more data to fully know and understand the benefits.”
An additional factor worth considering is the concentration levels — and duration of use — required to gain any of the aforementioned mushroom benefits. Dr. King says it’ll probably take a minimum of four weeks to notice any sort of visible change, which is also true of most ingredients that promise a chemical change in the skin. She adds, “The optimal concentration will ultimately depend on the active biocompound, and the reality is that we need more scientific data to fully understand the efficacy and optimal dosing.”
Finally, there’s some potential for an adverse allergic reaction when using an earthy ingredient such as mushrooms. Always test on an inconspicuous area and consult with your doctor or dermatologist before using, especially if you have sensitive skin, have been diagnosed with any ailments, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.