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The Enduring Appeal of the Skin-Care Ingredient Origin Story

We're naturally drawn to urban legends in our everyday lives, so why wouldn't that extend to beauty products?
Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

The global skin-care industry is expected to surpass $179 billion by 2027, and the focus on buzzy, marketable ingredientsCBD, for example — is at an all-time high. Beauty brands are under pressure to find innovative ways to stand out from competitors while consumers are left to figure out what products are worth the hype. There is, of course, the irresistible lure of a good origin story, especially one that involves a strange, almost fantastical ingredient. We're naturally drawn to urban legends in our everyday lives, so why wouldn't that extend to beauty products?

Some brands take inspiration from ancient history. Take Caudalie and Omorovicza, for example: Both are known for popular face mists, which are based on the alleged beauty water of 17th century's Queen Isabella of Hungary, reputed to be the first-ever perfume in recorded history. And then there's Fresh, whose Crème Ancienne is a reimagined version of an ancient Roman recipe for one of the world's first known cosmetic creams.

When discussing the mythos of certain skin-care brands, there aren't many with a history quite like La Mer's. The luxury brand's cornerstone ingredient, Miracle Broth, was "discovered" when its founder, Dr. Max Huber, burnt his face while working in a lab. For more than a decade, he searched for something that would heal his injuries, and finally found the answer in a formula that consisted of sea kelp, lime tea extract and other natural ingredients, so the brand's story goes. But that's not the extent of this tale's appeal: This miracle elixir also requires a rather eccentric method to be produced. While the creation of Crème de la Mer currently involves a complex process of several months of fermentation, special lights, a recording of bubbling sounds and the infusion of every new batch with a culture of the previous one, Huber's original method also involved astrological alignment. It may sound outlandish, but it worked.

Unlike in the case of La Mer's Miracle Broth, some skin-care brands came upon their hero ingredients entirely by accident. One example is snail mucin, which played a role in catapulting K-beauty toward global success. According to Alicia Yoon of Peach & Lily, it was first discovered by Chilean farmers who harvested snails; they noticed that wounds on their arms would heal quickly without scarring, and their hands were a lot softer. "When Korean beauty labs looked into it further, their research showed that these benefits translated incredibly well in skin-care products," Yoon says.

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Soko Glam's Charlotte Cho describes snail mucin as the mucus secreted by snails that protect them against cuts, infections, UV rays and dryness, which is why Koreans found it to be highly beneficial to incorporate this ingredient into their skin-care routine. "The mucin contains nutrients like hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein enzymes, antimicrobial and copper peptides, and proteoglycans that are proven to be beneficial for skin," Cho explains. "The combination of these properties lighten acne scars, increase collagen production and retain moisture."

But snail slime isn't the only ingredient that was found to have a positive effect on people's skin as a matter of happenstance. Pitera, the proprietary ingredient used in skin-care brand SK-II's line, got its beginnings at a sake brewery, where Japanese scientists noticed a striking contrast between the wrinkled faces of the brewers and their youthful-looking hands. "This drove scientists to research why this was the case and how it could be used to achieve crystal clear skin," Kazumi Toyama, Global SK-II Senior Manager of Scientific Communications, explains. 

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While SK-II's products don't actually contain sake, the discovery led scientists to learn the skin-saving power of fermentation. "In the 1970s, Japanese scientists realized that some of the fermented ingredients found in foods helped to transform gut health. Then, they discovered that some fermented ingredients could transform the skin's health and look," Toyama says. After years of research, the scientists discovered Pitera and launched SK-II's popular Facial Treatment Essence, which contains the ingredient. Toyama speaks of meeting one woman who had been using the product for more than 20 years to maintain her youthful complexion.

Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Restorsea is another brand that discovered its unlikely hero ingredient by kismet, and through the keen observation of its founder, Patti Pao. Before Restorsea, Pao owned a consulting firm and went to Oslo, Norway, on a work trip where she learned of a salmon hatchery that practiced synchronized hatching. "I thought this sounded so interesting, so I convinced my client to take me to the hatchery," says Pao. "The workers' hands were constantly in the post-hatching water because they had to herd the salmon fry into a separate tank and pick out the unhatched eggs and eggshell fragments. While eating lunch with them, I noticed that the skin on their hands looks substantially better than the skin on their faces."

Curious, Pao spoke to Professor Berndt Walther of the University of Bergen in Norway who had created the synchronized hatching method. "It took him 30 years to figure out why the workers' hands looked so youthful. He had a patent for filtering the enzyme from the post-hatching water, but the problem was no one could figure out how to formulate with the enzyme without deactivating it." Pao, who has been in the beauty business for more than 30 years and launched 400-plus beauty products, used her expertise to create successful formulas using the enzyme Walther sent her. This enzyme has been known to reduce redness and inflammation and lessen the appearance of brown spots.

The brand Nu Skin also shares a similar backstory. On its website, its Epoch Glacial Marine Mud describes a legend in which indigenous peoples may have used the mud to make pottery. "They were unsuccessful because of its fine particle size, but noticed their hands were softer and smoother," the product description reads. And then there's the pili nut, which is originated from the Philippines and getting more attention from both the beauty and wellness worlds for its skin-moisturizing properties and low-carb benefits. In an interview with InStyle, Rosalina Tan, the founder of Filipino beauty brand Pili Ani, said she found out about the nut's skin-healing ways after talking to a farmer whose psoriasis cleared up after he started working on a pili nut farm.

Of course, with all of these happy coincidences, it begs the question of whether any of these stories could be fabricated for marketing purposes. Theresa Yee, Senior Beauty Editor at trend forecasting company WGSN, doesn't believe that's the case. "I don't think brands inflate the stories of where the ingredients originate from, but companies have become increasingly more honest and authentic in the 'unique' ingredients they use, as consumers are demanding this even more than ever before," she says. "Consumers want to know how they source the ingredients and brands are providing the story of how the product is made."

It's also important to keep in mind just how many other historical breakthroughs were discovered entirely by chance: penicillin, X-rays, chocolate chip cookies and Botox, to name only a few. So, feel free to rejoice in the serendipitous discoveries of these varied ingredients that can do wonders for your skin. 

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