As you must already know, silk comes from silkworms, in particular the caterpillars of the bombyx mori moth. After an intensive diet of mulberry leaves lasting about a month, these silkworms wrap themselves in a cocoon of silk fibres in preparation for transforming into moths. Only, that is not to be, as these cocoon-wrapped pupae are steamed or baked before they can break out and destroy the silk cocoons.
No wonder Mahatma Gandhi was against sericulture, a word used to refer to the cultivation of silkworms to produce silk. That was why he preferred cotton spinning and the Ahimsa silk, which is silk obtained from a certain wild silkworm. Here, no killing of pupae is involved as nature is allowed to follow its course – they are allowed to fully develop into moths and break out of the cocoons. However, they say that the quality of this silk is inferior to that of the bombyx mori.
Silk was first discovered in China and as legend has it – in much the same way as how tea was discovered – by someone sitting under a tree with a pot of hot water. Apparently in 2640 BC, a cocoon dropped from a mulberry tree into Princess Xi Ling Shi’s pot. The hot water loosened the cocoon. The princess picked it up and seeing a loose fibre, started to unravel the cocoon. The fibre seemed endless in length and it was exceptionally strong. This intrigued the princess so much that further studies were ordered to learn more about this fascinating fibre, the life cycle of the moth and techniques of reeling and making silk yarn. This, they say, marked the beginning of sericulture.
Close-up image of a Chinese painting on silk
Other than silk as fabric, it is also widely used in beauty products and lately, even food! Silk has been used for centuries in some Asian cultures for beauty and medicinal purposes. The ancient Chinese applied silk powder on their faces to reduce pigmentation. It is said that they also used the silk cocoons to dress wounds because of their healing properties on skin. In India, silk powder together with raw silk gloves were and still are used in Ayurveda massages.
Silk has certainly come a long way since then and so has mankind’s understanding of the nature and the uses of silk. Silk is super-rich in protein, containing all kinds of amino acids, many of which are essential for the human body. Without getting too technical, a cross-section of a silk fibre would show a core called fibroin and a layer around it called sericin. Silk, in particular fibroin, isn’t water-soluble. This was a conundrum for silk researchers until a breakthrough was discovered in one of the oldest cosmetics companies in Japan: Kanebo.
Kanebo had its humble beginnings as a cotton trading company in 1887. Less than two decades later, it moved into the production of silk thread. In the years that followed, it was noticed that the women who worked with silk in the factories had beautiful smooth and youthful hands. That sparked a research by Kanebo into the effects of silk on the skin. The research culminated in the introduction in 1936 of its first cosmetic product, a silk-based soap called Savon de Soie.
Kanebo’s expertise in silk is unsurpassed and in the 1970s, the company pioneered the technology of making silk soluble in water – resulting in hydrolysed silk – which paved the way for countless applications of silk in beauty products.
Silk remains one of the key ingredients in many of Kanebo’s products. Among the many brands under the Kanebo corporate name is the premium brand, SENSAI. SENSAI was developed by Kanebo specially as an anti-aging brand with a family of products catered to women from the late twenties, wishing to ward off early signs of aging, to middle-aged and older women who want to address the signs of aging. The brand uses silk produced by the Koishimaru silkworms. This silk was reserved exclusively for use by the Japanese Royal Family and Kanebo is the only company in the world allowed to use this silk commercially.
Today, Kanebo is by no means the only cosmetics company offering beauty products containing silk. Farouk BioSilk hair products contain hydrolysed silk which gives hair vitality and shine. St Ives has the Softening Whipped Silk Lotion that has a blend of silk proteins. Laura Mercier has the Silk Crème Foundation which contains silk powder (serica). There is also Dove Silk Glow Beauty Body Lotion which has serica and hydrolysed silk as skin conditioning agents. And the list goes on but then again, beware. Just because a product has the word 'silk' in its name, it doesn't always mean that it actually contains silk.
I’ve noticed that silk as ingredients in beauty products come in many names. I don’t claim to be an expert here but this is the little that I’ve been able to decipher in simple terms:
· Serica – silk powder, ie finely pulverised silk
· Sericin – the protein-rich gum that holds the raw silk fibres (fibroin) together and is water-soluble
· Hydrolysed silk – large molecular silk proteins of the fibroin that are broken down into smaller sizes, thus making them water-soluble, easier to incorporate into beauty products and absorbed into the skin.
So, what is it about silk that is so special? The properties and workings of silk on the skin read like a dream:
· Hydration – Silk has the ability to attract moisture from the air and regulate the skin’s natural moisture level according to the surroundings.
· Air-permeable – Silk allows the skin to breathe.
· Anti-aging – Silk promotes the skin’s synthesis of hyaluronic acid, touted to be a wonder in the fight against skin aging, thereby increasing the firmness of the skin.
· Anti-inflammatory – Silk has anti-bacterial properties and is said to work great against acne.
· Reduce pigmentation – Silk decelerates the production of melanin.
· Primer – Silk powder can be used as an excellent foundation primer and it can absorb excessive oil.
· Glow – Silk makes the skin look lustrous and gives hair shine.
· Sunscreen – Silk protects the skin against UV radiation and in the olden days, it was used as relief for sunburn.
There are critics who say that changing the molecular structure of silk through hydrolysis renders it less effective than silk in its natural form. Moreover, silk proteins don’t adhere very well to the hair and skin especially if the silk is in a product that you would wash off, like in a shower cream or shampoo. This could mean that the wonderful effects of silk on skin or hair mentioned above could be negated. Experts say that if a product with hydrolysed silk works, then it could be more attributed to the formula as a whole and not just the silk. Hmm, perhaps it would be better to just buy plain silk powder then!
Anyway, I’m off now to find me a tree (with no birds!) to sit under with a cup of tea. Who knows what I might discover in my cup!