Do Medicinal Mushrooms Actually Work?

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Here’s a minor paradox of life in the Trump era: Self-care is more necessary than ever, but New Agey pseudoscience has never seemed more dubious. In 2015, I drank green juice and bought crystals. Now, actual health care is on the line, science is up for debate, and I’m officially out of the aura-reading game. I’m saving my money and my mental energy for the stuff that really works.

A rising star in the world of self-care, mushrooms confound efforts to draw a solid line between health and “healing.” Mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps are staples of Traditional Chinese Medicine that, lately, are showing up in pricey, Goop-approved dusts, teas, and creams. Fungi are also gaining traction among Silicon Valley–types — brain-hackers looking for a competitive edge in so-called nootropics like Adderall, bulletproof coffee, LSD. microdoses and, now, lion’s mane mushroom. This all sets off my bullshit detector. But at the same time, Western medicine is starting to agree that mushrooms help fight everything from obesity to cancer to depression. And besides, who am I to scoff at centuries of tradition? I live off cheese and Diet Coke and wonder why I’m not glowing from within.

Still, for the uninitiated, the marketing claims about mushrooms can either seem impenetrably scientific (“beta glucans reduce free radical formation”) or else laughably vague (“ancient botanicals restore youth”). It’s hard to know whether mushrooms are the flavor of the week — another snail mucin or acai berry — or the key to inside-out wellness.

Perhaps the answer is that mushrooms are both too overhyped to take at face value and too legit to ignore — especially when it comes to superficial applications. Skin is easy to target with ingredients and easy to study, explains dermatologist Dr. Patricia Farris, which means research can confirm that the antioxidants found in mushrooms slow aging in skin, even though such claims are still sketchy when it comes to how they might affect the rest of our bodies. Still, Farris believes the future of beauty is more holistic than what we can currently document. “Eventually we’re going to get to where Asian cultures have been for centuries,” she told me. “You are what you eat. Your skin is no different than your heart or your liver.”

Whether you’re looking to eat for your skin or to plaster it in luxurious Band-Aids (more on those below), you should consider the millions of species of mushrooms out there, says Tero Isokauppila, the author of Healing Mushrooms and founder of Four Sigmatics supplements. What makes mushrooms unique among superfoods, he says, is their relationship to humans. “Mushrooms are more closely related to humans than plants,” Isokauppila told me, which he says makes them easy for our bodies to absorb. “We used to be in the same kingdom. We share half our DNA.”

And who wouldn’t want to be related to a mushroom, skin-wise? Mushrooms are smooth and dewy, firm and cool to the touch. Born out of decaying matter, mushrooms’ life cycle is quasi-mystical. If placenta pills and foreskin facials speak to a fantasy of turning back the clock to baby skin, maybe mushroom beauty is about hitting fast-forward: dying, getting besieged by spores, and then being reincarnated, this time with the good sense to be a shade-dweller.

So, yes, mushrooms are both a powerful skin-care ingredient and a slippery slope to hippie nonsense. I began this project testing skin-care products with clinically proven ingredients. By the end, I was adding unregulated mushroom powders to multiple daily beverages — a “concentration” mushroom in coffee at work, a “stamina” mushroom in a smoothie at the gym, and a “relaxation” mushroom tea before bed. I believe they are working! I feel like a very productive Alice in Wonderland with, it must be said, very clear skin.

Below, the biggest mushrooms in beauty and wellness, and where to find them:

Tremella: The Moisturizing Mushroom

Tremella also known as snow fungus, silver ear, or witch’s butter, looks like a loofah, feels like jelly, and grows on the side of trees. On a molecular level, its water-retention capabilities rival those of hyaluronic acid, says Dr. Farris, making it a popular mushroom for hydrating moisturizers.

You can find tremella in ingredient-driven basics like Olay’s Active Botanicals line and Glossier’s Priming Moisturizer, as well as fancy masks like Kypris Glow Philtre. I’ve been using Shiseido’s new Waso Fresh Jelly Lotion as a nighttime moisturizer over retinol; the watery gel melts into your face. Tremella isn’t very popular in the world of supplements, though it makes an appearance in the Beauty Superfood Blend from Four Sigmatic.

Reishi: The Detox Mushroom

Reishi is a shiny, red saucer that looks like a Wizard of Oz prop and grows on decaying hemlock trees. Reishi’s Chinese name is sometimes translated as “mushroom of immortality,” and research confirms it has immune system-boosting powers. It is sometimes used alongside radiation and chemotherapy in cancer treatment in China and Japan.

Naturopaths and herbalists will tell you reishi supplements regulate levels of fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, resulting in better beauty sleep and fewer stress zits. Moon Juice product developer Blaire Edwards likes reishi for its liver support. “When I treat skin, I do it primarily through the liver,” she said. “People forget the liver is your premier detox organ.”

Reishi can be found in Dr. Andrew Weil’s MegaMushroom line for Origins (I like the toner and micellar water) and K-beauty brand Missha’s Misa Geum Sul revitalizing eye cream. Reishi is also in YSL’s Temps Majeure cream, though, at $345 for 1.5 ounces, Temps Majeure makes immorality an expensive prospect.

Cordyceps: The Stress-Relieving Mushroom

Cordyceps grows in the carcasses of Himalayan insect larvae and is used to enhance athletic performance. (In the ’90s, China’s national women’s track team attributed a rash of world records to cordyceps; they’ve since been accused of doping.) Cordyceps is also said to protect the immune system from the effects of stress, which can have beauty implications. “Adrenal fatigue is sometimes responsible for dark undereye circles,” says Isokauppila. “It’s something adaptogens like cordyceps can potentially be great for.”

Cordyceps doesn’t show up in many topical products, though it is part of Dr. Weil’s Origins line. In supplement form, cordyceps can be found in Perricone MD’s Travel Booster, an immunity pack to prevent travel-related health and skin issues, as well as Moon Juice’s Vanilla Mushroom Protein Powder, which Edwards recommends for athletes and people who work on their feet.

Shiitake: The Skin-Brightening Mushroom

Shiitake is the brown, umbrella-shaped mushroom found in your stir-fry or risotto. It’s the second most-cultivated mushroom in the world, and dermatologists like it as a source of kojic acid, a natural substitute for hydroquinone that can lighten age spots and hyperpigmentation associated with pregnancy and acne scars.

Shiitake are also a good source of vitamin D because — fun mushroom fact ahead — mushrooms produce vitamin D on their skin when they are exposed to sunlight, just like their close relatives, humans. And vitamin D is commonly used to treat inflammation in the skin, says Mount Sinai dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner. (Other mushrooms to eat for vitamin D are enoki and oyster mushrooms, says Isokauppila.)

You can find shiitake in One Love Organics’ Vitamin D Mist and Murad’s Invisiblur primer, an SPF moisturizer that makes me look like I’m wearing a Snapchat filter.

Chaga: The Skin Protecting Mushroom

A sinister-looking, black parasitic lump that grows out of birch trees, chaga isn’t fit for beauty product packaging. But its high concentrations of antioxidants, zinc, and melanin make it a no-brainer for skin protection, according to Isokauppila. He says snowboarders use chaga to protect their skin from sun reflecting off snowy peaks, and recommends blending chaga powder with coconut oil and going to town on your skin.

For some pre-made chaga options, try Plantioxidants Reparative Serum — which recently supplanted CosRx’s Triple C Lightning Liquid as my top serum — and Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum, one of K-beauty shop Glow Recipe’s bestsellers.

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Do Medicinal Mushrooms Actually Work?