The benefits and risks of using silkworm cocoons on your face: A guide to WHAT THEY ARE and how to use them
Silkworm cocoons: add it to the list of insect and animal products you probably never imagined was good for your skin.
It sounds too odd to be true, but while perusing popular skincare products in South Korean beauty shops, I inevitably came across small bags of a dozen or so of these silkworm cocoons. After getting over an initial squirminess, my curiosity won out. I had to try it.
Fans and companies rave about how rubbing silkworm cocoons on your face results in gentle and precise exfoliating, ultimately leading to healthier, softer skin. I did some investigating to see what is known about silkworm cocoons and skincare and found some interesting facts. Believe it or not, you are probably already using a silkworm cocoon ingredient on your skin without realizing! More on that shortly.
A short biology lesson on silkworms
Silk, of course, has been a popular material for centuries across the globe, cultivated from insects like spiders or, most commonly, the silkworm species Bombyx mori. Silkworms hatch from eggs and begin as caterpillars called larva. Shortly after they are born, the caterpillars spin cocoons. They essentially spit out strands of silk from their mouths, which are made up of saliva packed with nutrients from digested mulberry leaves, to spin their cocoons.
Once the caterpillars are done their creation and nestled inside the cocoon, they shed their skin to transform to their next phase (at this transition stage they are called pupae). After a few weeks, the insect uses its spit to dissolve the cocoon and emerge as a moth.
Believe it or not, in many countries eat the pupae, preparing them as a variety of snack foods and cuisine. But for the purposes of skincare, our interest is in the cocoons that are left behind: in particular, specific proteins that make up the silk cocoon’s structure.
A closer look the special ingredient in silkworm cocoons
Silkworm cocoons—usually smaller than ping-pong balls and dried to a tough texture--contain a key protein identified to be beneficial in skincare, sericin. This material is usually discarded as a waste during the process of silk production, but more and more cosmetic and medical efforts are exploring this underutilized protein.
Sericin contains 18 amino acids (most notably serine, aspartic acid, and glycine) and makes up about 20-30 percent of a cocoon’s weight. The sticky, gummy sericin encloses another protein called fibroin. Together, they make folds of porous sheets that create the walls of the cocoons.
Sericin is digestible, biocompatible and biodegradable and its ability to adhere and retain moisture has resulted in widespread interest in exploring its use for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes.
Potential medical and scientific uses of sericin, or silkworm cocoon material, include:
-for wound and regenerative healing (creating a film material to cover a wound and function as an “artificial skin” or bandage material)
-for surgical sutures
-for anti-oxidation, anti-bacterium, anti-coagulation materials
-as a biomaterial for contact lenses
-as a supplement to relieve constipation or potentially prevent diabetes (there are limited studies on this)
-as a hydrogel to deliver drugs or cells in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine
-to aid in bioimaging
-to aid in dispersing UV (ultraviolet) radiation, such as in sunblock
The use of silkworms cocoons in skincare
Silkworms and sericin has been studied for many potential benefits for strengthening and conditioning hair, skin and nails. Cosmetic studies going back to the 1980s have examined the material’s use in hair conditioners and nail products to prevent brittleness, for example. Today, sericin powder or sericin hydrolysate is used in make-ups, lotions and hair conditioners, so you may have been using silkworm protein already without knowing it!
When it comes to skin and face care, sericin has been hailed for having anti-wrinkle, anti-aging benefits, as well as for promoting skin elasticity and moisturizing. Let’s take a closer look at how sericin achieves these effects.
In several studies, sericin was reported to improve the skin barrier and production of collagen and fibroblast, both useful in firming up the skin (and thus potentially reducing wrinkles).
A study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology evaluated volunteers’ skin after applying sericin and confirmed its moisturizing effect, finding the top layer of facial skin cells hydrated and smooth after application. The study suggested that sericin not only minimized water loss on the surface of the skin but also actively restored what’s called “natural moisturizing factor” or NMF. NMF is a group of components produced normally by the skin including amino acids, hyaluronic acid, lactate, urea and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA), all identified as essential for skin health.
How to use silkworm cocoons on your face for exfoliation and moisturizing
Given the potential benefits of sericin, the new fad of silkworm cocoon exfoliation is perhaps not surprising. If you are interested in trying it out, see below for my walk-through of tips.
The cocoons come in packages often marketed as “silk balls” or “peeling balls.” They look like oval Styrofoam packing peanuts or white mini Cadbury eggs, but covered in delicate strands. The cocoons are hollowed and open on one side, large enough to fit on the end of a finger to aid with facial scrubbing.
Most references suggest soaking the cocoon right before use in warm-to-hot water for a few minutes to soften its texture, which feels like firm cardboard. After a brief soak, place the cocoon on your finger and gently scrub in a light circular motion over a washed face, particularly focusing on any problem areas. Silkworm cocoons are billed as ‘blackhead removers.” I wouldn’t go that far, but given how much more precise you are able to be with such a small exfoliator, I did find it useful to work the cocoon gently around the edges of my nose.
And that’s it! Throw away the cocoon (one-time use) and moisturize as normal before bed. Try for a few weeks to see if your skin experiences less wrinkles and a softer texture, as reported by some reviewers.
Word of caution
Are there any potential side effects to using silkworm cocoons on your face? I have not come across any documented risks of using silkworm cocoons as exfoliators, but everyone’s skin is different. I recommend, as with any new cosmetic or product, to test a small amount first to gauge your skin’s reaction.
And please, don’t try a DIY (“do it yourself”) version of the cocoons. As with any animal-based cosmetic and skincare product, sterilization processes are extremely important. With a DIY approach you risk bacterial infections or worse. Stick with the brands!
Silkworm cocoons for exfoliating: conclusion
So what’s the verdict? I’ve seen many bloggers rave that their skin was softer after a few days or weeks of use. But as with all cosmetic and skincare products, there are no be-all, end-all ingredients that will bestow on us the fountain of youth or everlasting health and beauty. However, silkworm cocoons (and my other favorite, snail slime) both have risen up the ranks in cosmetics and skincare lately and are worth a try. Just make sure you get a product from a reputable company. See below for additional reading recommendations, references and the silkworm cocoon (“silk ball”) brand I use. This recommendation is solely based on my own experience. Your skin might respond better to a different product, so test, test, test!
Recommended silkworm cocoon ExfoliatorS
When I visited Seoul, South Korea, I was shocked by how many cosmetic stores there were, particularly in the shopping district Myeong-dong. Dozens upon dozens of brightly lit and irresistible cosmetic stories lined the streets packed with young Korean teenagers and young adults.
The stores are like Sephora on steroids. The store clerks are extremely attentive (literally following you around but patiently rather than aggressively, holding your basket and waiting for questions). Best of all, the free samples and sales are out of this world! Store clerks handed out sheet masks to everyone like there was no tomorrow. You can easily find packs of high-quality sheet masks under $1 USD per unit, and freebies of all kinds flow plentifully.
Needless to say, I was hooked. The best thing about Korean cosmetics (aside from some truly lovely packaging) is that a lot of the products I encountered were high quality and very affordable. I found this to be opposite my experience in the U.S., where you usually have to spend quite a lot to get a decent product. In addition, Korean cosmetic companies are very willing to focus on unusual ingredients and have been leaders in this area--from snail slime to animal fat, you can find many interesting combinations of products you may not have ever thought to try on your skin.
Below is a breakdown of the most common affordable Korean cosmetic stores I ran into, many of which have their products available for shipping to the US or show up in places like Urban Outfitters, Sephora, Ulta, CVS, Target and even their own dedicated storefronts (hello L.A.!). The ones listed below are all fairly cheap, though it’s important to note that there are many, many more Korean brands than this, as well as a whole slew of more expensive lines aimed at adult women (these pricy brands, like many women's products, function as a status symbol). However it's my philosophy that skincare and cosmetics shouldn't break the bank.
All of these brands carry a wide variety of cosmetics and many are under the largest skincare and cosmetics company in South Korea, AmorePacific (including Etude House and Innisfree). Even better, many of these brands have begun to open U.S. locations, primarily in New York or Los Angeles, so keep your eyes peeled! Unfortunately the U.S. stores have a higher markup on products compared to Korean-based ones, but they still are well within the range of reasonable prices.
This is probably the most recognizable Korean brand, as they’ve made a lot of headway into American markets. You can easily spot TonyMoly products by their irresistibly fun packaging—everything from Pokemon to panda bears is on display here, which makes great gifts for others and leaves quite a few adult women (myself included) swooning.
Products are hit or miss. Some of the cuter packaged items are of average quality (for example, banana-shaped and banana-flavored lip balm), making them fun gifts but not necessarily items you’d want to incorporate into your daily skincare routine.
But TonyMoly gets an A+ for packaging and fun concepts, as well as having several outstandingly long-lasting lip products and sheet masks (including snail-based products) that are out of this world.
-Pureness 100 Snail Mask Sheet - Skin Damage Care (review)
-Liptone Get It Tint #5 All-Night (review)
-I'm Real Facemasks (you may have seen these in U.S. stores)
-Cucumber Water Gel (great for sunburns)
Best packaged products:
-Mango hand cream
-Banana lip balm
-Panda eye brightener (review)
Skinfood offers a high-quality lineup of products based on food: royal honey, lettuce, egg white, avocado, peach sake, tomatoes, apple, yuja, caviar and other greens. This store is on the higher end of what I consider the affordable range but ships to U.S. customers as well.
Favorite products so far:
-Rice Brightening Facial Cleansing Tissue (review)
-Tomato Cool Jelly Tint for lips (review)
-Real Tea Gel Mask (review)
-Any of their black sugar products
This brand is geared more toward natural products, such as volcanic rock, green tea and other plants. Of special interest are their items from the volcanic Jeju Island, an isle off the coast of South Korea. InnisFree offers a huge range of face masks with ingredients spanning from rice to blueberry to pretty much every fruit flavor you could think of.
I found a lot of really great products here, particularly non-greasy and effective sunscreens (which are incredibly important for skincare).
-Jeju volcanic melting clay mask
-Green tea seed cream and green tea seed eye cream
-Smoothie booties (for your feet!)
-Face masks in the It's Free and Skin Clinic series
Bonus: InnisFree has a product website that ships to the U.S.!
Missha features a good range of affordable as well as higher priced cosmetics. Their BB creams (cover up and healing face products) are of particular note, as well as their wide range of sheet masks, sunscreens and cushion foundations. You can find their products on a variety of websites.
-Mild Essence Sun Milk SPF 50
-Any of their BB creams (very affordable!)
5. Nature Republic
Similar in pricing to the Face Shop (see below), Nature Republic covers a wide range of needs. I have to give them call out here for having the single best snail mucus face mask I have tried. Part of what makes this product so notable is its high percentage of snail filtrate. They also have a particular focus on aloe vera as an ingredient in many of their products.
Favorite product (and hands down my favorite snail-based sheet mask):
-Snail Solution Mask Sheet (review)
6. IT'S SKIN (잇츠스킨)
In a nutshell: It's Skin has amazing sheet masks, including a very respectable snail moisture mask. I've found their products to be consistently high quality with a good price. And yes, they ship to U.S. customers!
-Snail Moisture Mask Sheet (review)
-Nutrition Daily Sheet Mask (review)
Best packaged product:
-Macaron Lip Balms
7. Too Cool for School
This fun and trendy brand is well known for their egg white line of products. They have some amazing face masks and under eye serums as well. They are also known for their dinosaur theme and other innovative packaging, which is a step up in both price and sophistication from Tony Moly.
-Any of the egg white masks
Bonus: Too Cool for School recently opened up an online store for U.S. customers and is carried in stores like Sephora, Ulta and Nordstrom.
8. Etude House
This store, with its distinct pink-and-white decor, is a fun environment and probably the cheapest of the bunch. It caters more to make-up than skincare, but I would be remiss not to mention it on this list. In particular, it has a wide range of lip tints, stains and eye products that are worth perusing.
-Dear Darling Water Gel Tint
-Water Tint Ice Cream
9. The Face Shop
The Face Shop has a lot of offerings in both skincare and cosmetics. Aside from an extremely diverse range of face masks, they also have foot and hand masks (which are essentially bags of moisturizing ingredients you wrap around your appendages for absorption). They also excel in BB cushions, a popular product for cover up and facial healing.
-Mascream Face Sheets
10. Banila Co
This brand is noted for its products that help both prep the skin for make-up and remove make-up. Its make-up primers and very effective oil-based cleansers are now available through Amazon. If you haven't explored oil-based cleansers, the Banila Co line is the one to start with--it gently and effective cleans skin without drying out.
-Clean It Zero sherbet (review)
Other Korean cosmetic brands to check out
By no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few additional brands (both cheap and expensive) worth noting:
Any favorite Korean brands that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
I use my background in molecular biology and science journalism to dive into what makes certain Korean skincare and cosmetic products so effective. Then, I share my findings with you all!