Known as the "Champagne of Life," "Tea Fungus" and "T'Chai from the Sea," kombucha is a foodie health trend with staying power.
Kombucha itself is a type of yeast, although it is most commonly used -- and ingested -- in fermented tea form. The trend has spurred DIY-fermentation classes in Brooklyn, paparazzi photographs of celebrities such as Mary-Kate Olsen and Orlando Bloom indulging in the beverage, and kombucha drinks marketed by major tea companies such as Tazo, Honest Tea and Celestial Seasonings. Kombucha enthusiasts have long touted the supposed health benefits of the tea, using it to address an array of conditions, from PMS, immune system issues and slow metabolisms to joint pain, fatigue and hair loss.
Over the last few years, this live culture has also been increasingly spotted as an active ingredient in skin care products. But, what are the possible benefits of kombucha for the skin? And is there any science to back these claims up?
Companies such as emerginC and Oak Bay Naturals have released product lines that market kombucha as a key, active ingredient (alongside an array of other active ingredients, including tea). A simple Google search for "kombucha skin care" turns up dozens of articles about kombucha's possible cosmetic uses and even a recipe for making kombucha skin cream at home!
According to an emerginC representative, "Kombucha not only detoxifies, but also hydrates the skin as it improves skin elasticity. Kombucha improves skin tone, texture and clarity as it brightens the skin. Finally, kombucha as an active ingredient also combats the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines."
Anecdotally, kombucha -- both as a skin care product and as a drink -- has possible health benefits. In a video produced by Newsweek, a fermentation student reflects upon her personal experience with kombucha tea: "Once you acquire a taste for it, you crave it, cause it makes you feel so good. You kind of start to notice that it helps things that you didn't know were wrong with you. Like maybe you get less headaches or you get more energy in the afternoon -- just little things." And this student is far from alone in her views.
"People have been drinking kombucha with alleged health benefits forever," says Patricia K. Farris, M.D. a dermatologist with Old Metairie Dermatology. Some surmise that kombucha's potential benefits for the skin stem from its antioxidant properties and probiotic component. The Huffington Post's Wellness editor, Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, said that although she was unsure whether kombucha was indeed beneficial to the skin, "The use of probiotics in skin care products is increasing."
However, when it comes to hard science on these topics, there is little to be found. While a few studies have been conducted regarding ingested kombucha -- producing mixed results -- both Farris and Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, a Dermatology Clinical Research Fellow, told The Huffington Post that to the best of their knowledge, no clinical, peer-reviewed studies had been conducted testing kombucha's effects on the skin or hair. The only case report addressing topical kombucha that Dr. Johnson could locate, dealt with a patient who had developed cutaneous anthrax. The report, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998, surmised that the topical kombucha may have provided a medium for bacterial growth. "Right now there is no scientific evidence of benefits, but there are cases of harm," says Johnson.
And of course, companies that market kombucha-based products -- natural or not -- have a stake in their financial success. "I think that most of these [health] claims are financially motivated," says Johson. "One person might have taken it and noticed a change. So they started to speculate that this would happen to every person."
But many outside of the traditional medical community remain adamant that determining kombucha's potential health benefits should not be left solely in the hands of mainstream medicine. "Any medical practitioner is going to have a cynical view when it comes to anything natural," says GT Dave, President and CEO of GT's Kombucha. "They're programmed to support things that are man made, pharmaceutical based -- it's all they know."
While GT's Kombucha does not produce any skin care kombucha products, Dave told The Huffington Post that many of their consumers choose to apply the company's ingestible kombucha drinks topically. He believes that kombucha's antisceptic quality and organic acids may work to balance the skin's pH -- thereby giving individuals a clearer complexion.
When questioned about the lack of clinical trials done on these products, Dave said his theory is that patent law could be a reason why companies that produce natural products may choose not to invest in clinical trials. "In the natural world, you can't patent a natural product like [you can] in the pharmaceutical world," he said. "A producer of a natural product, if they spend all the money to do clinical studies, there's very little protection over the intellectual property [afterwards]."
Ultimately, it seems as though the jury is still out on the benefits of kombucha skin care. For now, these communities may need to agree to disagree. "There are theoretical and potential benefits [of kombucha]," says Farris. "But I think unless [there is] a [clinical] study on a skin care product, then we can't talk about what the benefits may truly be."