Ergothioneine or l-ergothioneine is an ingredient that has become more common in skin care formulations over the last decade. Research about the benefits of the substance is still underway, and scientists' opinions about the effectiveness of the ingredient currently conflict. Still, many people who use products that feature l-ergothioneine as an active ingredient report receiving results from their use, suggesting that the substance may be beneficial for the skin.
The discovery of l-ergothioneine occurred in 1909, when the nutrient was first derived from a type of fungus known as ergot. Named after its source, l-ergothioneine was identified as an amino acid, the term given to nutrients that function as the building blocks of proteins. L-ergothioneine is found in a variety of fungi, including white and oyster mushrooms. Other foods that contain the nutrient include black beans, oat bran and organ meats like liver and kidneys. The substance is absorbed by the human body and plays minor roles in the function of the red blood cells and eye lenses. It is also a trace material in the composition of both semen and skin.
Structurally, l-ergothioneine is similar to urea, a substance produced by the human body that is an important component for both urine and sweat. Urea has long been touted for its protective benefits for the cells of the body.
One well-known study on the benefits of urea was published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" in 1981. In this study, urea was described as having the ability to neutralize particles that oxidize the cells of the human body. Called free radicals, these particles are found in the intense energy of ultraviolet light as well as in pollutants and other substances in the atmosphere. The oxidation that these free radicals cause results in the aging of the body, causing gradual damage to the organs and promoting the wrinkling of the skin. Free radical oxidative damage can also lead to mutations that form cancerous tumors.
Elements like urea that protect the body from oxidative damage are known as antioxidants. The similarity of l-ergothioneine to urea has led to questions as to whether it too functions as an antioxidant. One reason for the curiosity about l-ergothioneine is that unlike most other antioxidants, like vitamins A, C and E, the amino acid contains sulfur. This key structural difference has led some scientists to question just how effective an antioxidant l-ergothioneine truly can be.
Since initial inquiry into the potential antioxidative activities of l-ergothioneine began, conflicting results have surfaced. Some studies, including one published in 2010 in the journal "Cell Death & Differentiation" have found that the nutrient protects both DNA and protein from oxidative damage.
Skin care products that contain l-ergothioneine are typically intended for minimizing the signs associated with skin aging such as fine lines, wrinkles and sagging. Often, these anti-aging skin care products contain additional antioxidants along with l-ergothioneine in order to maximize on the anti-aging effects.
Because antioxidants have the ability to limit damage due to ultraviolet light, they are commonly found in sunscreens and pre-sun skin care treatments. A select number of these products contain l-ergothioneine. Until research proves definitively that l-ergothioneine is a powerful antioxidant, consumers should avoid using sun protection products that feature l-ergothioneine as their sole active ingredient, opting instead for products that feature l-ergothioneine along with other ingredients which are proven to provide broad spectrum sun protection.
Evidence suggests that l-ergothioneine is not harmful. Since l-ergothioneine occurs naturally in the skin, it is not likely to cause any type of irritation when used topically. In addition, the amino acid is unlikely to have any toxic potential. U.S. patent information suggests that research into the use of l-ergothioneine as a natural preservative is underway. Should the research prove successful, l-ergothioneine could quickly become the preservative of choice in products designed for sensitive skin due to its safety.