Mushrooms have emerged as one of the ingredients of the year. The fascinating and fantastic fungi (which are exactly that—a fungi, and neither a plant nor an animal), are experiencing a cultural moment that far exceeds their previous role in cuisine, or their reputation as a heady, wavy-gravy psychedelic.
Among other things, the strides being made in mycology (that’s the branch of biology concerned solely with the study of fungi), have proven that mushrooms are a worthy—and sustainable—alternative to leather, and a necessary addition to your favorite immune-fortifying supplement, cortisol-friendly coffee substitute, and hormone-balancing tincture.
The magical pull of mushrooms isn’t tied to the simple crimini or meatier portobello that taste delicious on toast, but to their rarer and immunomodulating cousins who go by names like reishi, chaga, silver ear, cordyceps, lion’s mane, and more.
By now, you might be familiar with the fact that this hugely varied species are beneficial as adaptogens—mitigating the negative effects of stress when ingested and applied topically—but did you know that mushrooms also contain naturally occurring polysaccharides called beta-glucans that are proven to accelerate wound healing and reduce transepidermal water loss when wielded as hero ingredients in your favorite skin-loving toner, mist, mask, and moisturizing cream?
“Most beta-glucans used in skincare are derived from yeast, fungi, seaweed, or oats, but mushrooms are gaining popularity in particular because they are also rich in other bioactive compounds, like antioxidants and adaptogens,” explains Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, a board certified dermatologist with a focus on minimally invasive treatments who practices out of Union Derm in central Manhattan.
In addition to her expertise in procedural dermatology, (that’s the study, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment of skin diseases), Chwalek is a Vinyasa-trained yoga instructor and long-time student of Ayurveda, and strives to incorporate a sense of holistic awareness in her approach to the medicine of skincare.
“There is increasing interest and demand for natural, safe treatment options, which may be one reason (in addition to recent research) why we’re hearing more about the various benefits of mushrooms in particular,” she continues, adding that “within the last few years, there have been multiple research studies corroborating the benefits of these active compounds in cosmeceuticals.”
Further proof is needed, but substantial paperwork in favor of mushroom-derived beta-glucans is mounting as the months go by. Chwalek is most excited by their ability to help heal the skin from burns and minor irritations, in addition to improving dry, eczema-prone skin.
Some evidence shows that beta-glucans can also have anti-aging properties. In this instance they work by activating fibroblasts (which produce collagen) and inhibiting collagenase (an enzyme that breaks down collagen), as well as delivering antioxidants to scavenge free radical damage which can lead to loss of skin density and fine lines and wrinkles.
“Beta-glucans are antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, so they can help to calm sensitive, irritated skin, and possibly protect or even treat some skin infections. They’ve also been shown to inhibit contact hypersensitivity and possibly prevent allergic contact dermatitis,” Chwalek adds.
And there’s more: Liberally lathering beta-glucan-rich formulas all over your face has no known negatives. “The side-effect profile of beta-glucans is really limited to other ingredients in the product which may be irritating or sensitizing, because beta-glucans themselves are not usually irritating or sensitizing,” says Chwalek to close. “With that said, it is always a good idea to slowly start any new products, especially if you have sensitive skin.”
Discover the power of beta-glucans in the following Youth To The People products: Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner, Adaptogen Soothe + Hydrate Activated Mist, and Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask.
Written by Elsa de Berker for Youth To The People