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How mushrooms became the beauty industry’s latest trip


TextMatilda Ruck

The last year has seen mushrooms make their way from the kitchen and into our bathroom cabinets, here’s why

The humble mushroom has had quite the year. Once nothing but a vegetable aisle staple and every picky child’s worst nightmare, the earthy fungus has risen from the damp forest floor to become the latest product in the world of holistic health. The traditional backpacker’s “shroom shake” is now a goop-ified benchmark of wellness, with people adding Lion’s Mane tinctures to their morning coffee and using mushroom supplements for everything from better sleep to sexual prowess. And now the beauty industry – never one to do things in halves – is going hell-for-leather on the booming mushroom craze.

Promising smaller pores and supple skin, mushroom-based products are dominating both the organic and high-end beauty aisles, with everything from collagen-boosting mushroom masks and serums to mushroom beauty powders. Charlotte Tilbury highlighted the skin buffing benefits of mushroom extract in her foundation back in 2016, while mushroom-beauty trailblazers Origins recently re-launched and upgraded their ten-year-old Super-Charged Mushroom line in collaboration with mushroom expert Dr Wells. Cult US beauty brands such as Moon Juice have also paid homage to fungi with an entire “Beauty Shroom” product line. And with latest reports indicating that the mushroom market is expected to increase from $35.08 billion in 2015 to over $59.48 billion in 2021, it would appear this beauty trend shows no signs of slowing down.

So how did the concept of lathering sporing fungi-infused tinctures onto one's face or downing a murky brown shiitake beauty shot become a commercial triumph? While endorsements from the likes of Kim Kardashian, who credits her selfie-ready skin to Japanese mushroom facial peels, has certainly helped the cause, a key driver behind the mushroom boom is the science surrounding the functional properties of fungi, which despite being favoured in the East for centuries, hadn’t until recently stepped far beyond the experimental LSD and psychedelic science of the 60s or sage wafting homeopaths in the West. However, a 2016 study looking into the science behind functional mushrooms as a significant cosmetic ingredient predicted that with more species identified and cultivated, the exploitation of mushrooms in combination with genomics and other systems of pharmacology would become a mainstream cosmetic reality.

“When topically applied mushroom extracts offer multiple localised skin health benefits such as age defence, hydration, barrier repair, antioxidant protection against pollution and UV damage, as well as skin rejuvenating” – Skin Care Expert Gemma Clare

Making up their very own kingdom, featuring thousands of different species, the fungi family can deliver numerous skin enhancing benefits. According to leading London Holistic Health Specialist and Skin Care Expert Gemma Clare, “when topically applied mushroom extracts offer multiple localised skin health benefits such as age defence, hydration, barrier repair, antioxidant protection against pollution and UV damage, as well as skin rejuvenating and whitening actions”. Certain mushrooms such as Reishi and Maitake are also adaptogenic meaning they work with your body to “support its natural defences and carry out their specific action, for example, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant etc as well as support the skin in ageing well."

With so many varieties of mushroom extract to choose from, however, picking the correct product for your skin can result in a new and confused kind of foraging down the beauty aisle. While Cordyceps and Chaga help to soothe skin irritation, Reishi and Oyster mushrooms are more appropriate for firming and brightening your complexion. Only certain species, such as Shitaake, contain kojic acid – a natural skin brightening agent that can improve sunspots and acne scars. Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, a Consultant Dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London, says focusing on the fundamental science rather than the species of fungi is what is most important.“Dry skin will benefit from moisturising polysaccharides and anti-hyaluronidase; ageing skin will benefit from compounds with antioxidants and anti-elastase and anti-collagenase activity; while pigmentation problems such as melisma will benefit from anti-tyrosinase activity.”

So, what’s the catch? In an industry where pseudoscience runs rampant, bullshit radars are best switched to full beam. While the thousand years of history and heavy science certainly sets mushroom tinctures in a different wellness camp to healing vaginal eggs and low-vibration stickers, not everyone in the industry has been so charmed. “All products are not equal and many on the market simply cannot deliver the level of results they claim,” Gemma Clare tells us. “Once there is a particular trend, people are keen to buy in, though they do not realise the levels of ‘active’ they are buying, for example, charcoal cannot make the difference they believe it can because the dose is insufficient.”  

Similarly sceptical is leading mycologist and founder of Fungi Perfecti Paul Stamen who warned about the prickly issue of origin. “You should be very concerned about the origin of species that are being grown,” he told Fast Company. “Mushrooms are a reflection of the environment in which they’re grown.” And with many brands importing their produce from China, the country’s pollution issues and rampant pesticide residues could be affecting products. Online medical news and health journal WebMD have also warned against the excessive consumption of Reishi in its popular powdered form, linking it to side effects such as liver toxicity and excessive bleeding.

So it would appear you probably can have too much of a good thing. But with thousands of different species to choose from, many still being discovered, it seems fungi might still enjoy its time as beauty’s ingredient de jour a while longer. Tero Isokauppila, a 13th generation Finnish mushroom forager and founder of leading mushroom and health brand Four Sigmatic, certainly thinks so. In an interview on the Mind Body Green podcast in July, the entrepreneur spoke out about the fruitful future of mushroom science and wellbeing. “There are about six times more fungi variety than plants in the world,” said Tero, “what is about to come is way bigger than anyone is releasing." Paul Stamets, who is himself conducting further studies into the regenerative properties of mushrooms, is also confident about the future of the mushroom industry, maintaining that with more trials taking place, the greater public will come to appreciate the antioxidant powers of the mushroom as mainstream science.

This popularity of mushrooms comes as part of a larger trend of the beauty industry having a good old rendezvous with the flora and fauna. Research carried out by JWT Intelligence SONAR has shown that when it comes to skincare, 53% of US millennials say they now expect all products to be natural. In addition, the annual report produced by The Soil Association revealed how in the UK the organic beauty and wellbeing market, which grew by 24% in 2017, is set to reach £34bn by 2019. These are big talking stats, but in an industry where a “next big thing” mentality continues to drive consumption forward, the question is always…what next? What new adaptogenic pond-dwelling microbe will have us dethroning the fungi in favour of new more potent promises of eternal youth?

Gemma Clare has her money on probiotic skincare and microbiome. “I think the advances with individualisation and artificial intelligence will lead to more personalised products and routines,” she says. “So, what particular microbiota does a person’s skin need, what ingredients does a person need on their skin on a particular day and how should they be using it.” According to Dr Catherine Borysiewicz, society’s growing interest in ‘active ingredients’ has resulted in an increased “overlapping between nutriceuticals and cosmeceuticals” and we can expect new technologies focusing on enhancing the beneficial “active” compounds within skincare.  

Online, beauty insiders have been forecasting that over the next year things will get oily with key ingredients such as salmon and rapeseed extract on the rise. Another ingredient also set to make waves could be willow bark, a fatty acid derived from conifer seeds that is said to aid in the fight against skin-inflammation. Using natural pigments derived from pink sweet potato, red radish and elderberries are also likely to pop up in many cosmetics. Sweet potato lips could be the new sweet potato chips!

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