Skincare has gone all bipolar: on one side, brands are banging on about being vegan, self-righteously waving the flag for non-dairy, non-animal ingredients; on the other, they’re desperately squeezing all forms of bodily fluids out of small, peculiar animals that might possibly promise eternal youth if you religiously smother them on your face.
The latter camp has hit peak cray cray with the latest magical super-goo destined for your jowls: seahorse plankton. Along with snail slime, pig collagen, bee sting and snake venom, it seems the weirder the ingredient, the better it is at blindsiding consumers. Like the moisturiser version of green juices, if it sounds gross and looks offensive, then it’ll definitely work. Right? Well, erm, maybe not.
When I began researching these ingredients, I contacted several big beauty brands to get their objective stance on why the industry has welcomed them so enthusiastically, without challenging a) ethics b) effectiveness and c) decency. Most declined to comment; is this the beauty industry's equivalent of fashion’s fur debate? One person who did get back to me was Candice Gardner, education curriculum manager for Dermalogica, a sensible brand that just wants to improve problem skin and ticks along quietly without resorting to shock-tactic ingredients. "There is very little clinical data that substantiates these ingredients," says Gardner. "While they may perform in high doses in their pure, natural state, by the time they’re manufactured and put into a topical cream their impact is completely corrupted."
But these products are out there, accompanied by wild claims of Death Becomes Her transformations. "There’s a trend for the quirky and bizarre in skincare," says Gardner. "From a marketing point of view, brands and entrepreneurs are desperately trying to make themselves stand out because it’s so, so competitive out there. They lose sight of the science and they embellish the facts, so the consumer doesn’t get the full story."
Case in point: seahorse plankton, which has bugger all to do with seahorses. It’s a fantastical name for microscopic marine plants, which are rich in proteins, vitamins and antioxidants (the standard trifecta of most skincare products). It just so happens these teeny-tiny algae might be small enough for plankton to eat from. And that plankton might possibly, one day, maybe, catch a ride on a seahorse’s back. And, suddenly, women are fooled into thinking they’re slapping on precious droplets of youth elixir squeezed from seahorses’ tails. They might as well have called it Mermaid Tears.
Along with snail slime, pig collagen, bee sting and snake venom, it seems the weirder the ingredient, the better it is at blindsiding consumers
Snail slime, referred to as "snail mucin" or "snail secretion filtrate" on product labels, has zero clinical research proving it has any tangible long-term effects. Extracted, concentrated and purified from the glistening trails of farmed snails, it is merely a source of protein with a trace amount of hyaluronic acid (a carbohydrate that helps skin retain moisture) and glycolic acid (good for exfoliating), both of which are readily available in synthetic or non-animal form. There are dozens of cheap, obscure brands flogging snail cream, but anyone with common sense won’t touch it. "It’s not been tested thoroughly enough and the production system is too vague, so it’s efficacy and ethics are questionable," says Gardner. Brandon Truaxe, the founder and CEO of Deciem – an umbrella company for “beauty brands with principles”, including The Ordinary skincare – also offered his honest insight. "We don’t use snail products directly," he says, "but we do use a chemical analogue that is similar to actual snail mucus, which works as a line plumper. Its scientific data is far better than non-analogues." Which, in real terms, means that snail slime has some worth, but not enough for the most forward-thinking, transparent skincare brand of our generation to use it. Meanwhile, the celebrity Park Avenue plastic surgeon Dr Matthew Schulman is making $350 a pop with his EscarGlow™ Facial. Yeah.
The idea behind bee and snake venom is to fool the skin into thinking it’s under attack from a poison, so that it initiates new, fresh reparative cells within the skin. That’s the marketing concept at least. "In bee venom, the main component is indeed active," says Truaxe. "However, all it does within skincare is increase blood circulation to create artificial plumping volume, but then the effect is temporary, as skin fights back to bring everything back to normal. We do not use bee venom as we cannot justify a need for it. You can increase circulation in many much cheaper ways without involving bees." Plus, the harvesting process is muddy to say the least: “experts” collect the venom by placing a pane of glass on to a hive and running an electrical current through it, forcing the bees to sting the surface. While the bee does not die (the lance stays in its body), it’s hardly ethical.
Turning the bullsh*t klaxon up a notch is pig collagen, currently laced within several Korean skincare products to improve elasticity and increase moisture levels. Not according to Truaxe. "Collagen in any form applied topically does nothing but hydrate the skin artificially due to its structure," he says. "It has no other value and any claim around enhancing collagen production is 100 per cent wrong." Even if it did make your skin feel soft, it’s (horrifyingly) extracted directly from the scrapings of living pig skin. Squeal indeed.
So, what can you get excited about without feeling nauseous? "Charcoal," says Gardner. "The effects of pollution are destructive to the skin and we’ve found a type of charcoal that defends and protects skin cells like we’ve never seen before." Find it in Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant, £55, a refreshingly nonsense-free powder exfoliator that you mix with plain old tap water.
Also, consider Yes To Tomatoes Detoxifying Charcoal Cleanser, £8.99. Designed for grown-up skin that’s still pestered by teenage-style hormonal breakouts, this grainy cleanser uses charcoal powder as a means to absorb surface oil without sucking it all out of pores like many "combination skin" cleansers tend to. Tomato extract provides antioxidants, salicylic acid acts as a light exfoliator and jojoba oil leaves skin soft, so you’re getting a full deep-cleanse, thorough slough and youth-boost in one go.