Fungus had a big year in 2023 as the antagonist of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” But outside the fictional realm, these organisms found viral fame for a more positive reason: the potential skin benefits of mushrooms.
It turns out they aren’t just great for eating. Mushroom skin care has been all the rage this year, as seen on TikTok and in several recent skin care product innovations.
But what exactly can mushrooms do for our dermis? Below, medical professionals break it down.
What is mushroom skin care?
“Mushroom skin care refers to use of skin care products containing mushrooms or ingredients derived from mushrooms,” said Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “There are many species of mushroom, and some have more well-known skin benefits.”
Some mushrooms that have been incorporated into skin care products include cordyceps, reishi, shiitake, chaga, tremella fuciformis, coprinus comatus and trametes versicolor.
“Mushrooms are considered power foods packed full of minerals, antioxidants [and] prebiotics, and they are anti-inflammatory,” said Dr. Karan Lal, a board-certified dermatologist with Affiliated Dermatology in Arizona. “Mushrooms are easy to grow and abundant in nature. Over the past few years, vegan and cruelty-free skin care has taken over, and mushrooms are an easy additive. In fact, some major medications such as sirolimus initially came from fungi.”
As consumers increasingly gravitate toward skin care products with more nature-based ingredients, it makes sense that this category would attract attention.
“Mushrooms are the new hot buzzy ingredient in skin care this year, but they have actually been used topically and in foods in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries,” said Dr. Joyce Park, a Seattle-based dermatologist and founder of the Skin Refinery Clinic.
What are the benefits?
“Mushrooms contain many vitamins and minerals that can nourish skin,” said Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “They also contain polysaccharides that help improve skin hydration.”
Camp noted that mushroom-derived ingredients are also thought to have adaptogenic properties, so they can help regulate the body’s response to inflammation and stressors.
“Mushrooms contain antioxidants, including ergothioneine, glutathione, triterpenoids and polyphenols that protect skin by neutralizing free radicals to reduce oxidative damage and and defend against environmental pollutants,” Murphy-Rose said. “Mushrooms may help to boost our superoxide dismutase levels. Beta glucan derived from mushrooms is both hydrating and soothing and has skin-nourishing benefits to protect the skin barrier.”
Another beneficial fungus-derived ingredient is kojic acid.
“Kojic acid, found in many mushroom varieties, blocks an enzyme in the pigment-producing pathway and thereby helps to treat dark spots and brighten skin,” said Dr. Papri Sarkar, a dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Other things that mushroom ingredients have been found to be helpful in include potentially increasing collagen and decreasing the enzyme that breaks down elastin, thereby preserving levels of the compound elastin that allows the skin to bounce back once it’s been stretched or pulled.”
The positive effects of topical fungus products for the skin appear to parallel the dietary benefits of mushrooms themselves.
“Nutritionally, mushrooms are a nutrient-dense food that can benefit your diet,” said Dr. Melanie Palm, a dermatologist at Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach, California. “Not only are they fiberful ― they also are packed with vitamins and minerals.”
Mushrooms contain veratric acid, which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
“Researchers have found protective benefits of topical Veratric acid in the lab, showing that use in skin care reversed UVB-induced injury to skin,” Murphy-Rose said. “Dietary consumption of mushrooms has also been linked to decreased stress, decreased blood pressure and mood boosting.”
Are there any downsides?
“Most mushroom-based products are well tolerated,” Camp said. “However, if you have a history of sensitive skin, it is smart to do a test spot prior to use.”
Doing a patch test before applying a new product all over your face or body is a good way to determine if you’ll have an allergic reaction, and hopefully avoid extra irritation.
“Some ingredients in mushrooms can be irritants if used in a high concentration, like kojic acid, but most skin care products take this into account in formulation,” Sarkar said.
If you have any known mushroom allergies, avoid products that contain those particular fungi. Some people develop a rash after eating raw or undercooked shiitake mushrooms, for instance.
“The mushrooms that you choose should likely be chosen based on your needs,” Sarkar said. “Luckily, many mushrooms have some form of humectants or kojic acid, and many skin care products have a variety of antioxidants and humectants in them.”
Assess your skin type and get an idea of what you hope any mushroom-infused products can address.
“It’s also important to keep in mind the most effective skin care formulas aren’t built on just one miracle ingredient,” Palm said. “The downside of using mushroom skin care is similar to introducing any new ingredient into your skin care routine ― it might not work for your skin type, or you may have an allergic reaction to it.”
What’s the best way to implement mushrooms into your skin care routine?
“I don’t think mushrooms would replace the staples of a good skin care routine such as sunscreen, vitamin C, and retinoids, but I think it can be a great adjunct,” Park said.
She suggested looking for products with mushroom ingredients that are known to help the skin. Kojic acid is a popular recommendation.
“This mushroom-derived enzyme should be added to your skin care routine if hyperpigmentation is a concern,” Murphy-Rose said. “It is one of the most effective topical skin lightening ingredients, and is non-toxic, so [it’s] a good substitute for hydroquinone-containing products.”
Unless you are an expert, Murphy-Rose advised against DIY mushroom skin care from wild self-picked mushrooms, as some can be naturally toxic.
“Using a moisturizer with beta glucans, which hold on to water more powerfully than hyaluronic acid, is a great start,” Sarkar noted. “It’s easiest to get the best skin care results from mushroom-derived products, but if you’re interested in also increasing them in your diet, I recommend either shiitake or snow mushrooms.”
You can explore some popular mushroom skin care ingredients in the list below, and find out for yourself if fungus is the right addition to your beauty regimen.
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