I may be a little slow on the uptake for this new fad in skin care, but I think I was just in denial. Remember Fear Factor? It was that show in the early 2000s where people had to eat live bugs. To this day, you could not possibly pay me enough money to go near (much less eat) a live, crawling slug. However, in Japan (and other parts of the world now) people are paying inordinate amounts of money for snail facials – people are paying money to have snails crawl all over their face and place that lovely snail slime directly onto their skin. So, of course, my next big question is, why?
We all know how this started. Like the much dreaded and doomed piranha pedicures, this phenomenon of snail facials arrived to us courtesy of a spa in Tokyo. These facials are a combination of facial massage, electrical micro-current stimulation and was, let’s just say, enhanced with the addition of snails. Research on and evidence for the snail facial is underwhelming thus far, but if you really had to make an argument for the benefits and restorative powers–you could.
First, these are no ordinary snails. These are specially bred, African snails that are kept in a clean environment and are only fed organic vegetables. However, though specially bred, like all snails they have snail “slime” (this is the actual scientific term for the goop that snails leave behind them as they saunter along a surface). Snail slime consists mostly of hyaluronan, which happens to be a close relative of hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is an essential building block for the connective tissue in our body and it’s what keeps our skin nice and plump by attracting water molecules to stick to its surface. However, due to its large size, hyaluronan has a hard time actually entering the skin through our pores. Therefore, rather than actually penetrating the skin and helping to give a more youthful complexion, the hyaluronan stays on top of the skin and acts as a humectant by capturing moisture from the air and allowing the moisture to stay on top of our skin, making wrinkles less noticeable. Basically the snail slime is a very expensive, one time use moisturizer.
The snail slime also happens to contain antioxidants. Now we all know antioxidants are great for preventing oxidative damage that occurs to the skin via free radicals. By preventing free radical damage the slime may be providing anti-aging and anti-cancer effects. However, there has been little supporting research on the anti-oxidant properties of slime. One independent study of cryptomphalus aspersa mollusk (same family of animals as the snail) secretions showed that the slime actually stimulated fibroblasts (a type of cell found in the connective tissue of the human body) to proliferate and allowed these cells to rearrange their actin cytoskeletons, thus creating a stronger foundation on which collagen and other connective tissue molecules could attach. In addition to providing hyaluronan to hydrate and anti-oxidants to prevent aging, the snails are actually crawling over your skin creating friction that supposedly helps to remove dead skin cells and exfoliates the skin.
In Japan there is a myth about snails. If a snail survives in its shell for thirty years, the snail then turns into a beautiful woman as a reward for the long suffering it had to endure. Maybe the snail facial is an extension of this story? Nonetheless, due to the lack of supportive research, many doubters believe that though the snails give an added “wow factor” to a rather normal facial, the snails are not actually adding to the facial. The fact is, for years facials have already included exfoliation and they included massages with hydrating creams; these alone produce anti-aging, anti-wrinkle and hydrating responses (especially as facial creams become more and more advanced). In fact, most hydrating creams now contain hyaluronic acid to provide the same humectant effect as the snail hyaluronan! When all is said and done, though I love a facial as much as the next woman, I think I’ll stick to my high end facial creams and skip the serving of snails on the side.
Margit Lai Wun Juhász
Mount Sinai Medical Student