In July, biomedical engineers from Binghamton University in New York revealed the results of an experiment to find a hyper-effective sunscreen, a product that dermatologists usually recommend that you reapply every two hours.
The premise was to add a DNA film on top of the skin to serve as a "sacrificial coat". It was reasoned that this way, the sun's UV light would damage this layer instead, and protect the DNA of the underlying skin surface. What the researchers hit upon in the process, was a product that not only blocked up to 90 per cent of harmful rays, but also reacted in a manner contradictory to most sunscreens, in that it got stronger and more effective the longer it was exposed to the sun. The source in question? Salmon sperm.
The use of animal secretions is not new to the beauty industry. From bone marrow balms and fish-scale nail polishes, to face creams featuring caviar and ambergris, we have turned to the animal world for cosmetic cures since Cleopatra bathed in donkey's milk, if not before.
Another such by-product, widely used by Korean skincare brands and now making its way to mainstream shelves, is snail slime.
The story goes that in the 1980s, a family of Chilean farmers established a snail farm in order to export the animals to restaurants in France, where l'escargot is a culinary delicacy. In the process, they discovered that every time they handled the creatures, their hands became visibly softer and smoother, and cuts and injuries caused by the sharp snail cages healed quickly and didn't leave scars. The eldest son, Fernando Bascunan Ygualt, put into motion a study about the properties of snail secretions, and their regenerative capacities were discovered soon after.
The protein-based slime is also high in antioxidants, which not only stimulates the formation of collagen and elastin, but also minimises the damage wrought upon the skin by free radicals, the number one catalysts for wrinkles and premature skin ageing. Snail slime contains up to 98 per cent water, so its hydrating properties are almost unparalleled. And, perhaps best of all, the products have a neutral look, smell and texture.
Read our review: Tony Moly's Gold 24K Snail Gel Mask Sheet
Ingredients from unusual sources are not restricted to smaller or localised beauty brands. Chanel, for instance, is constantly looking to tap new and niche products for its skincare solutions. Accordingly, Blue Serum, an anti-ageing formula that launched earlier this year, is composed of three ingredients from the planet’s “blue zones”, or regions where people are known to live longer, healthier lives. These include: green coffee from the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, bosana olives from Sardinia, and lentisk from Ikaria in Greece. The latter is the gum obtained from a rare type of wild herb from the pistachio family.
When combined, the antioxidant properties of the coffee, fatty acids from the olives and oleanolic acid contained in lentisk, noticeably firm up the skin. Previously only ever used in oil form by the odd aromatherapist to treat burns, lentisk is also known to have anti-microbial properties. The ingredients are purified through patented processes called Oleo-Eco Extraction and CO2 Supercritical Extraction.
As such, ingredients aside, companies are also experimenting with techniques to get the best out of their products. One such method involves using magnets to draw out impurities. Popularised by Madonna, who put up a "No muss, no fuss" Instagram video earlier this year, the Chroma Clay Mask is part of the singer's MDNA beauty brand. Composed of volcanic ash from the hilly Montecatini municipality in Italy, along with artichoke leaf extract, white willow bark extract and vitamin C, the mask is coated with a layer made from iron particles. Removing it does not require water or cleanser, but rather a magnetic "wand" that pulls the product out, increasing the blood circulation under the skin's surface in the process. This, in turn, dilates the blood vessels, leaving the skin looking and feeling tighter and more radiant.
While MDNA only retails in Japan, Hong Kong and China, an American cosmetics company, Dr Brandt Skincare, also has a Magnetight Age‑Defier Magnet Mask, which is now available from TheBeautyFloor.com, which ships to the UAE. This face mask is infused with a blend of antioxidants and peptides. While the iron particles generate a small electromagnetic interaction when the magnet is drawn over the face, the blend brightens the skin's appearance. User reviews of magnet masks claim that not only do they leave the skin looking fresher and firmer, but they also add a fun element to skincare.
And when it comes to the aesthetic element of facial masks, the days of Casper-meets-Scream may soon be behind us. Case in point: masks that emulate emojis, unicorns and Power Rangers. As the names suggest, Petite Amie Skincare's emoji series is made up of masks that resemble various emoticons, while BioBelle's holographic unicorn masks make your skin shimmer during and after application. Mud mask specialist Glamglow, meanwhile, has a GravityMud mask in Sonic Blue, launching in the Middle East in September. The company also collaborated with the Power Rangers team to create green and gold versions of its GravityMud masks, named after Rita Replusa and her Goldar monster, which will be available from November.
"The idea is to make skin-caring a fun and personalised process – to meet various beauty needs in a way that both reflects and changes our mood," says Hsin Yu Huang, a representative from the Taiwan-based Petite Amie Skincare, which is available online from Gilt.com.
Thanks to social-media yays and nays, and online-shopping websites, the beauty industry is experiencing a monumental shift, in that consumers are now more likely to experiment with interesting-looking and -sounding products, rather than restricting themselves to monobrand beauty counters.
This might explain why global powerplayers have started investing in boutique beauty brands. For example, the Estée Lauder Group has acquired a stake in make-up brand Becca, former competitor Too Faced and "abnormal beauty" company Deciem. L'Oréal may have given up The Body Shop, but Brazilian company Natura Cosmeticos was waiting in the wings to take it on, raising its own international profile in the bargain. And while it remains to be seen whether these more innovative, niche skincare solutions will replace our tried-and-tested cleansers, toners and moisturisers in the long run, their perceived appeal – both creative and curative – is undeniable.