When you think of marshmallow, you probably think of the pink, squidgy confectionary that’s great when toasted on a fire - but did you know it’s also a supercharged beauty ingredient for sensitive skin? Hear us out. Marshmallow is a plant (the Latin name being Althaea officinalis, should you wish to get technical or hunt for it in your INCI lists), and extracts have in fact been used for centuries for their medicinal properties. Now, beauty brands are getting in on the act and using its soothing abilities to give you calmer, happier skin.
The power plant has a long list of benefits - and it’s not a new phenomenon. “Marshmallow has been used for millennia to treat skin burns and heal wounds in traditional medicine,” Lorraine Dallmeier, Director of online organic cosmetic science school Formula Botanica tells me.
It’s all down to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Though its beauty credentials date all the way back to the 11th century when it’s said to have been used to lighten the skin, it’s traditionally been a health aid. Pedro Catala, a cosmetologist and founder of Twelve Beauty, explains. “Traditionally, marshmallow extract has been used to soften the skin, for insect bites and even for burns. It has been given to babies for them to chew the root while teething. It was a popular ingredient in mouthwashes, as it helped with swollen and sore gums too.”
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While chewing on our favourite squishy sweet probably won’t have quite the same dental benefits (sadface), we can find plenty of relief for our skin when using it in topical beauty products. So what makes it so useful for sensitive skin types?
“Marshmallow contains high levels of pectins and starches, along with a high mucilage content that forms a protective, soothing gel for the skin when combined with water,” explains Lorraine. Mucilage - a thick, gummy-like mixture of sugars - is the key. “The whole plant, but especially the root, is high in mucilage and highly emollient.” Essentially, it’s a highly effective moisturiser that’s perfectly suited to those with a weakened skin barrier - and it calms things down too.
“Marshmallow is well known for its demulcent [inflammation-relieving] properties,” Lorraine confirms. It’s even thought to be effective at stimulating tissue regeneration, and because it’s been used for so long it’s a safe bet even for the most fragile skin types. “In skincare it is well tolerated, and is a key ingredient in baby care too,” agrees Pedro.
In fact, it’s great for all skin types - but if you’re prone to sensitivity, inflammation and irritation will be all too familiar to you, be it in the form of redness, rashes, itchiness or having generally reactive skin. Formulas rich in marshmallow extract (particularly from the extra-soothing root of the plant) can help to heal sore, angry skin, as well as shielding it from further irritation.
Sustainability advocates will be pleased to know that the whole plant is full of beauty benefits, too. While the root has a higher concentration of active ingredients, extracts can also be taken from the leaf, flower or seed, with many formulators using multiple parts of the plant to reduce waste and amp up the goodness.
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So how should we be using it to reap the rewards of nature’s wonder ingredient? Lorraine advises formulations using water, since the extract itself is largely water-based - therefore cleansers, serums, mists, body washes would work well.
In fact, there’s a growing trend for using it in products that you don’t leave on. “It is usually found in serums and creams where even small doses are very effective,” notes Pedro. “But lately it has appeared in toners (to calm and soothe the skin after cleansing), and even in wash-off products to minimise the harsh effects of cleansing.”
What’s not to love? Here’s our edit of the best marshmallow skincare for sensitive skin…
Epionce Lytic Gel Cleanser, £29.50
Though this helps eczema-prone skin thanks to the marshmallow root extract, this gentle cleanser is also suited for oily skin types, with willow bark extract to help reduce breakouts. Use it as a body wash for an extra refreshing shower.
NESSA Scar Saviour, £25
Making use of marshmallow in a different way is this organic balm, which is safe for use in pregnancy and while breastfeeding. “We use marshmallow root for its incredible healing abilities - it works as an anti-inflammatory and a skin soothing agent providing high levels of vitamin D, which increases natural antioxidants, working to combat hyper-pigmentation, and reduces the appearance of scars and marks,” says NESSA’s founder Fiona. Use it on scars, irritated or inflamed skin, or even breakouts. Anything goes.
Lyonsleaf Marshmallow Soften and Rejuvenate Facial Oil, £17.99
Water-based skincare may be the most common way to use marshmallow root, but this oil is just as powerful given that the ingredient makes up 50% of the product. Shortlisted for a Free From Skincare Award in 2019 (alongside the Calendula and Marshmallow Balm which was shortlisted across four categories), it’s a firm favourite for eliminating dryness and irritation, leaving skin soft and supple.
Dr Hauschka Rose Day Cream Light, £30.50
A lighter version of one of the brand’s hero products, this fluid moisturiser is free from synthetic fragrances yet smells divine. With rose water and extracts as well as marshmallow, avocado, almond and sesame oils, it’s an instant soother and ideal for the summer thanks to its lighter texture.
Green People Scent Free Hydrating Calming Serum, £20
Formulated for the most fragile skins, this super-soothing serum is free from fragrance and alcohol, and is instead packed with nature’s best anti-inflammatory ingredients. Flavonoid-rich marshmallow and chamomile help to calm the skin while aloe vera and seaweed hydrate and heal - it’s a sensitivity sufferer’s must-have.
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Jurlique Moisture Replenishing Day Cream, £32
This rich and nourishing cream combines marshmallow extract with safflower and jojoba seed oils as well as shea butter and beeswax to comfort dry, irritated skin. So good that online users are demanding it be available in a bigger size, it hydrates and protects while providing a smooth base for makeup. Dreamy.
Clarins Extra Comfort Toning Lotion, £21
This refreshing, soothing toner harnesses marshmallow extract and aloe vera to gently clarify the skin after cleansing - an ideal duo for those prone to sensitivity and redness.