Unusual Suspects

New characters in skincare

by Fatima Husain

Illustration by Anzia Anderson

published April 14, 2017


In the opening monologue of the 2000 film American Psycho, investment banker Patrick Bateman explains his morning skincare routine, which includes an assortment of products he uses to maintain his perfect image. At the turn of the century, the products he described seemed far-fetched: the water-activated gel cleanser, a honey-almond body scrub, an herb-mint facial mask, and aftershave with little or no alcohol heightened the film’s satirization of the 1980s yuppie. 

Decades later, these types of products are quite standard, evidenced by the plethora of products currently stocked in skincare sections of drugstores and online marketplaces. Skincare, and the science surrounding it, has changed. Instead of using traditional staples like face wash, moisturizer, and sunscreen, some consumers are opting to explore nontraditional ingredients in an attempt to alleviate their skincare woes. Rather than artificial salicylic acids or benzoyl peroxides, naturally-derived compounds like snail mucin, bee venom, and fungal fermentation filtrates are making appearances in treatments for common skincare concerns including acne, aging, and skin discoloration. 

Some consumers believe that natural ingredients interact with the skin in a manner that is more beneficial and less irritating than the synthesized ingredients in traditional skincare, which may be too harsh for certain skin types. For other people, they’re simply great because they’re natural. If nature produces them, then they must be what’s best for us—an increasingly common concept that also motivates natural, organic, anti-antibiotic, and non-GMO food advocates.

But natural skin care products are more complex than their marketing. Not everything nature produces is healthy or useful for the human body. They do, however, remind us of the high value society places on smooth, youthful, perfect skin. In some cases, the prices do too, further perpetuating self-care’s financial inaccessibility. 

Though various regimens and product systems can be found in stores and online, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to skincare. Skin differs from person to person, and many skincare companies explore niche markets in order to maximize the reach of their products. When research showed that alcohol or fragrances could irritate the skin, skincare companies started offering gentle, fragrance-free, and sensitive skin formulas of popular products. Though the appeal of gentle formulations holds to this day, companies have also started marketing natural formulations that attract consumers who wish to change up their old routines, or who haven’t yet found one. In most cases, consumers of these natural formulations believe they are making their skin healthier, and that healthy skin comes with fewer breakouts, wrinkles, or hyperpigmentation, and therefore less dependence on traditional skincare ingredients.

Snails are quickly leading the charge of unusual products. Studies on the mucin snails produce to facilitate movement across dry surfaces, particularly by snails of the species Cornu aspersum, have revealed that the mucin contains compounds like superoxide dismutase, which mitigates the effect of free radicals, which can damage cells over time. The slime has also been shown to contain low molecular weight hyaluronic acid. According to a 1999 study by W. John Chen and Giovanni Abatangelo, hyaluronic acid promotes new cell growth and cellular turnover in the skin. Hyaluronic acid is also believed to contribute greatly to the process of collagen and moisture production, benefitting skin structure and reducing healing times for skin lesions–an attractive quality for acne control. 

Snail mucin also contains assorted antioxidants and glycoproteins, but their permeability into the epidermis is often limited due to size constraints—most of the time, they’re too big to get absorbed into the skin. Snail mucin contains two compounds that may potentially benefit skin—and is sold in creams, lotions, serums, and even in hair products. However, the use of snail mucin is not without controversy.

Snail mucin is harvested from living snails, which raises a number of ethical concerns. In order to extract the desirable mucin that is bottled up and incorporated into multiple skincare products, snails are agitated, which makes them produce more slime. The specific methods of agitation vary from source to source, and most methods are owned and patented by snail farms and skincare companies and therefore remain legally undisclosed to the public. Some consumers on internet skincare forums have guessed methods that range from poking snails with sticks all the way to feeding snails a salty solution to stress them into producing more mucin for harvest. 

Unlike snail mucin or other products for soothing and repairing the skin, bee venom inflames skin, which then stimulates skin repair. Essentially, an application of venom tricks the skin into believing it has been stung by a bee. Dilute concentrations of venom can ramp up skin repair processes where it’s applied, enhancing local skin turnover and repair processes which supposedly reveal new, glowing skin. The process of collecting bee venom, much like that of snail mucin, isn’t without agitation. In one method to harvest bee venom, an electrical mesh plate with glass beneath is placed and turned on near an active hive. The bees swarm the active electrical mesh plate and sting in between the wires. Because their stingers are not caught in anything, the bees survive the sting and fly away, while their venom falls onto the glass plate beneath and accumulates. Then, the accumulated venom is diluted and incorporated into face creams and lotions. 

In addition to snail mucin and bee venom, galactomyces and other yeast ferment filtrates are gaining popularity in skincare serums. The fungi ferment filtrates are thought to protect the skin from damage rather than repair it, because they include antioxidants and compounds that stimulate the production of hyaluronic acid in the skin. The extracts are derived from yeast fermentation filtrates, which are nutrient-rich liquids left behind after yeast ferment sugar-containing organic matter. No agitation there. 

The departure from traditional skincare to skincare with nontraditional ingredients shouldn’t be taken lightly. Many chemicals present in the naturally-derived ingredients can be artificially in controlled environments, and are also used in traditional skincare products, such as hyaluronic acid in facial moisturizer. Though the access to interesting, new ingredients with flashy origins might seem attractive to consumers, the efficacy, safety, and consistency of naturally-derived ingredients must be studied properly and considered with a healthy dose of skepticism. 


FATIMA HUSAIN B’17 wants to leave the snails and bees alone.