The basic building blocks to healthy skin aren’t secrets. Most experts will tell you they include cleansing daily, moisturizing, and applying SPF.
When it comes to the “secret ingredients” that beauty experts swear by, it’s hard to keep up.
It’s understandable if you haven’t heard of using ginseng on your skin, but some beauty experts believe it’s a skin care staple.
“Ginseng is one of the most powerful herbal ingredients,” says Jenelle Kim, DACM, LAc, founder and lead formulator for JBK Wellness Labs.
But what do others say — and is there any research behind it? Here’s what we know and don’t about ginseng.
Ginseng is a root found in Asia and parts of North America. Some people think this light-colored root’s lumpy shape resembles a tiny human.
A 2017 study notes that ginseng contains ginsenosides, a potential nervous system regenerator known as a neuroprotective.
Though ginseng may be making its way into more and more beauty products in the Western hemisphere, it’s been a staple in Eastern Asian beauty for centuries.
According to Park, its origin in beauty is legendary — literally.
“In the 1500s, there was a woman named Hwang Jini, and she was [known as] one of the most beautiful women,” Park says. “She was known to use ginseng.”
Others supposedly followed, and the rest is history.
Today, Park says the West’s interest in ginseng products also has roots in Asia. K-beauty, or Korean beauty, brands and influencers have become trendsetters in the skin care space.
“K-beauty is now probably the biggest beauty industry in the world,” Park says. “People in the West are starting to see the effect of such powerful ingredients [like ginseng].”
Ginseng’s roots in beauty are based on legends, but modern research backs up some of the claims. These include:
- reducing wrinkles and signs of aging
- promoting elasticity and collagen production
- reducing puffiness and inflammation
- lightening or brightening skin
Aging and wrinkles
Wrinkles are often one of the first noticeable signs of aging. There’s some research to suggest using products with ginseng may help slow the process.
“Increasing circulation and oxygenation [is] the number one thing you look for when it comes to [slowing] aging,” Park says.
According to the evidence, ginseng may deliver both.
Collagen loss begins in your 20s and 30s, though you don’t always see the effects until later.
Park says ginseng can help slow the loss of collagen, helping the skin retain elasticity.
“Ginseng root has so many compounds,” Park says. “It has vitamin D and B12. That all leads to increased circulation and oxygen and a boost in collagen production in your skin’s dermis.”
A 2020 study suggested that Korean red ginseng can restore elasticity to a person’s skin, which researchers said was likely due to changes in collagen protein synthesis.
Puffiness and inflammation
Park says puffiness or inflammation is often a result of poor circulation, which can lead to fluid retention.
“When you have fluid retention, something is stagnant in there,” Park says. “Increasing circulation and oxygen and nourishing with vitamins and minerals, everything starts flowing, and you don’t have fluid build-up.”
Park says ginseng can help, and there’s some research to support it.
Skin whitening or brightening
Medical reasons people may try to lighten their skin include issues with melasma, like discoloration or hyperpigmentation.
“When something inhibits the production of tyrosinase, the skin whitens,” says Elizabeth Trattner, a cosmetic acupuncturist who counsels clients on herbs, supplements, and skin care.
Recent research suggests ginseng may do the job.
A small 2020 study of 23 participants indicated that the skin lightened in participants who used fermented black ginseng cream twice per day for 8 weeks.
Benefits of ginseng for hair
Park notes that in Eastern medicine, the hair and skin are both considered extensions of blood circulation.
“That’s why your hair is [fuller] during pregnancy,” Park says. “When [ginseng] increases circulation, it can help everything.”
There are a few common types of ginseng. Other herbs are often mistaken for ginseng but have similar benefits.
Korean red ginseng
Trattner says Korean red ginseng is considered the gold standard of ginseng and the most well known.
Park notes it has a warming effect on the skin.
“Any time you think of warmth, you think of circulation and oxygen,” Park says.
As a result, red ginseng can aid in reducing puffiness and signs of aging. You can find it in various products.
Park notes it makes a great ingredient for:
Park and Trattner clarify that Siberian ginseng is also technically not ginseng but another adaptogen containing eleutherosides.
Trattner rarely uses it for skin care purposes.
“It’s more used to sustain good health,” Trattner says. “It’s believed to have some element that helps generate collagen in the skin.”
She says she typically recommends red ginseng instead, particularly given the greater amount of research on its effectiveness.
There is less research around American ginseng, as people haven’t known about it for as long.
Park says American ginseng is lighter in color and cooler in nature than Korean red ginseng.
“American ginseng boosts the immune system and helps balance sugar levels [when consumed],” she says.
Trattner says American ginseng may also have a calming effect, though more research is needed to confirm this.
Panax is a term that applies to a couple of types of ginseng, including Korean red and American.
“Think of Panax like peach,” Trattner says. “There are 10 different types of peaches.”
According to the studies above, Panax ginsengs may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-aging benefits.
Trattner says Indian ginseng, or ashwagandha, isn’t technically ginseng. Still, it’s often referred to interchangeably.
Ashwagandha contains withanolides, which Trattner says look and act similar to the ginsenosides found in true ginsengs, like Korean red.
Trattner says Indian ginseng is used for overall well-being, such as enhancing the immune system and lowering stress and not so much for skin care.
Your skin care routine is going to depend on your age, needs, and time constraints. Follow the steps below:
- apply serum
- apply SPF
Ginseng is in multiple beauty products, and Park says it’s beneficial at any stage of your skin care routine.
“Ginseng can be used in any one of those products [or all of them], but it’s not necessary,” she says. “If you had to choose, I would keep it in a leave-on treatment like a moisturizer.”
Trattner suggests taking a more simplistic approach from the get-go: find what your needs are and pick one product with ginseng to help.
“I would pick something that you use a lot, whether it’s a cream or toner, and pick a nice product that has ginseng in it,” she says.
With any new ingredient, including ginseng, always do a patch test before use to ensure it doesn’t cause irritation or allergic reaction.
Park says people often prefer using creams to oils if they have oily skin, and ginseng is beneficial in moisturizing creams.
“Moisturizer seals in hydration, nourishment, and the active [ingredients] in the serum,” Park says.
Trattner says creams are commonly used to lighten skin as well as for anti-aging benefits.
Trattner says clients often come to her for oil when they have dry skin.
She notes many K-beauty brands make oils with ginseng that may bolster overall skin health, in addition to moisturizing.
Though you can find and purchase ginseng extract supplements online, Trattner and Park advise against it.
They agree it’s better to buy a product that already has ginseng mixed in rather than trying to DIY.
Trattner adds that formulators know the proper dosages, plus what other herbs and ingredients it goes best with for your skin care needs.
Trattner says clients come to her for serum recommendations when they’re craving radiant skin.
Though there’s no research that ginseng improves radiance, using a serum with the root may give the user the added benefits, like reducing fine lines.
Trattner recommends toners to clients who are prone to breakouts or exercise frequently.
“You’re getting the benefits, wiping it off, and leaving a light veil on,” she says.
Sulwhasoo’s Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Water is her favorite.
Ginseng comes in several edible forms.
Make sure you speak with a reputable healthcare professional, Chinese herbalist, or naturopathic physician before consuming ginseng, and be sure to disclose any medications you may be taking.
“You need to make sure your products are standardized,” Trattner notes.
Because different ginsengs have different benefits, Trattner says it’s important to ensure you’re consuming the correct one for your needs.
As an oil
Ginseng oil is made with seeds containing fatty acids, according to a 2013 study.
Still, Park and Trattner don’t feel there’s enough research to conclude that consuming ginseng oil is the better way to go.
As a supplement
Trattner says the supplement industry has exploded over the last 2 decades.
“I’ve watched the supplement industry go from this [niche] thing to this multibillion dollar industry,” she says.
You can find ginseng supplements in health stores and at markets, but Trattner advises clients to proceed with caution.
“A lot of herbs are treated with sulfur dioxide… they can be preserved in a poor way,” she says, adding that some people may have an allergic reaction.
“You don’t know what you are getting,” Trattner says.
As a tea
Trattner notes that herbal teas have long been a staple of Chinese medicine. You can find ginseng in plenty of teas.
How effective is it? That’s debatable.
“Are you going to be getting the most potent ginseng? No,” Tratner says. “Are you going to get some benefits? Sure.”
Trattner suggests avoiding tea with red ginseng if you have high blood pressure or heart issues, as it may exacerbate these issues.
As an extract
Edible ginseng products, just like skin care products, may contain multiple ingredients that complement ginseng. Consuming an extract by itself isn’t as beneficial, according to Trattner.
“It’s not very balanced,” she says.
Always speak with a healthcare professional before consuming ginseng in any form.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed American ginseng under Appendix II in 1975.
That means ginseng isn’t endangered but could become so if trade isn’t closely controlled.
“There’s no balance,” Park concedes. “It’s ‘consume, consume, consume’ [because] it can make so much money.”
Trattner suggests buying from brands that emphasize sustainability.
She says you can call the brand and ask who supplies the ginseng and what standards they follow.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a list of best practices for diggers, dealers, and exporters, including not purchasing underage ginseng roots harvested outside of the legal buying season and leaving some mature plants for the future.
You can ask the brand if they follow those practices before purchasing a product with American ginseng.
Some research suggests using products with ginseng may help with inflammation, elasticity, wrinkles, and skin brightening.
There are several types of ginseng, with red Korean ginseng being considered the most effective. American ginseng is lighter and feels cooler on the skin, while Siberian and Indian ginsengs technically are not ginsengs, but have similar compounds.
There is some controversy regarding sustainability practices when harvesting ginseng. Research a brand before deciding whether or not to use their product.
While it’s not a skin care miracle ingredient, adding ginseng to one or two steps in your skin care routine will likely provide some benefit.