Edits: I missed the inclusion of licorice root extract upon my first pass, so I’ve added a paragraph about that below. I also was given a couple studies about sake extract, so I’ve included that information here, but kept my original content about other fermentations in tact below in case anyone finds value in them.
One in vitro (meaning in a dish or tube) study showed that rice wine increased “the expression of procollagen and laminin-5,”⁴ which is one of the key components in the intercellular makeup of the layer that holds the epidermis to the dermis. Additionally, “laminin 5 also accelerates the assembly of basement membranes and may enhance the recovery of damaged skin.”⁵ In the same study, experiments were done on hairless mice (in vivo) and showed that topical application protected the mouse from photo-aging.
Another study showed that sake extract inhibited tyrosinase, both in vivo (in a living organism) and in vitro, though it is unclear how many subjects were involved based on the abstract alone.⁶
More notes: First study comes from Doosan Group R&D, which seems primarily interested in vehicles, construction, electrical, etc., while the second study was paid for by AMOREPACIFIC R&D.
If you spend time on Reddit, especially Asian Beauty subreddits, you know how beloved Kiku’s High Moist Sake Skin Lotion is.
First, it’s an enormous bottle — 500ml (roughly 16.9 fl. oz. or 0.125 of a gallon) — for only about $13 USD (with tax), which works out to roughly $0.77 per fluid ounce.
Second, it’s loaded with ingredients that are discussed frequently, like arbutin and ceramides.
Full Ingredients: Water, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol , Rice Ferment Filtrate (Sake), Glutamic Acid, Arginine, Leucine, Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6, Placental Protein, Arbutin, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate (Licorice Root Extract), Glycine Soja (Soybean) Protein, Maltitol, Methyl Gluceth-10, Peg-6 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Sodium Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Fragrance.
I’ve highlighted the ingredients that are worth discussing a bit in detail.
Sake is a fermented product made from rice, water, koji, and yeast. Ferments have been all the rage recently, with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (living yeast) extract and Saccharomyces ferment being the two I see the most. While I could not find any clinical dermatology studies done on sake as a ferment in skin, we may be able to glean some understanding into the benefits of sake by examining both ferments and koji (kojic acid) itself.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a species of yeast used for brewing beer. In one study, saccharomyces cerevisiae extract (SCE) was studied in several formulations. One contained SCE, and/or vitamins A, C, and E, and was patch-tested on the back of volunteers. The subjects were then tested for transepidermal water loss (TEWL), skin moisture (SM), skin microrelief (SMR), and free radical protection in 3 hour, 15 days, and 30 day intervals.
“Our results suggest that vitamins and SCE showed effects in [skin moisture] SM and [skin microrelief] SMR. Only formulations containing SC had long term effects in the improvement of SMR. Thus, these kinds of evaluations are very important in cosmetics development to evaluate the best risk and benefit correlation.”¹
It’s sister, saccharomyces ferment, has similar benefits. It is obtained through the fermentation of saccharomyces – a genus of fungi that is known as the baker’s yeast – in the presence of metal ions. The yeast is credited with promoting good skin condition and is frequently found in products that reduce redness.
The other half of sake worth discussing, koji (kojic acid) is a skin-lightening agent and antioxidant. It is a tyrosinase (an enzyme that controls the production of melanin) inhibitor, but not as effective as other tyrosinase inhibitors like licorice extract. “In combination with allantoin and other proper ingredients in sunscreen preparations, the mixture can inhibit UV-caused erythema and accelerate wound healing.”² Unfortunately, it can also be sensitizing to some skin and create irritation.
From this break down, we can assume that sake contains some sort of very mild exfoliating, humectant, and whitening properties, though it is important to keep in mind that there are no studies that I could find into the benefits of sake when applied topically, so this is all assumptions based on the chemical makeup.
The next ingredients on the list are ceramides 3 and 6. If you’ve been following my blog, you already know that ceramides are naturally found in the skin and help maintain the skin barrier. In fact, our skin’s natural lipids are 35-40% ceramides. If you want to read a bit more on ceramides, please check out this post on moisturizers.
Slightly more exciting is placental protein. Derived from animal placenta (in this case, horse), it is considered to be a safe ingredient that does not deliver any metabolic or endocrine activity. Again though, there was not much precedent that I could find on the benefits of including this ingredient specifically, however egg whites have been used for centuries on skin to make skin temporarily feel tighter and appear smoother.
Fun fact: Umbilical extract has precedent for unrestricted use in Japan, except for certain products.³
Finally, we arrive at the stars of this product: arbutin and licorice root extract. Arbutin, an ingredient primarily used for it’s antioxidant properties as well as skin bleaching. It is a natural hydroquinone, derived synthetically or from bearberry plants. Once on the skin, it converts into hydroquinone and acts as a tyrosinase inhibitor. While not as effective as hydroquinone, it lacks the concerns of hydroquinone thus has become more popular in recent years.
Licorice root extract is similarly a tyrosinase inhibitor as well as an anti-irritant – with some studies signalling that it may be able to absorb UVA and UVB rays. It is more effective than kojic acid and some studies put it at 75x more effective than ascorbic acid (though Dr Dray raises some interesting points regarding the efficacy of L-AA). “The chief constituent of licorice root is glycyrrhizin, present in concentrations that range from 5 to 24 percent depending on the variety of licorice used.”²
As you probably already noticed from the photo above, the pump on my bottle broke off rather spectacularly when my bottle took a tumble from my tiny bathroom counter top. I’m not sure why this product comes with a pump applicator in the first place, as it frequently would dispense more product than I needed, which I suppose is fine as I was able to spread it down my neck and chest, but it was still was a bit of a shock to get a whole handful of it on the first pump. This experience doesn’t seem limited to me, so I really recommend decanting this product into a better dispenser if you can, like a spritz top bottle.
Packaging aside, the first time I used the High Moist lotion, I was pretty nervous. It’s a very runny product, sharing a consistency with water, and if you’ve read my blog at all you know that I am a fairly dry-skinned lady. To my surprise and delight though, it was uber moisturizing. I applied it fresh out of the shower, in place of my HadaLabo Premium, and instantly my skin just felt soft and supple. I imagine much of this is due to the placenta protein filling in the gaps of the skin cells and creating a “smooth” texture as well as the ceramides, which tend to plump up my skin and make it feel softer.
The fragrance was also so mild that frankly, the smell of sake overpowered it. Thankfully this smell seemed to dissipate after a few minutes of application, and my rosacea did not flare up from the inclusion of fragrance.
Over the next few days, I used the High Moist in place of my HadaLabo, and then began to combine it at night with the HadaLabo Premium on top. It worked well with oils and other moisturizing products on top – no pilling or strange film to report.
In two weeks, my skin looked brighter and felt smoother, though none of my dark spots had faded. Unfortunately, like most products with ferments, it began to break me out after this time. The good news though is that it doesn’t appear to break me out immediately, unlike every other ferment, and the smoothness lasted for a few days after I discontinued use, which means I may try to use it sparingly once my skin heals.
- Evaluation of dermatological effects of cosmetic formulations containing Saccharomyces cerevisiae extract and vitamins
- Milady Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, 2014, M. Varinia Michalun
- Final report on the safety assessment of human placental protein, hydrolyzed human placental protein, human placental enzymes, human placental lipids, human umbilical extract, placental protein, hydrolyzed placental protein, placental enzymes, placental lipids, and umbilical extract.