Mushrooms in Cosmetics

By The Cosmetic Chemist Staff
November 15, 2016

illustration of a mushroom

In 1991, two German tourists found a frozen corpse in the European Alps (Austrian-Italian border) of an approximately 45-year old man (named Ötzi, or Ice Man) from the late Stone Age (approximately 3,300 B.C.).1 The body was preserved in a glacier, and it is believed that the man died shortly before his body was freeze-dried and transformed into a mummy by the harsh Alpine winds and cold climate. These are the oldest intact human remains that have ever been recovered by modern man. Archeologists found a number of interesting tools and supplies in the Ice Man’s possession consisting of a copper axe, bow and arrows, handmade rope, pieces of leather, and a knife. In addition, the man was found carrying two types of tree fungus (mushrooms) that is thought to have served several functions.

There were two different polypore species of mushrooms that the Iceman was carrying, a tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) and a birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus).2 Researchers believe that the tinder fungus found on the Ice Man was in fact used as tinder for building fires.3 Tinder fungus is not edible, but does have some medicinal properties. The Piptoporus betulinus species, on the other hand, is thought to have formed part of the Ice Man’s first aid kit. As indicated by its name, the birch polypore grows almost exclusively on birch trees, and has known medicinal properties in addition to acting as an antibiotic agent. Scientific investigations of the Ice Man demonstrated that he suffered from intestinal worms (Trichuris trichiura eggs were found in his gastrointestinal tract) and it is thought that he medicated himself with the birch polypore due to a toxin that it contains against these species.4

It is incredible that 5,300 years ago man was aware of the pharmacological properties of mushrooms. Today, in many western civilizations, we are just starting to better understand what our ancestors may have known for some time. Mushrooms have antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antiallergic, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antiatherogenic, hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective properties.5 In the last several years, a lot of attention has been given to the potential of mushrooms in treating the skin.6-8 Not surprisingly, a great deal of effort has be expended in launching commercial skin care products based on mushroom technology.

Biological Efficacy of Mushrooms in Regulating Key Pathways in Skin
Most of the known activity of mushroom extracts in treating skin is in the realm of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tyrosinase, anti-colleganase, anti-elastase, and anti-hyaluronidase activity.6 In terms of the antioxidant potential of mushrooms, they contain a wide variety of polyphenols and phenolic compounds, including but not limited to flavonoids, saponins, and tannins.7

Inflammation normally occurs due to injury or chronic illness, and results in pain, redness, and swelling to the affected area. Studies show that treatment of inflammatory skin disorders, such as atopic dermatitis, with mushroom extracts is an efficient strategy to combat such ailments.9-10

Melanin production in skin is regulated by the enzyme tyrosinase, which catalyzes the first two steps of the melanin biosynthesis pathway, encompassing the conversion of tyrosine to L-DOPA and L-DOPA to dopaquinone. The anti-tyrosinase activity of mushrooms is due to the presence of tyrosinase inhibitors. One example is kojic acid, a compound that is already commercially used to inhibit melanin synthesis—hence a skin whitening agent. Kojic acid chelates with a copper ion at the active site of tyrosinase, thereby rendering the enzyme inactive. A number of studies have appeared in the literature demonstrating the inhibition of tyrosinase activity by mushroom extracts.11-15 It should be noted that mushroom tyrosinase is frequently used to conduct in vitro assays determining the anti-tyrosinase activity of cosmetic ingredients.

The dermis of skin is largely comprised of structural proteins that provide it with its unique mechanical properties. Collagen and elastin are the two principle components of the extracellular matrix that provide the skin with its strength, flexibility, and elasticity. These proteins are degraded by matrix-metalloproteins (MMPs) as a result of intrinsic or extrinsic (e.g., UV-induced) aging, resulting in compromised tissue structure and function. Surprisingly, there have not been that many studies focused on regulating the activity of degradative enzymes in skin treated with mushroom extracts. However, positive results were found in dermal fibroblast cell cultures, treated with the Grifola frondosa mushroom species, and exposed to UV radiation.16-17 Other interesting work involved the investigation of L-ergothioneine—a compound that is commonly found in mushrooms and has a variety of properties—which acts as an antioxidant and an inhibitor of MMPs.18

Hyaluronic acid is important in skin health. It is present in the extracellular matrix of the dermis with the primary function of moisture retention. It binds and retains water in the dermis. It also plays an important role in maintaining integrity of blood vessel walls. In its absence, capillary permeability results in edema—an accumulation of fluid underneath the skin in the affected area that manifests itself as swelling. In several studies, researchers observed the inhibition of hyalurodinase activity by extracts of several mushroom species including Pleurotus citrinopileatus, Pleurotus tuber-regium (rumph. ex fr.) singer, and Trametes lactinea.19-21

Important Compounds Found in Mushrooms
A number of compounds have been identified in mushrooms that have known biological activity in the skin. Mushrooms, like skin, contain melanin. When the mushroom becomes damaged or bruised, this is due to melanogenesis in which melanin accumulates in the mushroom and is expected to protect it from additional stress and provide stability to its structure. There are a number of different types of tyrosinase variants responsible for the synthesis of melanin and they function in slightly different ways. Nevertheless, it is very interesting that we find so many compounds in mushrooms with anti-tyrosinase activity. Several of these compounds (some already mentioned above) include p-coumaric acid, ergothioneine, ellagic acid, gallic acid, caffeic acid, and ferulic acid, whose chemical structures are provided in Figure 1.

chemical structure of various compounds with anti-tyrosinase activity

Figure 1: Molecular structures of several key compounds found in mushrooms with anti-tyrosinase activity. Obtained from Taofiq et al. in Reference 6.

It should be noted that while a number of anti-tyrosinase agents have been found in mushrooms, there are also many other biologically active compounds present within their structures. In this short piece, we have simply highlighted compounds with anti-tyrosinase activity since this is one of the important areas in skin care.

Commercial Products Containing Mushroom Species
A number of products have been launched in the commercial marketplace in the last several years. A survey of some of these products is provided in Table 2. Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum) are two of the most popular mushrooms used in skin care products. Other mushrooms found in skin care preparations include chaga (Inonotus obliquus), maitake (Grifola frondosa), antrodia (Antrodia cinnamomea), and Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis).

Table 2: Selected cosmetic products containing mushroom extracts. For a more complete list the reader is referred to Wu et al. in Reference 7.

Product name Mushroom extract Function
La Bella Figura Ganoderma lucidum and Lentinus edodes Facial cleanser and makeup remover
Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Ganoderma lucidum and Cordyceps sinensis Mega-mushroom skin relief face mask
Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Ageless Ganoderma lucidum Daily exfoliating cleanser
Elizabeth Dehn for One Love Organics Lentinus edodes Vitamin D moisture mist
Root Science Reborn Inonotus obliquus Facial mask
Luminance Skincare Grifola frondosa Maitake nourishing facial mask


Concluding Remarks
There is a lot of excitement in the development of new products based on fungi species. Over the last two decades, most of the interest in designing natural products in the cosmetic industry has focused on species from the plant kingdom. However, recent work has demonstrated that ample opportunity exists in the development of novel technologies from the fungi kingdom. To date, most of the studies of mushrooms have provided insights into how they modulate biochemical pathways in skin. Future work should concentrate on determining the clincal efficacy of extracts and other compounds found in mushroom species.

illustration of mushroom growth

1. PBS Nova, Iceman Reborn
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3. K. Spindler, The Man in the Ice, Harmony Books: New York (1995). Translation of the original by K. Spindler, Der Mann im Eis, Springer-Verlag/Wien: New York (1995).
4. L. Capasso, 5300 years ago, the Ice Man used natural laxatives and antibiotics, Lancet, 352, 1864 (1998).
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