Fungi are practically everywhere on Earth – even in Antarctica, where researchers have discovered hardy native species feasting on the wooden huts left behind by Antarctic explorers. Almost as surprisingly, they can be found in the beauty aisle, too.
Search “mushroom” on Sephora.ca, for instance, and a wide array of products, from serums to shampoos, pops up.
One such item is Murad’s Invisiblur SPF, which includes peptides, or proteins, from shiitake mushrooms. “[They] were shown in an in vitro way, so in a test tube or a petri dish, to have really wonderful benefits in terms of protecting or even helping [with] upregulating collagen production and protecting that collagen,” says Kristen Robinson, senior director of new product development.
While also having reported anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties – fungi such as chaga feature prominently in Indigenous medicine – Robinson says mushrooms are “known to consumers as being nutrient dense” – reinforcing the notion that looking good starts from the inside out. “If something is good for me internally, then it’s going to be good for me topically,” she says by way of explanation for this cosmetic revolution.
Chase Polan, founder of the holistic skin-care brand Kypris, has had mushrooms on her radar for a few years. Kypris uses silver ear mushrooms in two types of facial masks. Chaga, which looks like a lump of charcoal and can now be found in things such as coffee and tea, appears alongside silver ear in the brand’s Cerulean Soothing Hydration Recovery Mask.
“I love how this interest in natural beauty has sparked people’s curiosity and openness,” Polan says. “And I love how alternative medicine has infiltrated the mainstream, because I think that every good idea has its limitations. It’s really beautiful to see the two shaking hands.”
While she’s now starting to see the benefits mushrooms can have on skin via her growing customer base, Polan is still cautious in her product-development approach.
“I don’t like to jump in with two feet when I’m sourcing something,” she says. “There are lots of trends that go through the market that sound good initially, but maybe in practice don’t have the desired outcome.”
While the scientific properties of mushrooms are being vigorously studied for numerous uses, brands and marketers are left with the daunting task of making mushrooms seem appealing, alluring even, despite their grubby origins. When I suggest that mushrooms need a makeover, Robinson laughs. “The marketability of the mushroom is mighty, but it’s not pretty.”
Preeti Gopinath, director of the MFA textiles program at New York’s Parsons School of Art and Design, says her students are experimenting with the fabrication possibilities of fungi, which means mycelium – the thread-like parts of fungi that spread out to find water and nutrients – could one day be used for everything from ballgowns to bulletproof vests. That’s thanks to their ability to be grown together as a material, unlike traditional fabrics, which must be woven or knitted together.
“[It’s] all in a nascent stage,” Gopinath stresses regarding research into mushrooms for non-dietary applications.
There’s also the extreme sustainability angle that’s sure to appeal to manufacturers across the industrial sector, all feeling the pressure to curb their toxic output and climate-changing practices. “Its rate of growth is really, really quick, so it’s easily regenerated,” says Gopinath of fungus, pointing out that it takes about two years to raise a cow for food and textile purposes. Enough mushrooms to yield the same amount of textile? Two weeks.
The beneficial properties of mushrooms and their extracts are numerous: They’re both water- and fire-resistant, as well as being anti-microbial. “In fact, some people would say it’s good for your skin, that you can use it as a skincare product,” Gopinath says.
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