• Núria Estapé, science journalist

    Snail slime: scam or panacea?

    A few years ago a "miraculous” product appeared on the market. This was snail extract which, it was claimed, contained anti-oxidant and regenerating ingredients that delayed skin ageing. It was advertised as a panacea to eliminate wrinkles, scars, stretch marks, burns, acne and sunspots. While it is not the cure-all promised by the ads, we now know why it improves the skin’s appearance.

     

    Search for “snail slime” on the Internet and you will be offered thousands of snail products that claim to improve the skin. Folk medicine has used snail slime for many centuries. But many claim that such products are the ineffective recipes of healers. Skeptical consumers ask whether snail extract is a scam, whereas staunch defenders claim that it is a truly effective anti-ageing product. The common snail (Cryptomphalus aspersa) secretes a substance which promotes skin regeneration and minimizes the effect of the free radicals responsible for premature ageing of the skin.

    Use of snail slime cosmetics has spread in the last decade; the substance even has an INCI code, which means it is registered – as Snail Secretion Filtrate (SSF) – on an international list of cosmetic ingredients. Is snail slime so miraculous?

     

    Accidental discovery

    The properties of snail slime were discovered by accident in the 1960s, when a Spanish oncologist called Rafael Abad subjected snails to radiation therapy used to treat cancer and observed that they released a substance totally different from the slime that they normally use to move.

    Abad also noticed that the snails very rapidly cured small wounds on their skin caused by the radiation. Observing the repair capacity of the snails, Abad tested the effects of this substance on human skin.

     

    What’s in snail slime cosmetics?

    Snail slime is obtained by hand in specialized farms (in Chile, for example). The snail is stimulated with a wooden stick and, feeling attacked, it secretes this special substance to defend itself. Litres of this substance are sent to laboratories in Europe (at 1,000 euros per litre!), where it is analysed, purified and filtered to obtain the cosmetic ingredient (SSF).

    Creams and serums on the market contain 10-15% SSF. Each laboratory has its own formulas, but the final product usually contains the following ingredients:

    Allantoin: Regenerates skin tissue and smoothes irritated skin.

    Collagen and elastin: Proteins that form the “backbone” of the skin.

    Glycolic acid: An exfoliant that eliminates dead cells and that helps other ingredients penetrate hair follicles to repair damaged tissues.

    Hyaluronic acid: A moisturizing and regenerating ingredient that lubricates and softens the skin.

     

    Scientific studies

    A study performed in 2004 showed that intensive treatment over 90 days with SSF significantly reduced the number of wrinkles: fine lines by 26.7% and coarse wrinkles by 45.5%.

    In more recent research (December 2012) into skin samples artificially kept alive, it was found that SSF enabled cells to multiply more easily and increased collagen production.

     

    Efficacy, no miracles

    When purchasing snail slime-based cosmetics, be sure to ask for a brand that offers guarantees that the product’s SSF comes from snail extract obtained through stimulation. Hundreds of poor-quality imitations are offered nowadays, usually through the Internet.

    Nonetheless, the effects of snail slime extract, even of the best quality, are not as spectacular as announced originally: it softens skin wrinkles because it hydrates them, but it does not eliminate the wrinkles entirely. It also fails to make stretch and scar marks disappear completely, although dermatologists do recommend it to patients undergoing radiotherapy, as it helps to heal wounds and burns.

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