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Mushrooms and our Microbiome.

What words come to your mind when you first think about adding mushrooms to your face cream?

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi and fungi is something that us cosmetic chemists spend a lot of time trying to avoid growing in the products we formulate. That said, we also spend a lot of time formulating with materials that fungi made possible. But we rarely add mushrooms to our products in the way we add say, powdered herbs…

I say rarely because mushrooms are added as feature ingredients to cosmetic products and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years – I’ll have to go back and research that in more detail at some stage...

When I think of mushrooms and skincare in the same sentence I think of Dr Andrew Weil and the brand Origins. I’ve associated Andrew with mushroomy skincare for years but weirdly enough, considering my obsession with mushrooms and my love of skincare science I’ve never tried this cream or added mushrooms as extracts into my own formulations (I have added them to customers' products at their request though, albeit only occasionally). Maybe this is because I secretly suspected Andrew was drawing a long bow with this one (as health gurus whose personally endorsed product ranges span lots of products have a tendency to do) or maybe because products with his name on them have always been very expensive.

Before I talk about adding mushroom powders to cosmetics I want to talk a little more about the chemical factory that fungus is.

The mushrooms that we see in the forest, eat, dye clothing with, photograph and use as medicine are only around 1/10th of the whole fungi, the rest, its mycelium network most often lives underground. If we think of mushrooms as fruits, mycelium is the rest of this thing we call fungi and mycelium and mushrooms are themselves made up of groups of cells called in arrangements we call hyphae.

Fungi ‘eat’ by moving themselves over a potential food source and then sinking into it, breaking it down and transforming it completely. Humans are often told ‘we are what we eat’ which, for me, is often a large bar of chocolate and a smattering of tuna or jam on a sandwich. But for fungi its more a case of the food, rather than the fungi changing and this, it turns out, is a thousand times more interesting!

Practically anything you can think of can be fungi food. They exist at nuclear waste dumps, in soil contaminated by other industrial waste chemicals, in salty sea water and in environments with super low oxygen levels. There is even a type of fungi that eats plastic. I find this exciting as given half the chance it is quite conceivable that fungi can wrap its self around all the bad things us humans have done and poop out metaphorical rainbows!

The fungal digestive process is a chemical factory that can do or give us products from three different pathways. Firstly the fungi itself can be a source of useful ingredients, secondly through its digestive processes it can unpick and untangle the tight threads of a substance that would usually persist forever and re-arrange these liberated chemicals into new materials or it can literally poop new and useful chemicals out as it feeds.

Some examples of the results of these three processes include Xanthan gum, Hyaluronic Acid, Beta Glucan, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Ceramides, Peptides, Carrageenan, Cyclodextrins, Rhamnolipids (surfactants), Preservatives (Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Coconut Ferment), Papaya Enzymes, Bifida Ferment, Alcohol, Carotene, Omega Fatty Acids, Superoxide Dismutase, Chitin and many more besides.

Whether we know it or not, us cosmetic chemists are accessing materials that fungi have made possible every time we formulate natural cosmetics so is it time to add the whole fruiting body into the pot too?

A case for the whole mushroom.

Looks like Mr Weil was onto a little something after all with his mushroom-infused facials and that makes a lot of sense given we can now appreciate the rich and diverse chemistry that exists inside these fruits.

Below is a visual of the features and benefits of some commonly used mushroom powders plus their impact at different input levels in a moisturiser cream base.

The Ick Factor.

Unlike most herbs we associate with cosmetics (calendula, rosehip, lavender, green tea, witch hazel), mushrooms don’t make the average person feel fresh, outdoorsy and clean. That’s a barrier that has to be overcome emotionally rather than logically and is why we may be better first dipping our toe in with our microbiome.

Our skin Microbiome is something we are becoming increasingly comfortable in considering, discussing and accomodating into our care regimen. Our microbiome includes fungi and fungi includes mushrooms so here we are again people, back at those old things again and here comes the ick but wait, before we submit to our deepest mushroom fears, its worth remembering that when we talk about ourselves as individuals, as humans, that’s not entirely true. We contain more non-human than human cells and at least part of that is fungi. Our skin barrier and immune health depends on this so we know that mushrooms can be the good guys sometimes…

Most of us have a little dark crevice of a brain cell within our minds that is set to equate mushrooms with bad things. So while most of us have never sprouted mushrooms from our ears or belly buttons (or know anyone else that has) I would not be surprised if many of us haven’t, at one time or another, been told they will grow if we don’t wash properly! Trench foot, athletes foot, ringworm, jock itch, thrush and nail fungus are embarrassing (sometimes smelly, always unsightly) infections that we may well have had a (however fleeting) personal relationship with and serve to confirm our suspicions that these things can do us harm.

Then we have the alternative side of the ‘shroom’. I’ve long stopped caring what people think of me after I open my mouth and words come out but often, when I talk about my passions in life, one being mushrooms, I spot the development of a sly and knowing smile, a ‘aha, I knew it’ look develop in the listener. But no, I don’t like mushrooms in a psychedelic way. My ‘weird’ fascination and demeanor are just natural and anyway, my brain cooks up enough weirdness without me adding to it with psilocybin. For some, this slight whiff of the illegal, unconventional, dangerous and devious is enough to have them keep mushrooms at arms length.

So will mushroom cosmetics make us high?

What I was going to write was ‘well, I very much doubt it’ but then I came across the one of the weirdest research papers I’ve ever read. This paper discusses a science experiment of sorts that attempts to measure the impact of a psychedelic substance on a subject who had the substance applied to their scrotum by the oral secretions of another. OK warned you, here it is.

Transdermal penetration is a thing and it may well be that wearable psychoactive patches, massage oils, creams and other things that could fit under the cosmetic banner however tenuously could well become a thing in the future. However, as it is very difficult for chemicals to penetrate the skin, I doubt that this could happen unintentionally meaning that the chemist creating the formula would need to carefully select for and formulate towards this as an outcome.

What about infections?

This is a more valid concern but again it is very unlikely that your cream or potion will grow the mushrooms that you put into it.

Any mushroom material used in cosmetics has to be appropriately processed and typically this renders it sterile. No longer able to breed, grow and colonise your creams and potions, the ingredient is now no different to any other carbon-rich matter you may put into your formula. If you buy mushroom powders, like any other powder they could introduce microbes into your product but this has more to do with their surface area than their mushroomness and is the case for any powdered extract or particulate, including clay.

Any other barriers to entry?

When I introduced the new mushroom powders that New Directions are stocking to the sales team some of the fears resided around how these might colour and fragrance the creams and serums we sell ‘won’t they end up all brown and stinky’ was a common thought. While it is true that most mushroom powders are somewhat tan to brown in colour, their typical use levels are not so high that this can’t easily be accommodated to create a natural looking off-white to cream emulsion. In terms of the smell, this can be an issue but one that is common across a number of popular natural actives: Rosehip, Evening Primrose or Hemp Seed Oil, Seaweed Extracts, Spirulina, Apple Cider Vinegar, Dead Sea Mud and even Tea Tree Oil. Each mushroom species has its own aromatic footprint and this in turn differs between the fresh and dried ingredient and then again after re-hydration. Generally speaking while some mushroom notes will be present in your cosmetic product, when you work within recommended dose guidelines, this background aroma should be something you can work around.

Mushroom Magic – what will they do for me?

As you’ve quite possibly had enough mushroom talk to last you all day I’ve put this last bit into a handy presentation. These are the four skin-compatible mushroom extracts available currently at New Directions Australia. Do make sure you check with whatever supplier you purchase from how the extracts they make or sell are prepared and how strong / concentrated they are as this can vary. Generally most mushroom powdered extracts are placed into your water phase either prior to or post emulsification (if you are making a cream). Most mushroom chemistry is relatively heat tolerant.

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