The Usual Unusual Ingredients - Silk

I think it’s time to switch the pace a bit and return to my series featuring noteworthy ingredients, what I call The Usual Unusual Ingredients. Having written about gemstones in beauty products in my first edition of the series, let’s now explore the world of lovely, luxurious silk. Well, lovely and luxurious isn’t exactly how one would describe its creation though.

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.

For 3,000 years, the production of silk was China’s best kept secret. At one point, disclosing the secret and smuggling out silk cocoons were punishable by death. Those in foreign lands were fascinated with this fabric but had no clue as to its origins. There are tales of how the secret finally escaped China through smuggling. One involved a Chinese princess who smuggled a cocoon in her elaborate hairdo on her way to be wed to a foreign prince. Another tale tells of two travelling monks who smuggled silkworm eggs in their walking staff under the order of Emperor Justinian of Constantinople.

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!


Content Director - Strong Female Leaders said...

What a great article! Thanks for the history lesson. I never knew of so many uses for silk. Great info!

Karen said...

This was a great lesson on silk- I love educational posts 8)

I can imagine how precious silk was when it was first discovered.. I remember learning about the silk road back in grammar/high school. I didn't know biosilk actually had silk in it! I have the hair serum.. no wonder it gives hair such a nice smooth feeling. Hmm I feel kinda bad for the silkworms though :\ they are bred and used in mass production. I visited a silkworm company in China before where they made silk and there were toons of them!

immarafrancesca said...

You know, one of my aunts used to bathe with some silk powder. I'm pretty sure she still does because she looks so young too. and i recall her telling everyone crushed pearls are also good for your skin! :)

Anonymous said...

This is a great post on silk!

I use Kanebo products in there SENSAI range, apparently they're for younger people xD. I'm only 17 by the way.

Anyway, I find that Kanebo products are really moisturizing and make my skin really soft. I would recommend them. However, the steep price tag is an issue, though the products do last a VERY long time.

I do find Japanese cosmetic brands have really good quality stuff... That's from my personal experience anyway =).


Anonymous said...

I love these posts! Very informative and interesting! I find more and more that I am reading the labels on products, trying to break them down and to work out what's good and bad. So many uses for silk! Fascinating.

Witoxicity said...

I'm glad you liked this post! The more I read about silk, the more fascinated I've become, actually. :)

@Miss K. You
It's good to know that you found this informative. Ooh, I'd love to visit a silkworm production centre in China one day! Lucky you! :)

@M :)
I think your aunt is a wise woman. :) Talking about pearls, it's also going to be featured in this series later.

Thanks! I must say that, after writing this article, I now have a newfound respect for Kanebo and its heritage.

Wow, I'm so impressed that someone as young as you has already started using SENSAI! With all that Koishimaru silk that you have on your face, you'd probably be looking 20 when you're 60! :D

@The Diva's Polish
I'm very pleased that you enjoy reading such posts! I too tend to pay more attention to the ingredients these days. Before, those were simply incomprehensible names in annoyingly fine prints. My understanding of them is improving but there is still so much more to learn! :P

DinaXYYan said...

i don't know why did i miss this post! it's an awesome post. thanks for sharing :)

LOL, i always go there if i crave for Dim Sum :D and it works wonderful! haha..

Gail said...

oh I'm so glad to see more of this facinating series! What a treat! Hugely engaging, many thanks xxxx

Witoxicity said...

It's good to know that you liked this post! :)

The pleasure's all mine! I'm pleased you found it interesting. It had been quite a while since I wrote for this distracted yet again by the glitzy glamour of makeup brands! Ha ha!

Karen said...

Ahh I'm a shortie so I can only go for mid length or ankle boots.. not daring enough to try above knee ones! :D

Golden said...

Wow! I love this post. I really learned a lot from this. I never knew that some of our beauty products do contain silk (so ignorant of me!). But I don't like how they get silk from bombyx mori. :(

I really want to try Kanebo but I find it too expensive here in my country.

Lots of love,

Anonymous said...

wunderful chinese drawing. great article

Witoxicity said...

It's lovely of you to drop by. Up till a few months ago, I also didn't realise that there is actually silk in some of the beauty products. But well, we all learn something new everyday! :)

Danke schön! I'm happy you liked this article. :)

Le Cocon de Voune said...

Hi! I just tagged you for an award :

Witoxicity said...

Oh, you're so kind! Thanks so much for the award! I appreciate it very much. :D

twinsouls888 said...

hi girl, just droppin by some blog love, have a nice day :)

Witoxicity said...

Thank you, my dear. You have a great day too! :)

The Beautifier said...

I think I am the last soul to comment! oh poor me! I was busy with my exam revision and stuff, so glad that my exams are over now :)
you know I love to stalk your blog! You always come out with awesome reviews!
Silk is wonderful ingredient, its so versatile! Ah Indian silk sarees, JUST BEAUTIFUL! xoxo

Witoxicity said...

@The Beautifier
I've been wondering about the long silence on your blog. I hope all went well with your exams. :)

And thanks so much for your super-kind words!

I love silk as fabric too! So soft and luxurious. Now that you've mentioned sarees, I love the vibrant colours of saree fabrics! :D They always bring so much cheer!

Eli (Beauty Blog) said...

I'm not very crazy about silk in my hair products, it makes my hair brittle and dry, like silicones :-(

Witoxicity said...

I'm sorry to hear that! I myself have only started using the Biosilk products, so I don't know yet if it would work on my hair.

Cynthia Z said...

Wow what a detailed post :O Must have taken u long to finish it. Bravo! I'm a sucker for the word "silk" in every n skin :P
So hydrolysed is always better huh. Man! now I want silk powder. Hope u find a nice tree! :)

Witoxicity said...

Ha ha! Yes, it was quite a big 'project', this article on silk. :P I'm glad you found it interesting.

As for hydrolysed silk being not necessarily/always better, well, that is what some experts say. If you think about it, plain silk powder has already been use with positive effects for so many centuries. So I don't see why we can't continue doing the same in present day. :)

Cynthia Z said...

Yes I agree! :)
Btw..awards for u in my blog!

Witoxicity said...

Thank you so much! It was very sweet and thoughtful of you! :D

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great article! I learned so much for this! I actually own a silk powder that I bought ages ago from Everyday Minerals LOL. And I recently bought a silk top hahaha!

Thank you Witoxicity for another great read!

Witoxicity said...

My pleasure! It's certainly good to know that you enjoyed this article! :)

Jauntygirl said...

That was really informative...I love reading about ingredients and history...brillant..thank you..=0)

Witoxicity said...

You're welcome! I'm happy you found this article useful. :)

Lipglossiping said...

What a fantastically interesting post! I've sat here completely absorbing every word. I feel educated! Now I'm off to hunt down some silk products. Incidentally, I was after that BioSilk stuff for pressing pigments!

Witoxicity said...

I'm so pleased you enjoyed this. It's always nice to know that there are readers who appreciate such posts.

Yes, I've heard about ladies using BioSilk Silk Hair Therapy to press pigments but I think it has more to do with the fact that it contains dimethicone and cyclomethicone, and nothing to do with its silk ingredient. Some do say though that the product contains an eye irritant, which makes it unsuitable for use on the eye. Anyway, good luck with this experiment. I hope it works well for you! :)

Karen said...

Yes I studied this too. Silk is like gold. Even back then it was very precious. If you sleep on it it will also keep you younger & more beautiful longer.

"Essence of Silk" has silk pillowcases & hair wraps at the best prices & selection as well if you really would like something wonderful to dream on plus it is really good for your hair & skin.

Silk has been around for over 3000 years, there has got to be something amazing about it!

Love this info!


Unknown said...

I love this article, found it off Natalie Nguyen's blog. Thank you for writing it, it was very informative and well done.

Witoxicity said...

Thanks for dropping by. You gotta love silk! And you're so right about sleeping on silk pillowcases! :)

The pleasure's all mine. It's always good to know that you enjoyed reading this article. :)