"Look, you are sneezing. Are you falling ill? Your body must be weak — not enough qi. Eat more ginseng!" This may sound familiar to some of us, for this is a typical Asian mother's mantra.
The ginseng is, in fact, just a plant's root. Yet, over the centuries, it has come to be a force in several Asian culinary and medicinal cultures. It is almost touted as a miracle ingredient — it alleviates colds, boosts your immunity, gives you a surge of energy, helps you to concentrate, and brings balance and harmony to the body. So long there is a problem, ginseng can solve it.
The beliefs have stretched way beyond mere traditional medicine. There are numerous ginseng products out there on the drugstore shelves. It's come to be an industry of its own — ginseng body washes, shampoos, aromatherapy oils, home reed diffusers, and an array of skincare products.
When introduced to skincare regimes, it's believed that ginseng can reverse time's effects on the skin. At one of South Korea's leading skincare brands, Sulwhasoo, there is a dedicated team of ginseng researchers. Their senior researcher, Sowoong Choi explains, "We discovered that as skincare, the ginseng's primary benefit would be anti-aging."
In fact, the brand's research dates back to the inception of the brand in the 1960s. The founder, Suh Wung-whan spent his childhood in Kaesong, a city in southern North Korea reportedly renowned for producing ginseng products.
In 1966, Suh launched a ginseng face cream called "ABC Gin Seng Cream". But it was a simple formulation. "In the '60s, we merely extracted the active [ingredients] from the ginseng and placed them in the product. It was very simple," Choi recounts.
A modern-day iteration of Sulwhasoo's first product, a ginseng cream. The cream contains active molecules extracted via laborious technological processes from Korean ginsengs and promises anti-aging results.
It was not an ideal method. The active molecules extracted from ginseng — called ginsenosides within the scientific community — were degrading fast within the cream. "The ginsenosides they became inactive in the formula," Choi explains. One telling factor was the unique scent of the ginseng which quickly faded with time.
"Also, ginseng has a very dark brown colour," Choi continues. It was not pleasant to sight. "It was very hard to formulate cosmetic products from ginseng."
For the next two decades, the Sulwhasoo team focussed their research efforts on stabilising these volatile ginsenoside molecules within skincare products. They eventually did, but the research didn't end there.
When the '90s and millennium arrived, the team realised that these ginseng molecules were too large to penetrate the skin. It launched them into another round of research. "We developed a bio-conversion technology. It means we used enzymes to break big ginsenosides down into smaller ones to make them applicable on the skin," Choi explains. This set of research was later published and patented.
These days, the team has been working on new delivery methods to usher the active ginseng molecules further into the skin's layers. The active molecules are first broken down and stabilised, then contained within a microscopic capsule — the logic here is quite similar to the capsule pills that doctors and pharmacists prescribe to their patients. "It comes in the form of an invisible capsule that goes right through the skin's [barrier]," Choi continues. "We're working on that now, and are still re-working it."
Sulwhasoo's concentrated ginseng renewing water was derived from a vacuum condensation process. "To get the pure ginseng water," Choi explains.
What are these active ginseng molecules that demands so much attention? What do they do for the skin — how are they anti-aging?
The question may have excited the senior researcher Choi. He acknowledged that the younger generation may be sceptical about this age-old ginseng, but quickly name-dropped some of these active molecules and enzymes' names to quell all cynicism.
To Choi, there are a few key molecules in Sulwhasoo's ginseng skincare products. One of them is called "Compound K" derived from the ginseng roots. "It has a collagen-keeping ability," Choi explains. Compound K essentially stops the activity of an enzyme (MMP-1) which naturally breaks down the skin's collagen fibres.
"You know hyaluronic acid? It naturally occurs in our skin. It fills up the dermis," Choi continues. The acid is responsible for maintaining skin hydration. He explains that Compound K has the ability to inhibit the enzymes that break down hyaluronic acid in our skin.
That aside, Choi continues, "We use the ginsenosides Re active from ginseng flowers." It helps the skin cells regenerate, therefore, building up the skin's outer barrier. A healthy skin barrier is essential to avoid skin sensitivity to environmental stressors.
Both Compound K and ginsenoside Re are found in the brand's famed concentrated ginseng renewing cream.
The Sulwhasoo Snowise exfoliating mask, accompanied by an applicator brush.
In the brand's brightening range, Snowise, one of the active ingredients is called ginsenoside F1. "It helps to clean out the melanin in the skin because it's a brightening agent," Choi explains. Melanin is a pigment that our body produces to give our skin its colour and tan. "It stops the melanin production."
Choi's words drew gasps from the team members seated around in him during the interview.
It was a reaction that was familiar to him. "In Korea, the ginseng culture is quite common and natural. But when people hear about the actual studies done, and that they are actually scientifically proven, they are usually surprised by that."
"[In Korea], we have some kind of a heritage belief when it comes to ginseng." However, these are ancient tell-tales that were not publicly reconciled with science.
"There are so many scientific papers and so many patents," Choi continues. "It's a very big industry around the world. I heard it's a US$2 billion market around the globe."
These were probably some statistics that Choi recalled from 2013. The Korean ginseng industry took up half of this figure.
Little wonder why, for Sulwhasoo uses up to 100 tonnes of Korean red ginseng per annum. To Choi, the heavy consumption boils down to a deep-rooted cultural belief that ginseng is a magical cure. "It's an outstanding herb which can save people's lives." And not to forget, the skin too.
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