With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game. This week, we’re exploring ginseng for skin.
Ginseng doesn’t need much by way of an introduction when it comes to its role in herbal medicine. It is firmly established as an adaptogen, and is considered by many to be a sort of cure-all. It is said to reduce inflammation, fire up the immune system, boost brain function, increase energy levels and have positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol. High doses of ginseng have even been found to help fatigue in cancer patients. However, ginseng’s skin care benefits could definitely use some more publicity — it has some impressive credentials when topically applied as well. The herb has been used in Asian skin care for ages, and it has long been a gold-standard ingredient in Korean beauty products for a reason. As is the case with many traditional and indigenous ingredients, it’s been highly prized and valued in its home culture for centuries, and the rest of the beauty world has been slowly catching up.
What Is Ginseng?
Ginseng is the fleshy root of the panax plant, of which Asian or Korean ginseng (panax ginseng) and American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) are the most commonly used. It has a centuries-old history in Asian medicine for its healing properties — references to it can be found in books and medical texts dating back more than two millennia. Its current botanical name, panax, is derived from the Greek word panacea, translating to ‘universal remedy’. Since its early days, it was considered a cure-all for an array of ailments and was used as an aphrodisiac, an anti-aging and energy-boosting aide, an antioxidant, and to treat cardiovascular, kidney and reproductive diseases. Ginseng has reached peak popularity today as a supplement. When consumed orally, it has adaptogenic properties, enabling the body to better deal with stress and bring it back to a balanced state.
How Does It Benefit Skin?
Ginseng has also been used in Asian skin care for ages, and the rest of the beauty world has been slowly playing catch up. Historically, ginseng may have been used topically as paste, or mashed and applied to skin for healing, says board-certified dermatologist Jenny Liu.
“People have also boiled slices of ginseng and used the water for healthier skin — an ancient toner, if you will!” says Victoria Fu a cosmetic chemist and one half of the duo that co-founded Chemist Confessions, a popular skin care science blog and Instagram. In more recent eras, ginseng is commonly found in K-beauty staples like toners and essences — though serums, night creams, masks, and even bar soaps can also contain the ingredient.
“Ginseng contains an abundance of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and anti-melanogenic compounds that help improve skin health, skin texture, discoloration, and signs of aging,” says Liu. Ginseng’s anti-aging action works by supporting collagen, mostly through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, possibly by reducing the amount of collagen breakdown and by stimulating enzymes that increase its production. It also helps skin clarity by inhibiting the steps in pigment formation, according to Liu. According to cosmetic scientist Ginger King, “it’s popular in skin care and even hair care because it has the ability to boost microcirculation from the root.” She also recommends root volumizers for hair containing ginseng.
“From a Western, evidence-based medicine point of view, I think we're just hitting the tip of the iceberg in regards to learning how ginseng benefits the skin,” says Dr. Zion Ko Lamm, a board-certified internal medicine physician based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She cites two separate clinical trials, both out of Korea, that suggest ginseng extract improves wrinkles. “Oxidative stress is thought to be the primary reason our skin loses its elasticity while causing it to become thin and dry. Ginseng is a powerful antioxidant, meaning it neutralizes the reactive oxygen in our environment before it causes damage.”
How Is It Best Used?
Liu prescribes ginseng for mature and dull skin and those seeking improvements in skin texture and tone that comes with age and sun damage. However, she’s hesitant to recommend ginseng as the first or only line of defense against signs of aging, as more research is needed on its benefits. “For individuals who are seeking alternatives from plant-derived sources with relatively low risk, ginseng is an ingredient to entertain,” she says. It's commonly formulated with other Asian ingredients like Ginkgo biloba and licorice root for a combined anti-inflammatory and brightening effect.
All ginseng products are not created equal, however, so scanning ingredient lists and keeping the type of formulation in mind is essential. “In skin care, you'll find ginseng listed as ‘Panax Ginseng Root Extract’,” says cosmetic chemist Gloria Lu, also a Chemist Confessions co-founder. “We'd recommend trialing a serum with ginseng listed very high on the ingredient list.” Why? Fu and Lu point out that with plant extracts, it's hard for the consumer to identify whether a product has an effective dose of the active compounds. The easiest way to ensure some level of efficacy is to look for products that have ginseng in the top half of the ingredient list, since ingredients are always listed by most to least.
King says ginseng was traditionally found in toners for a reason: because of the solubility of this material, she prefers it best in water-based products, so keep water-based formulations like essences and toners at the top of your ginseng wish-list.
Ginseng extracts are often of two main types: white and red. To produce the former, the root has been dried and powdered, while in the latter, the root has been steamed before drying. Though both have different benefits, red ginseng is thought to be more effective in skin care. Over the years, Asian beauty brands have become adept at extracting more potent compounds from ginseng root, and by improving the formulation, stability, and penetration of products.
Ginseng is considered to be a mild ingredient that works well with most skin types, so there are no contraindications to using it or combining it with other active ingredients. All ingredients have the potential to cause irritation or an allergic reaction in some individuals, so patch-testing before use is always recommended.
Modern Research Vs. Traditional Practice
If one were to solely evaluate ginseng using modern, evidence-based medicine practices, its skin care benefits might not seem as impressive. “Despite its popularity, there isn't a lot of modern clinical evidence to support ginseng as an effective topical anti-aging ingredient,” says Fu. Liu also says more clinical studies on its effects are needed.
However, viewing it purely from the prism of Western medicine fails to take into account the fact that Asian cultures have hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence that it works, says Lamm. “In my opinion, there are two main reasons it hasn't taken hold in the West: We have very few studies with evidence-based medicine to back up its benefits, and it's expensive and time consuming to manufacture,” she says. (Ginseng roots take between four and six years of growth before they can be used.) To the best of Lamm’s knowledge, the scientific community hasn’t been able to synthesize ginsenosides, the main active ingredients of ginseng, in a lab, making quality ginseng an expensive plant-based commodity.
For now, ginseng continues to reign supreme in the supplementation aisle, and increasingly so in the skin care realm.
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