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I Put Snail Slime on My Face to Keep My Lizard Skin from Molting

Many South Korean cosmetic companies boast snail mucin as a restorative ingredient in their skin care products. To understand if the slime actually has any restorative powers, I talked to snail and beauty experts alike, and then tried out the snail...
Photo by Dimitrije Tanaskovic via Stocksy

Suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith, known for books adapted into film like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, was a hoot at parties. She's described in her biography as "the woman who produced snails from her handbag and encouraged them to leave sticky trails all over her host's tabletop." I found myself emulating Highsmith a few weeks ago at a friend's birthday party, bringing in my purse five Korean sheet masks, suffused with snail goop.


Snail mucin, sometimes called filtrate or essence, has become a staple of Korean beauty. And no country does skin care like South Korea. According to the BBC, South Korean women spend twice as much on beauty products as American women, and South Korean men spend more on beauty products than men in any other country. "The demand is insane," says Coco Park, writer of The Beauty Wolf and co-author of Korean Beauty Secrets. "Companies have to constantly be creative and deliver quality to the market. There's just too much competition and demand to rest on their laurels and crank out crap."

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Sheet masks are just one part of a Korean skincare routine, which can sometimes involve up to 15 steps. A basic Korean skincare routine looks like this: wake up, cleanse, apply a moisturizing toner, a few different essences, serums, and finally an emulsion to seal it all in. Then, sunscreen and makeup. In the evening, there's a two-step face washing process: once with a cleansing oil to remove your makeup, then with a face wash to remove the oil. Follow this up with more essences, serums, and oils, a sheet mask, and maybe a night cream. Snail mucin can make its way into several different parts of this process. Apart from the masks, snail mucin can also be an ingredient in serums, ampoules, or even in sprays for a middle of the day pick me up.


"What is most interesting about this trend, from my perspective, is that some cosmetics companies use exotic sounding names for the snail from which they get the mucin," says Jann Vendetti, malacology curator for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "But it is really the common European Garden snail." The scientific name for this snail is Cornu aspersum, though many dermatology papers refer to it by its other name, Cryptomphalus aspersus. Cornu aspersum are native to the Mediterranean and Western Europe, but have spread to subtropical regions all over the world. They're the same kind of snail Hippocrates crushed with sour milk to treat inflammation, as well as the kind you may enjoy in a dish of escargot.

No snails are killed in the process.

Snail beautifying properties were reportedly discovered in the 1980s, when Chilean snail farmers noticed that cuts healed on the hands faster after being in contact with the trails. Today Cornu aspersum are farmed for their coveted slime. "Basically they just corral the snails to crawl over a corrugated surface where the filtrate collects and is collected," says Park. "No snails are killed in the process."

It makes sense, on an intuitive level, that snail goop would have some kind of regenerative power. Snails are squishy, fragile creatures. Yet they can walk across a razor blade without being hurt. "Snails use their mucus to coat their foot on which they move," says Vendetti. "They, like all living things, are mostly water, and they've evolved to move on a slimy, mucus-coated foot."


Image by Edward F. Bigelow - Popular Science Monthly July 1919 via Wikipedia

The mucus protects the foot from damage, but also contains enzymes that promote healing and cell growth. "The snail secretes this fluid filled with nutrients such as hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein enzymes, antimicrobial and copper peptides, and proteoglycans," says Dr. Marie Jhin, a San Francisco dermatologist and author of Asian Beauty Secrets. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it attracts water. Snail mucin also contains glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), another humectant. These chemicals not only bring moisture to the skin, they plump it up. GAGs also play a role in wound healing. They promote fibroblast development, the cells that make collagen in the skin. The question is whether these nutrients are in sufficient quantities to be useful to human skin. "The problem is that we are not sure if this new ingredient is doing anything," says Jhin. "It is very hard to see the results for most cosmeceuticals [a portmanteau of cosmetic and pharmaceutical]."

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There have been small studies showing that snail mucin promotes wound healing and helps reverse skin damage caused by sun exposure. The science is still emerging, however, and Jhin says she does not use snail filtrates in her practice, "because in my office we offer medically-tested proven products only." According to Jhin, there's just not enough literature on the effects of snail mucin yet. A study published in a 2013 issue of Journal of Drugs in Dermatology did find that a serum with 40 percent snail mucin improved fine lines and wrinkles over an eight-week period (Percentages of snail goop used in products can vary widely; a spray I used on my face was 90 percent mucin).

Snail mucin sheet masks come in individual packs, like giant condoms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found them slimy. Depending on what brand you get, the masks are either made of cotton or rice paper. Most have a pretty strong fragrance. I found the masks cold and refreshing on a 90-degree September day. You leave the mask on for 20 minutes, and emerge from your slime cocoon with new baby skin. My nose flakes like a motherfucker, and snail goop is the only thing that keeps my lizard like skin from molting.

While there is still limited research on the longterm effects of putting snail slime on your skin, Parks says "the proof is in the pudding." Or in this case, the mucus.