The humble mushroom is the new superfood (or super fungus), and it’s taking center stage in a number of new topical and ingestible products touted for boosting the immune system, increasing skin’s moisture and even fighting inflammation. But can the simple mushroom live up to all this hype?
The experts we spoke with say mushrooms’ health and beauty powers are legitimate but don’t pertain to the grocery store variety or the psychedelic drug. Instead, the in-demand fungi are a new class of supercharged mushrooms. “They’re actually superfoods on steroids because they’re adaptogens,” says dermatologist Dennis Gross, founder of the Dr. Dennis Gross skin-care line. Adaptogens are herbal pharmaceuticals that do exactly as their name suggests: calibrate their powers to their environment or, if used in potent-enough doses, our beauty and health needs, and help combat the physiological effects of stress.
“Fungi are the ultimate longevity experts, managing to pave their way through a billion years of life,” says Tonya Papanikolov, a holistic nutritionist and founder and CEO of Rainbo, a line of ingestible mushroom supplements. “From a wellness perspective, they increase the body’s immunity and resilience to stress and have the ability to enhance brain functions, too.”
Skin-care brands are using mushrooms to counteract the effects of stress on the skin, increase moisture and improve circulation. Gross is using encapsulated Chaga, Cordyceps, Trametes versicolor and maitake mushrooms in his B3Adaptive SuperFoods serum, eye cream and moisturizer. Mushrooms have also popped up in products from Moon Juice, Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins, Natura Bissé, Blithe, BeautyStat and Macrene Actives. As the cosmetic chemist and BeautyStat founder Ron Robinson points out, there are thousands of mushroom varieties and little data on what each one does for the skin. Still, he says, the ones he has tried do meet expectations. “When I’m formulating, I’m looking for compounds that are anti-inflammatory, that hydrate, that exfoliate; and is it going to provide antioxidant protection and damage control?” he explains. “And mushrooms might be able to do all of those things.”
It’s also increasingly common to see the digestible variety in unexpected forms, such as mushroom lattes on the menus at wellness-minded cafés and coffee shops. At Two Hands in New York’s Tribeca, a drink containing a reishi mushroom powder by Wylde One is listed right alongside turmeric lattes and matcha teas. As Wylde One founder Stephanie Park notes, mushrooms are more closely related to humans than they are to plants, making their active compounds bioavailable to the human body. “We share almost 50 percent of the same DNA with mushrooms,” she says. “For several thousand years, humans have had a deep connection to mushrooms, relying on them for their nutritional, medicinal and even spiritual powers.” And now their beauty ones, too.