Mushrooms used to occupy an unsexy space in the national psyche: mostly thought of as subject of a vegetarian option on a lacklustre restaurant menu, or vilified as something that could quite happily kill you, should you brush past the wrong species while hunting around for blackberries. Hype around funghi? Nonexistent.
And then, 2018 happened. Specific species of 'shrooms, such as reishi, cordyceps and
chaga – used, medicinally, in Eastern health systems such as Indian Ayurveda for centuries – worked their way into Western wellness.
There were mushroom tonics and lattes on the menu at Hackney hipster coffee shops, boasting earthy, umami undertones alongside added health benefits, powders to add to your morning smoothie and supplements, to take in capsule form.
In 2019, the trend is going no where. The global mushroom industry is forecast to, erm, mushroom to a $50 billion market in the next six years, according to a report from Grand View Research.
Skincare is a particular boom area. US wellness brand Moon Juice have released Beauty Shroom: a line of skincare that uses adaptogens (herbs and mushrooms said to help the body to deal with stress) to boost moisturisation. Their Plumping Jelly Serum, for example, contains silver ear mushroom, traditionally used in Asian skincare.
Another US brand, Youth To The People, have come out with an Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, containing reishi mushroom, while Origins launched a 'Mega-Mushroom' line of products, in a joint project with Dr Andrew Weil.
"The use of mushroom-based products in skincare isn’t entirely new, and dermatologists have been using mushroom-derived kojic acid for many years in topical products and in medical grade chemical peels for skin brightening and removing pigmentation," says Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible (Penguin, £14.99).
What does she credit the mass market spike to? "There here has been a renewed interest in 'natural' products in skincare. People are turning to plant-based ingredients and this is probably why we are seeing a rise in mushroom related products on the market."
REISHI FOREVER// Reishi is woody, hard, and bitter. It can support a healthy immune response and help the body handle stress. Take every day for at least two months to see what it can do for you. Add to smoothies, make Reishi tea, or use in one of these – Cosmic Cocoa, Spirit Dust, or Vanilla Mushroom Adaptogenic Protein. #moonjuice
A post shared by MOON JUICE (@moonjuice) on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:17am PST
So, why are brands bringing our lines devoted to traditionally medicinal forms of the fungus? "Mushrooms contain skin-boosting properties. They're rich in antioxidants and Vitamin D, which work to protect the skin against environmental stresses, discolouration and fine lines," says dermatologist Dr. Gary Goldfaden, founder of Goldfaden MD. "Additionally, mushrooms contain potent anti-inflammatory properties that can help to improve the appearance of acne, redness and even eczema."
As to any benefits around youthful-looking skin? Dr Goldfaden adds that mushrooms are loaded with Vitamin B3, which is "a superior anti-aging ingredient and may help with the enhancement of collagen."
How to choose a mushroom-based skincare product
But this is not to say that any product containing the ingredient is a good use of your cash. If you do want to see results, you need to look behind marketing claims and into the ingredients that comprise whatever the latest wonder potion is. "If the product has an ample amount of mushroom, it will be listed within the first part of the ingredient list," says Dr. Goldfaden.
A post shared by Youth To The People (@youthtothepeople) on Dec 19, 2018 at 7:00am PST
"But really, the most important thing to know is what your skin can tolerate. When choosing a product it is important steer clear of harmful 'filler' ingredients such as petrochemicals, alcohol and artificial dyes/fragrances. Just because a product has 35% mushroom doesn't mean it’s good for your skin."
So, how to get dosed up on the information you need to make smart choices? "Read labels and ingredient lists and do your research. Mushroom products are very popular in sheet mask form now, but these need to be used frequently to see results," he adds.
HOW MUCH ACID IS TOO MUCH ACID?// For oily skin or skin that’s used to acids, you can probably use Exfoliating Acid Potion daily. For sensitive or drier skin, start twice a week or mix with your moisturizer. Gradually increase from there. Skin should feel smooth, and your color unchanged, and when you put on other products there is no irritation. If your skin starts to feel agitated (redness, stinging, tightness), dial it back. #moonjuice @sephora
A post shared by MOON JUICE (@moonjuice) on Nov 30, 2018 at 9:58am PST
What sort of skin is most likely to benefit?
As ever, it's important to make sure that you buy skincare that's formulated with your specific skin type and needs in mind. "All skin types should benefit from ingredients with antioxidant properties, however mushroom-based products are generally marketed for dry, ageing, inflamed, impaired skin," says says aesthetic doctor Dr David Jack.
So, is mushroom-y skincare worth it?
When it comes to medicinal mushroom-based skincare, it's important to keep a level head and not to immediately believe everything that the back of a nicely designed box is telling you. "There are very few robust clinical trials showing the benefits of chaga, resihi and cordyceps in skincare," Dr Mahto explains.
"These agents are claimed to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and 'healing properties' in alternative medicine spheres – not just for skin but also for a number of other organ systems. These types of mushrooms contain beta-glucans, which are deemed to provide 'skin benefits.' "
She recommends that you stay cautious, with regards to such claims. "Many of the small studies which exist on beta glucans have been carried on animal models, so findings can’t necessarily be extrapolated to humans," she says – noting that often research in this space is carried out on behalf of the company making the product.
Her TL,DR thought? "We need to watch this space and ideally need more reliable, reproducible data on beta-glucans and their role in the immune system and effects on skin before we should get too excited. They may well prove to be of benefit – but it is still a bit too early to tell."
When it comes to percentages – i.e. how much mushroom a product should ideally contain in order for any benefits to truly be delivered – it's tricky. "Many mushroom supplement and powder brands claim 500mg is optimum for change and improvement, but this figure is subjective and unsubstantiated," says Dr Jack.
A post shared by Origins UK (@originsuk) on Jun 25, 2018 at 1:34am PDT
"Most brands don’t specify which fungus or derivative refers to, how long this takes to make a difference, and what difference we are actually looking for." If you are set to make a purchase, he advises asking the company how much of the active ingredient is in the product and how much of said active ingredient is thought to work. (Side note: the first ingredient in the list is the one with the greatest volume in the product and the last has the least.)
Right. So, where are we with our fungus-based friends? In short: do your homework, read labels and make inquiries before you buy. Think about your specific skincare needs and check that the product in question is designed to meet them. And don't assume that, because it's in vogue, means that it's the most effective thing out there.
Having said that, it looks like there are plenty of potentially cool things about medicinal mushrooms when it comes to the beauty world. But, as with all purchases, keep your cynicism kindled, before you hand over your card details.