Does your skincare collection have metal? The likes of copper peptides have been shown to support healthy skin by protecting collagen from free-radical damage and enhancing repair, while metal ions such as zinc oxide are known to protect skin against UVA and UVB rays, but the value of more precious metals in our skincare is less clear.
One such magpie-ish metal that crops up in skincare, but far more rarely than its more affordable cousin copper, is silver, and its medical and dermatological pedigree is time honoured. Silver has been used around the world as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory agent for centuries- it was considered one of the most important antimicrobial treatments before the wide scaled introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, with the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians using it topically to treat infections, and colloidal silver included in bandaging during the World Wars to encourage wound healing.
Colloidal silver is used in skincare preparations to this day for similarly purifying purposes, as founder of Allies of Skin Nicolas Travis explains:
“Colloidal silver is microscopic pieces of silver dispersed and suspended in water. These pieces are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. They are known for their antibacterial and antifungal properties, and they act by attaching themselves to the proteins on the cellular wall of the bacteria, where they penetrate into the cell of the bacteria to disrupt the metabolic processes of the bacteria, leading to the death of the bacteria. Think of silver as suffocating the bacteria- it helps to cut off its cellular respiration.”
Silver’s rep as a bacteria gobbling skin soother means that it’s most often included in skincare formulas that aim to treat acne and other reactive skin conditions, and the antibacterial component explains why it also crops up in deodorants, soaps and even workout wear (see lululemon’s Silverescent® range and Rhone’s Silvertech men’s line for anti-odour fitness fashion examples).
All isn’t quite as shiny and bright as it may seem where silver’s dazzling potential is concerned, however- for one, while not generally a problem when washed down the sink or put through the machine, silver nanoparticles in clothing can pollute the environment when we eventually throw our gym kit and anti-stink undies away. Scientists at the American Chemical Society published findings in 2016 showing that silver particles in clothing leached into the surrounding area when disposed of into landfill sites. The researchers also demonstrated that very little silver was required in garments to produce an antimicrobial effect, and given that toxicity was negligible when items were washed, it’s recommended that manufactures keep silver levels low, and that consumers curb ‘throwaway’ tendencies where silver sportswear is concerned in particular.
Back to skincare- history would suggest that colloidal silver is effective for supporting skin healing, and present day NICE recommendations state that dressings containing silver can “exert an antimicrobial effect”, but concrete evidence for its use in the treatment of acne and other skin conditions is both thin on the ground and currently inconclusive. It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s possible to be allergic to silver (skincare expert Paula Begoun lists colloidal silver as a ‘sensitizing’ ingredient), which seems puzzling given its supposedly calmative effects, but then again you can to react to almost any ingredient under the sun, so if you do have sensitive skin, be sure to do a patch test before diving into any skincare face first.
Otherwise, colloidal silver and nanoparticles of silver are safe to use in skincare as long as they comply with EU guidelines (they wouldn’t be sold in the UK to you if they didn’t), and one advantage to its antibacterial effect in the case of acne is that it doesn’t induce bacterial resistance and isn’t necessarily as harsh as other topical treatments such as retinoids , although of course there’s not the bank of literature to backup its efficacy as there is with vitamin A derivatives. If you’re of the opinion that aeons of therapeutic use can’t be wrong, Nicolas recommends harnessing the benefits of silver in on specific skincare format:
“Colloidal silver is best utilized in leave-on formulas such as mists, moisturisers and sleeping masks. Rinse-off formulas don't allow the active ingredient enough time to work its magic. Colloidal silver is also safe to use topically both during the day and at night.”
If you’re swayed by silver, here are six ways to dip a toe in, but whatever you do, don’t be tempted to try silver supplements- ingesting silver is linked to an irreversible condition called argyria, whereby skin turns blue, and given that’s no evidence to suggest that it has any beneficial role when taken orally, we’d say don’t go there.