You probably never look at a trail of glittery snail slime on a sidewalk and have the urge to rub it on your skin. That may soon change however, when you learn a little more about this fascinating substance.
Snail oil or snail slime--or more technically known as snail mucin, snail serum or snail filtrate--is one of my favorite ingredients in skincare products. It may sound icky but hold that thought until you learn more.
After a trip to Seoul, South Korea where I was able to try oodles and oodles of snail filtrate products, I was hooked. Coming back to the States, I got strange looks from friends and colleagues when I urged them to try "snail slime" on their face, even though the trend has been in the U.S. for a few years already.
Worldwide, snail secretion has been touted as an anti-aging holy grail, helping everything from younger, firmer skin to acne, so I took a deeper dive into the literature to see exactly where the science stands on snail slime and face care.
A short history lesson
Reportedly, snail slime has been used as far back as Ancient Greece times, for helping ailments inside the body, like indigestion or cough, as well as outside the body for skin inflammation. (Note--I could not find a reliable source documenting the historic use of medicinal and cosmetic snail slime, though it is referenced quite frequently in other articles).
New York Magazine says that "snails were first prescribed in ancient Greece as a topical treatment to reduce inflammation, and they began to crawl their way into creams and elixirs in South America when farmers handling escargot en route to France noticed their hands looked younger and smoother."
Today, South Korea has paved the way for snail products, which have since taken hold in the US and Europe. These include snail serums, lotions, creams and more. Some places in Thailand, Asia and Europe even offer live snail facials where critters make their way across customers’ faces--one step I don't think I could take!
What's the science of snail slime?
What exactly is the function of snail slime? Technically this slime is mucus, produced by the snail as it crawls along to coat their bodies and prevent the drying out of their tissue. Snails' mucus is both sticky--to help them adhere to surfaces--and lubricating--to help the little guys protect against abrasions, bacteria and other infections as they make their way across different environments.
Snails typically have two main types of mucus: one that covers the surface that they move along (leaving behind that glittery silver trail on concrete and sidewalks) and one that coats their bodies for protection.
The slimy gel-like trail mucus is incredibly multi-functional, helping a snail to have a smooth scootch along a rough surface, distract predators, recognize other snails for reproduction and find its way home. A thicker more elastic version of this slime helps them adhere to surfaces--and thus crawl up walls or your favorite potted plant, for example. Finally, another version of snail slime exudes from the body of the snail itself as a type of protectant and increases when the snail is under distress. It is this last version that is most typically used in cosmetics.
Cosmetic benefits of snail slime: a list
The claimed benefits of snail extract range from fixing sunspots to smoothing out creases and wrinkles and even halting acne, supposedly due to the mucus’ ability in promoting the production of elastin and collagen in users' skin. And some folks are shelling out hundreds of dollars for novel snail-based cosmetics.
But let's break this down and see what's what.
In terms of cosmetic interests, their secretion is made up of a conglomeration of ingredients, many of which are suggested to aid skin health, including:
Many claim the snails' secretions on a skin stimulate the skin to produce collagen, elastin and other components thought to result in clearer skin while fighting signs of aging and sun damage. One peer-reviewed study by a San Diego dermatology lab showed that snail mucin did indeed counter minor effects of sun damage after 12 weeks, particularly reducing fine wrinkles caused by UV damage (reference), though it did not study which of the particular ingredients in snail slime prompted this result.
Snail filtrate also contains a chemical called allantoin, which has been shown by some peer-reviewed studies to assist in the wound-healing process and stimulate cell growth, both of which are helpful to fight skin damage. (Allantoin is present in lots of cosmetics, including anti-acne medicine.)
One cosmetic scientist surmises that snail slime's trick is its high concentration of proteins and other water-soluble polymers, which are molecules that shrink when they dry, pulling the skin back. Aside from snail white, egg whites also have this effect, which is one reason they have been used for ages as an anti-wrinkle cream, even as far back as Roman times.
So these proteins presumably can improve skin smoothness and health, but it's important to keep in mind that active components can differ depending upon the source. Ultimately, no one knows which of the active ingredients in snail slime contribute to the beneficial effect on human skin. It could be a “total is greater than the sum of its parts” effect – where, much like chicken soup for a cold, the mixture of beneficial ingredients in snail slime results in its soothing effect.
How do you get the snail slime?
For commercial use, snail slime is usually obtained from the common garden snail species Helix aspersa. Most of snail filtrate comes from Italy, where snail farmers are actually seeing a 400 percent increase in demand over the last two decades. There are over 4,000 producers in Italy raising this common European snail to-date.
Traditionally, snails were dunked in salt or vinegar water to extract the valuable secretion, but you'll be relieved to hear that several Italian breeders today use "cruelty-free" techniques to prompt the snails to release filtrate. According to The Telegraph, Italy's International Heliciculture Association recently patented a machine called the Muller One, which prompts snail slime extract via a "snail spa," where the critters are immersed in a gentle steam bath to kill bacteria.
So, are snail masks, creams, lotions, serums and scrubs good for your skin?
Like so much in the cosmetics world, there's not a huge body of extensive or rigorous objective scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals that one can point to to prove that a product or ingredient conclusively works. When it comes to snail extract, there is no be-all, end-all study showing positive effects, though the studies referenced above are promising.
Nevertheless, snail extract is hugely popular and we can take a cue from our skin-obsessed neighbors in South Korea, where snail slime has been trending for years. Anecdotally, I personally found that products with high levels of snail filtrate absolutely left my skin feeling pleasantly and noticeably softer the day after.
Words of caution
The active compounds in any snail mucus can differ depending on the snails and the mucus, so there is not a whole lot of consistency. Environmental conditions will affect snail slime quality, as well as what the snails eat and the extraction methods, so potency levels are unclear.
Furthermore, many products will advertise themselves as snail-based but always take a look at the ingredients in the back! Ideally the packaging will list what percentage or PPM (part per million) snail filtrate is in the product. As far as I've found, at least 2,000 PPM seems to be a good amount to aim for, with some products offering as high as 10,000 PPM. If the product doesn't list PPM, and if snail filtrate is not listed as one of the first few ingredients, the concentration of actual mucus is likely quite low and you may not see an effect.
While there are no clearly documented risks of using snail slime, I would caution do not try a "do-it-yourself" version of snail moisturizing! Without proper control and sanitary conditions, you may get more than you bargain for (e.g., bacterial infection). So don't go grabbing critters from you garden and let them slide their way around your face. And of course, with any new cosmetic product, test a small amount of the product first to see how your skin reacts.
Conclusion: Is snail-based cosmetics worth all the hype?
As with many products in cosmetics, there are no strong scientific, peer-reviewed findings showing a miracle ingredient or holy grail of skincare that can reverse signs of aging. However, snail slime seems worth a try as much as any other high protein-based moisturizers (e.g., eggs), just make sure you get a high-quality product and aren't shelling out too much money just for the hype.
See below for some of my tried and tested (and affordable) favorite snail products. Please note these are just based on my own experience, and your skin might find a different snail product to be more beneficial.
My absolute favorite snail sheet mask so far is by the Korean company Nature Republic - check it out here. You can also read a quick infographic on snail slime I put together at this link and tips on how to use face masks if you have not encountered them before.
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!