Fungus isn't exactly a poster child for beauty, is it?
Spurred by traditional uses and new research, manufacturers from Aveeno to Origins are adding mushroom extracts to face and skin products. But not your usual brown buttons. Rather, they're ‘shrooms with attitudes and the names to match: tremella, reishi and poria cocos.
Mushrooms are important in traditional Chinese medicine, says Tsueyhwa Lai, a licensed acupuncturist and doctoral clinic coordinator at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, Ore. However, most are ingested in healing foods or soups. For example, tremella contains more calcium than any other mushroom, according to Lai. And it has powerful rehydration benefits. “Personally, I use it when I feel the body is dehydrated,” she says. Those qualities also make it a prime candidate for beauty products, such as East Rutherford, N.J-based Maitake's Aquamella Cream.
As for reishi, Lai says it's highly prized in China, and was called the “miracle herb” in ancient times. Traditionally, reishi is thought to improve strength, build joint and bone resiliency and benefit the major organs. And what's the largest organ? The skin. However, some mushrooms do have a history of topical usage. “Poria cocos has been used externally for cosmetic products,” Lai says. “It is used to remove dark pigmentation and wrinkles.”
It's that type of traditional use that intrigues modern-day researchers—and consumers. “There is building scientific evidence that some mushroom extracts can inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase and are therefore candidates for use for hyperpigmentation,” or dark skin spots, says Cindy Jones, Ph.D., a biochemist specializing in natural products and owner of the Sagescript Institute in Longmont, Colo.
Scientists in Germany have found that poria cocos reduced irritation caused by sodium laurel sulfate, and Chinese researchers have shown that the reishi mushroom has significant anti-tyrosinase activity. Kojic acid is another mushroom extract ripe for the plucking, Jones says. It's used in dozens of natural products, such as Phoenix-based Devita International's Skin Brightening Serum and Harrison, N.Y.-based DDF's Doctor's Holistic Intensive Lightener.
While mushrooms' popularity has already taken off, the research hasn't quite kept up. “Not much actual human data is available,” Jones says, “although early results are promising.”
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based freelance writer.