You’ve heard me talk about it on Twitter. You’ve seen it creeping inexorably, product by product, into my skincare wardrobe. You got a taste of it when I reviewed the L’Herboflore Ginseng Anti-Aging Mask. And if you follow my Instagram, you’ve watched it work its way into my nightly skincare routine until it seems like there’s no way I could possibly add any more, except that somehow I always can. There’s always room for more. Now I’m finally ready to talk about it. And by “it,” I don’t mean sex (even though it is sometimes used as a “male vitality” treatment). I mean ginseng! Let’s dig down around this traditional herbal remedy and find out why it’s so popular in modern skincare.
Affiliate links in this post are marked with an asterisk(*).
This post made possible by the brilliant and beautiful Sher of Hoojoo Beauty. Sher located a substantial stack of credible research into ginseng’s effects on skin; the papers I ended up referencing are linked at the end of this post.
Ginseng in Skincare: The Basics
While this post (and blog) focuses primarily on Korean products, ginseng’s use in traditional medicine is not exclusive to Korea. (And neither is this blog.)
The distressingly humanoid root of Panax ginseng has been an iconic staple of herbal medicine across East Asia for millennia. It’s considered a “balancing” herb with a number of different functions. Some of those functions are now supported by modern research. Ginseng is a traditional beauty treatment as well. Grande dame herbal beauty brand Sulwhasoo evokes the ginsengy beauty rituals of ancient Korean noblewomen as part of its brand story*. And, unlike many other naturally derived skincare ingredients that I’m willing to try despite a lack of research, ginseng as a skincare ingredient comes with some promising scientific evidence!
Ginseng owes its health and beauty benefits primarily to ginsenosides, of which over 30 have been isolated and identified. Ginsenosides aren’t all ginseng has to offer, though. The plant and its extracts can provide polysaccharides, phytosterols, peptides, and fatty acids, among other skin-friendly components.
There are three types of ginseng commonly used (in extract form) in skincare: fresh ginseng, white ginseng, and red ginseng. All three come from the same plant, Panax ginseng; the differences arise from how the ginseng is processed. In a bizarre twist of language, fresh ginseng extract is fresh, neither steamed nor dried. White ginseng is prepared via drying. Red ginseng is first steamed, then dried. Red ginseng is considered the most potent of the three main ginseng types, with certain beneficial ginsenosides released by the steaming process and therefore unavailable in the extracts of fresh and white ginseng. Fermentation further increases effectiveness. There’s also a fourth, newer type of ginseng, sun ginseng, which is prepared using higher-temperature steaming than red ginseng. The higher temperature steaming supposedly results in higher quantities of certain ginsenosides that increase the ginseng’s potency. Sadly, I haven’t noticed sun ginseng specified in any ingredients lists I’ve encountered so far. But there’s lots of red ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng. That’s plenty good enough for me! For now.
Skincare Benefits of Ginseng
It’s good enough for me because ginseng, red ginseng in particular, boasts an impressive and easily verified resume. Like most of the other plant extracts seen in K-beauty and Asian skincare products, ginseng is anti-inflammatory. It also provides powerful antioxidant protection to help crush all those pesky free radicals bombarding the cells of our faces day in and day out. Unlike many other plant extracts, however, ginseng has been shown in in vivo (on real life people) testing to be non-irritating! YMMV, of course, since there’s no way to rule out a specific individual sensitivity to the ingredient, but at least it isn’t widely considered an irritant like many other common ingredients, such as citrus oils and extracts.
Also unlike many other plant extracts, ginseng’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects are just the beginning of its documented skin benefits. Multiple in vitro and in vivo studies have shown that panax ginseng root extract increases the production of human Type 1 collagen, the predominant type of collagen in our skin, with sun ginseng showing substantially greater Type 1 collagen synthesis potential than other types but red ginseng also capable of producing significant improvements. Ginseng has also demonstrated notable hyperpigmentation-lightening effects, blocking melanin production through several different mechanisms. The 2015 Journal of Ginseng Research literature review linked below references a study in which “a cream containing 0.1% ginsenoside F1 (a metabolite of ginsenoside Rg1) showed a significant whitening effect on artificially tanned human skin.” (This literature review also refers to freckles as a “hyperpigmentation-related disease,” which…we’ll just not go there, if that’s okay with you guys.)
Let that 0.1% number sink in. One common complaint about the beauty industry’s use of plant extracts is that the extracts are most likely only present in miniscule amounts, just to make the products sound sexier. But the referenced study attributed significant results to a single active component included at a tenth of a single percent. There could be other problems with the study that I’m not aware of, like imperfect controls or small sample sizes, but I think it’s important to note the possibility that more is not always necessary with an ingredient as potent as ginseng might be.
So, to recap: Ginseng is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, but that’s not all. It also has scientifically demonstrated potential as both an anti-aging and anti-hyperpigmentation ingredient. As a Fiddy of a Certain Age who also happens to have skin that’s especially prone to excess pigmentation (coughsunspotscough), that makes the offensively humanlike root an extremely appealing ingredient. That’s why I’ve spent the last month or so hunting down and trying out as many K-beauty ginseng products as I can!
My Favorite Ginseng Sheet Masks
Among those K-beauty ginseng products, many have been sheet masks, for obvious reasons. Sheet masks are the most low-commitment way to try out an intriguing ingredient. They’re inexpensive and single-use. At minimum, you can see whether the ingredient plays well with your skin, and if you’re lucky (and I’ve gotten lucky several times!), you’ll get a sense of whether the ingredient does anything for you.
Of the ginseng sheet masks and hydrogels I’ve tried, the two that stand out the most for me are the Etude House I Need You, Korean Ginseng! and Evercos Herbal Clinic Hanbang Sheet Mask in Ginseng. Here are my Instareviews of these masks.
I first encountered the Etude House Korean Ginseng sheet mask in an Etude House sheet mask assortment that I picked up from Amazon Prime*. Amazon also provides the Korean Ginseng masks in sets of 3 for $6.99* or 10 for $16.69*. The masks are also available from Etude House’s global site for $0.72 apiece and from RoseRoseShop as singles for 665 won (about $0.57) or in packs of 10 for 6,555 won (about $5.71).
A favorite of my homegirl Snow from Snow White and the Asian Pear, Evercos sheet masks are unfortunately not yet as widely available as they should be. I got mine during a haul with Korean personal shopping service Boyah Shop (whom I highly recommend, by the way) for about $1 apiece. From Korea, they are available from TesterKorea in packs of 5 for 10,500 won (about $9.14 currently). TK is unfortunately notorious for sometimes weeks-long order processing times, so proceed with caution. US-based shop The Wild Jasmine carries the masks for $2 apiece.
Mini-Review: Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream (as eye cream)!
In general, ginseng appears in skincare products targeted towards older skin and older consumers. That means that the best-known ginseng products skew quite fancy. (Read: not cheap.) I’m dying to try just about everything in Sulwhasoo’s Concentrated Ginseng* line, for example, but those aren’t products I can run off and haul on a whim. Not unless I’m willing to sacrifice a whole lot of other discretionary purchases and possibly a steak or two.
Luckily for plebs like me, samples are a thing, and Sulwhasoo samples are especially awesome. I acquired a very respectable 25ml of the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream by getting a set of five 5ml mini jars on Amazon*. Many full-sized eye creams come in 30ml jars or tubes, so the sample set turned out to be a steal!
Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream ingredients: Panax ginseng root extract, water, glycerin, squalane, butylene glycol, cyclopentasiloxane, trehalose, limnanthes alba (meadowfoam) seed oil, glyceryl stearate, phytosteryl isostearyl dimer dilinoleate, octyldodecyl myristate, cyclohexasiloxane, PEG-40 stearate, phytosteryl/behenyl/octyldodecyl lauroyl glutamate, camellia sinensis leaf extract, ophiopogon japonicus root extract, glycyrrhiza uralensis (licorice) root extract, hydrolyzed ginseng saponins (enzyme-treated red ginseng saponins), paeonia albiflora root extract, nelumbo nucifera seed extract, polygonatum officinale rhizome/root extract, lilium tigrinum flower/leaf/stem extract, rehmannia glutinosa root extract, chrysantheum morifolium flower extract, paeonia suffruticosa root extract, citrus unshiu peel extract, adenophora stricta root extract, lycium chinense root extract, coix lacryma-Jobi ma-yuen (Job’s tears) seed extract, angelica tenuissima root extract, honey, astragalus membranaceus root extract, angelica acutiloba root extract, cnidium officinale root extract, vitis vinifera (grape) leaf extract, gardenia florida fruit extract, paeonia lactiflora root extract, perilla ccymoides seed extract, panax ginseng berry extract, beta-glucan, sodium hyaluronate, acetyl glucosamine, helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, mangifera indica (mango) seed butter, glycine soja (soybean) oil, glycine soja (soybean) sterols, persea gratissima (avocado) oil, stearic acid, jojoba esters, PEG-100 stearate, propanediol, palmitic acid, polyacrylate-13, cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 dimethicone, PEG-30 dipolyhydroxystearate, glyceryl linoleate, cetearyl alcohol, pantethine, hydrogenated vegetable oil, dimethicone, propylene glycol, cyclodextrin, dimethiconol, tocopherol, polyisobutene, salicylic acid, polyquaternium-51, hexyl laurate, methoxy PEG-114/polyepsilon caprolactone, copernicia cerifera (carnauba) wax, caffeic acid, tocopheryl linoleate, polycaprolactone, glyceryl linolenate, lauryl PEG/PPG-18/18 methicone, glyceryl arachidonate, ethylhexylglycerin, polysorbate 20, dextrin, retinol, phytosphingosine, hydrogenated palm glycerides citrate, alcohol, disodium EDTA, phenoxyethanol, fragrance
When I first got interested in ginseng, I went and re-read my fellow Snailcaster Chel’s review of the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream, which made me feel that my experiments in ginseng wouldn’t be complete unless I tried this product out, even if it turned out to be less than ideally matched for my skin. Which is exactly what happened.
Heavy with the earthy, dirt-and-twigs scent I’ve come to associate with ginseng skincare products, Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream is an incredibly silky, rich, luxurious-feeling cream that manages the rare feat of being a little too heavy even for my often-thirsty tretface. Extremely emollient, it never sank in enough to be fully comfortable on me. I found that a shame, since this cream has some great anti-aging, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and brightening ingredients and consistently left my skin tone so fresh and even after a night of wear that I woke up looking like I’d dipped my head in perfectly matched BB cream.
I really didn’t want to give the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream up, even though I knew it was a little too rich for me, so I started using it as an eye cream, and holy crap.
In the last couple of years, I’ve tried a good handful of eye creams. Some of them have been quite nice. None of them have been holy grail material, not until this. Ever since I started putting Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream around my eyes, my eye area has been plumper, firmer, smoother, and brighter than I’ve seen it in years. I don’t even need to put facial oil under my eyes anymore, not with this stuff. I wake up without a single visible fine line under or around my eyes, and the effect lasts because around my eyes, this cream sinks in, so I can wear it during the day as well.
This cream is amazing. It’s so amazing that it makes me hope that in time, I’ll be able to use this cream full-face and enjoy the effects all over. It’s so amazing that it’s got me thinking I will have to pony up the retail price for a full size jar of this (it’s okay, I like ramen and I can go without steak for a while) when my samples run out. I want to know the manufacturing and expiration dates and be sure that I’m using it at full strength and optimal freshness, which I can’t be with samples.
Oh, and by the way? That dirt-and-twigs smell has really grown on me. I prefer it now to the fragrances used in the ginseng products I have that do not smell like earth.
Amazon carries a variety of samples of Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream* as well as full-sized products. Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream is also available from Jolse for $165.73 or directly from Sulwhasoo’s US site for $220* (new customers can get a code for 10% off your first order by signing up for the newsletter*. That code is stackable with the code 50SHADESSULWHASOO, which you can use to receive a full-size Hydro-Aid Moisturizing Lifting Mist with the purchase of Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream EX or Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream EX Light while supplies last. Also, make sure to check the gifts with purchase* offers–they’re provided on top of my coupon and change regularly).
“Panax ginseng induces human Type 1 collagen synthesis through activation of Smad signaling“ (PDF) (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2007)
“Anti-inflammatory and Anti-oxidative Effects of Korean Red Ginseng Extract in Human Keratinocytes” (Immune Network, 2011)
“Chemistry and Cancer Preventing Activities of Ginseng Saponins and Some Related Triterpenoid Compounds” (Journal of Korean Medical Science, 2001)
“The Use of Botanical Extracts as Topical Skin-Lightening Agents for the Improvement of Skin Pigmentation Disorders” (PDF) (Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings, 2008)
“Processed Panax ginseng, Sun Ginseng Increases Type I Collagen by Regulating MMP-1 and TIMP-1 Expression in Human Dermal Fibroblasts” (PDF) (Journal of Ginseng Research, 2012)
“Effect of ginseng and ginsenosides on melanogenesis and their mechanism of action” (PDF) (Journal of Ginseng Research, 2015)
What’s your favorite “fancy” ingredient and what does it do for you?