When it comes to the latest innovations in beauty and skincare, it’s no secret that the Western world is often one step behind what’s trending in the East. Tending to be roughly eight to ten years ahead with their scientific discoveries countries such as Korea, China and Japan have pioneered some of the biggest beauty game changers over the last decade, introducing products such as face masks, oil cleansers and the legendary BB/CC/DD creams. And, showing no signs of slowing down, Asia has once again beaten us to the beauty punch with their latest sour-sounding skincare saviour - let us introduce you to the whacky world of fermented skin products.
Up until now most of us have only been aware of the health benefits of simply eating fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and Kefir. Unsurprisingly however, it was only a matter of time before the Korean beauty industry was able to harness the same knowledge and apply it to their latest skincare ranges, which have been allowing women across Asia to defy the natural laws of physics with their perfect, porcelain skin.
So, what exactly does it mean? A technique that’s been around for thousands of years, classic fermentation is the process whereby foods are soaked in salt water, allowing the growth of good bacteria. During this process natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch generating lactic acid. This process not only preserves, but also creates B-vitamins, probiotics, Omega-3 fatty acids and beneficial enzymes, making food more nutrient-dense than in its unfermented state. And, when applied to skincare, a similar process takes place.
When applied to beauty, yeast breaks down the molecular structure of the active ingredients into smaller particles, resulting in nutrients, minerals and actives that are far more rapidly absorbed by the skin. In addition, the process also creates additional skin-loving amino acids and antioxidants. As a result, it’s believed that fermentation superboosts skincare products to make them more potent than their non-fermented counterparts, as well as more effective for sensitive and dry skin. With such big claims however, does it really work?
“The Far East have been using fermented foods in their diet for hundreds of years, and not surprisingly, this is also where fermented skincare emerged from,” says founder of skincare brand OSKIA, Georgie Cleeve. “OSKIA’s philosophy is about providing the skin with the most beneficial, bio-active nutrients and one of the best ways to do this is by fermenting ingredients. Our skin is not our gut – it can’t breakdown whole ingredients into the individual vitamins or minerals – they have to be provided in a bioavailable form, and fermentation is one of the best ways to do this. For example an oil containing vitamin E has absolutely no true nutritional value at a cellular level at all.”
Indeed, a study conducted in 2009 found that when extracts of ‘lactobacillus plantarum’ were fermented they provided much greater benefits for atopic dermatitis due to their increased immune-suppressive and absorptive effects. Similarly, a 2012 study by the Department of Food and Nutrition at Korea University found that fermented red ginseng had greater concentrations of antioxidants than non-fermented, and "increased anti-wrinkle [and] whitening efficacy."
Generally speaking though, such scientific research has been viewed as encouraging rather than totally conclusive, leaving many experts within the field not fully convinced into the future of fermentation.
“I think that all trends need to be examined carefully and we need to ask the question ‘does this new ingredient do things better and more safely than the known effective ingredients that we’re currently using?” says Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. “Crème De La Mer and SKII have both been using fermented ingredients for some time, so the trend isn’t exactly new, especially in Asia, where it’s a technique frequently used in the preparation of Chinese herbs. I’ve seen some interesting data comparing fermented ingredients with the unfermented form and it seems to contain a greater concentration of antioxidants as a consequence. Ultimately however, we need this comparative data to be conducted with real-life ageing humans in order to be able to draw meaningful conclusions about whether the process of fermentation itself adds much, and if they should replace tried-and-tested ingredients like retinoid’s and AHAs.”
Speaking to the Telegraph Dr. Susan Mayou, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic also remains cautious. “I haven’t seen any evidence one way or the other as to whether fermentation in skin care works. If it increases levels of anti-oxidants, that would definitely have benefits since anti-oxidants decrease with age. My question is whether they work in the concentrations you find in most creams. To be effective they have to penetrate the basement membrane. That’s applicable to all skincare though.”
As to whether we are totally team fermentation or not, the jury’s still out. Nevertheless the rumours had us curious to try the products that promised such great results. Here’s our edit of the best on the market.
SKII Facial Treatment Essence, £62, buy online
Rumoured to have made fermented skincare a household name, it’s believed SK-II pioneered the technique after scientists at a sake brewery in Japan noticed that the elderly workers still had extraordinarily soft and youthful-looking hands despite their wrinkled faces. They concluded that it must be because of the constant contact their hands had with the sake fermentation process. After much research they discovered the “miracle” ingredient, named “Pitera”, which is now the primary ingredient (90%) in their Facial Treatment Essence. Lauded as a miracle water, this refreshing formula helps to maintain healthy cellular rejuvenation and works to balance your skin's pH and sebum secretion - the results are a clearer, more radiant complexion.
Oskia Renaissance Hand & Body Cream, £34, buy online
A luxurious year round vitamin-rich anti-ageing treatment cream for hands and body, this product is positively packed with the very best nutrients and bio-actives, and is deliciously scented with nurturing rose and chamomile, to soften, smooth, nourish and rejuvenate skin. “The Zinc, Magnesium, copper and iron used in our Renaissance Hand and Body Cream are fermented to allow them to be absorbed into the deeper layers of the skin with ease, which in turn produces much better results for our customers,” says Founder Georgie Cleeve.
Fresh Black Tea Instant Perfecting Mask, £84.50, buy online
After first trying kombucha, a fermented black tea drink, Co-Founder Lev Glazman noticed an instant boost in energy levels and began researching the extract at once. Referred to as the ‘Immortal Health Elixir,’ its history traces back to 250 B.C. and was found to be just as energizing for the skin as it was for the body. An advanced antioxidant, kombucha works to defend against wrinkle-causing free radicals, while softening, smoothing, and enhancing lustre. The formula is further enriched with lychee seed extract, known to support natural collagen, firming polysaccharides that help to smooth the skin, and jicama root juice, notable for its hydrating and nourishing properties.
Murad Pore & Line minimizing hydrator, £42.86, buy online
Again containing kombucha collagen defence, this marvellous, multi-tasking moisturiser helps to refine pores and provides essential hydration to soothe and help repair skin breakouts. Meanwhile, cinnamon extract works to restore the quality of the skin surface by reducing inflammation and optimising oil production, leaving your complexion with a more picture, perfect finish.