Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I’d arrived at a snail farm an hour outside of Bangkok to interview the four Thai researchers who founded Siam Snail, and instead found myself reluctantly posing for pictures as snail cream was applied to my face, no closer to learning how exactly the snail slime had been extracted.
Instead of the private interview and viewing of the mucin extraction process I’d been promised, I was surrounded by at least 25 members of the Thai media, listening to a presentation in Thai with the occasional translation whispered my way. As we walked through the small farms — dense clusters of vegetation where snails are left to roam freely — the PR rep assured me I’d be able to return later to ask all my questions and photograph slime being collected from the snails, as I’d originally arranged.
The tour ended with a group lunch by the river, complimentary jars of night cream, and encouragements to post on social media. After a month and a half of trying to schedule a follow-up visit, I received a text late on a Friday night saying that the board had decided to keep its processes confidential.
It was slowly starting to become clear why snail creams have become a topic of confusion and debate among skin care devotees. Weeks later, with emails to snail specialists gone unanswered, it was certain: This is a thorny subject. The question of how snail slime is extracted — and the related concern of whether it can be done humanely — is a difficult one to answer, but maybe not for the reasons you think.
As K-beauty products have become more visible in the US, sold at a variety of price points in places like Sephora, Target, CVS, and Nordstrom, so too have snail creams. Made using snail mucin, the slime is collected, typically processed into a filtrate, and then formulated into the final product (though there are spas where snails directly crawl across your face).
In ancient Greece, snails were used as a topical treatment for inflammation, and today snail mucin is also harvested in places like France and touted as one of the secrets to the effortless beauty of Italian women.
The snail beauty boom as we know it today was kicked off in the early 1980s when Chilean farmers, who were producing escargot for the French market, noticed that handling their slimy livestock led to softer hands and cuts healing more quickly.
“Koreans are really good at picking up what they’ve heard somewhere else and running with it,” says Janice Kang, the senior director of marketing and new business development in the Americas and Europe for DKCOS, whose beauty products are sold in places like Walmart, Target, and Ulta.
She believes Korea’s position as a snail cream superpower is in large part because “snails are a big part of the [Korean] diet and drinking culture,” which made it easy for many farms to quickly transition from the food industry to the beauty industry. Michelle Wong, a science educator and chemistry PhD whose blog Lab Muffin explores the science behind beauty products, adds that in South Korea “consumers are more likely to try out novel ingredients even if they seem a bit ‘gross’ [since] they’re a bit more results-focused.”
The snail’s role as food source can obfuscate its role in the beauty industry. In the absence of images of how snail mucin is collected, it’s not uncommon for blogs to use images of snails being cooked. Taken from cooking shows or demonstrations of how to scrape a snail from its shell, these images of snails literally being killed aren’t a good approximation for the process of mucin collection — to produce mucin, snails need to be kept alive.
Chel Cortes, who runs the K-beauty-inspired online store Holy Snails, thinks “that a lot of the scrutiny” in the West around snail creams “is due to the animal itself,” tapping into “an innate bias against” what is not a particularly beautiful creature. Blog posts theorizing about how snails are treated can also focus on the “weirdness” of the ingredient.
On her own blog, Racked contributor Tracy E. Robey offers a humorously NSFW post about how just because something, like snail slime, sounds gross, it doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it. Complete with a Whitney Houston GIF asking for receipts in response to blogger claims that snails are being harmed, Robey writes that the history of the West denigrating Asian people based on the consumption of certain animals means there are “real life implications of once again calling Asian stuff weird and cruel with ... in this case, zero evidence.”
What there is evidence of, according to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, is that “snail slime has been shown to have many benefits on aging skin [and is] rich in hyaluronic acid,” giving it hydrating properties.
While it’s “unclear whether [snail creams] are truly better than traditional moisturizers or ingredients like retinol,” they have been shown to “stimulate collagen production and enhance wound healing,” which is one major reason they’ve become so popular among skin care devotees.
According to Wong, “snail slime also seems to have whitening properties,” and since it “contains allantoin (an anti-irritant) and a number of moisturising ingredients, it’s likely to help ... counteract the irritation caused by many [other] whitening” agents, tapping into a “huge market in Asian countries.”
According to the brand representatives I spoke with, though there are many ways to collect mucin, popular techniques usually involve leaving snails in a dark room and having them crawl on a surface like mesh, specially made glass, or a tarp, and then collecting the slime afterward.
Brands like Mizon and CosRX use mucin collected through some version of this method. DKCOS sources from multiple suppliers that use different methods. Snail8 collects slime by stimulating snails by hand, and techniques involving a steam bath or salt water also exist.
Whether because of the 2016 discovery that certain companies were outsourcing the folding of beauty masks to private homes, or the reminders that certain clothing manufacturers have continually employed child labor, shoppers today have good reason to ask critical questions about where products come from. That there are so few images online of the actual collection process can be troubling, and in the absence of clear supply chains and manufacturing procedures, it can be easy to worry that some wrongdoing is being covered up.
But according to various brand representatives, it’s less that suppliers are trying to hide what they’re doing wrong. They’re trying to hide what they’re doing right.
Alicia Yoon, the founder of Peach & Lily, an “online portal” for K-beauty products, credits supplier evasiveness, whether it’s about their process for collecting “snail mucin or even botanical extracts,” to the fact that having “the most cost-effective and highest-quality ingredients [is a company’s] secret sauce in a highly competitive industry.”
That’s why CosRX’s supplier won’t allow filming at its facilities, out of “concern that their refinement technique [could] be leaked,” says team manager Hye-Young Lee, who says that “with the K-beauty boom,” there’s a real concern that domestic and international competitors might be trying to “take note of their [supplier’s] valuable technology.”
The secrecy around proprietary information means that only designated CosRX staff are allowed to visit and regularly inspect their supplier’s facilities. Kang says that a few of DKCOS’s suppliers won’t allow anyone from the brand to visit at all.
So when PR reps for beauty brands didn’t answer my questions, there was a chance it was because they didn’t have any answers themselves. The process of getting those answers, and having English-speaking reps contact their Korean offices and suppliers for sensitive industry information, can stretch the process for weeks or even indefinitely.
Even Lee, who has previously fielded similar questions and provided redditors with documents broadly outlining the mucin collection process of CosRX’s supplier, still took weeks to answer as she waited on information and translations from other teams within the company.
Because of these barriers, South Korea’s ban on animal testing in cosmetics, which went into effect fully in February 2017, is often pointed to as proof that animals in the industry are being treated well. “The topic of animal abuse across various industries has sparked controversies in Korea, and Korean consumers are quite vigilant and vocal about what they’re consuming,” says Yoon. Though there’s a distinction between animal testing and using animal byproducts, she, along with Lee and Kang, point to these laws as a reason customers can feel confident that snail farms are following humane standards.
“Looking away from the emotional standpoint, it just doesn’t seem cost-effective” to harm them, adds Cortes, pointing out that snails, which produce mucin throughout their lives, are moneymakers. “I have not personally come across brands that work with snail mucin ingredient suppliers that harm the snails,” says Yoon, and given “that there are varied cost-effective options that do not harm snails,” she finds it “hard to imagine” suppliers choosing to harvest mucin in a harmful way.
Because beyond all the perceived weirdness of snail slime and the usual questions about whether any specific beauty product truly holds the answer to ageless or “perfect” skin, one question remains the most contentious: Are the snails suffering? And if they are being treated poorly, can they even feel pain?
Snails aren’t the cutest or sexiest of the animal rights causes, which might be why so few resources about their treatment in the beauty industry are available online. Apart from beauty blogs featuring images of snails being cooked, or forums with people talking through allegations of cruelty, the only easily accessible information from a major animal rights organization comes from a PETA article and beauty product roundup.
Though the article is correct that some companies use salt in the process of collecting mucin, its claim that this is “known to harm” snails conflicts with its linked source, which assures “those concerned about the animal rights issues” that “the snails are left unharmed by the process.” (When I first reached out to the organization in February for comment, I was told this would be looked into, but as of publication, the article has not been amended.)
Many researchers looking at animals with simple nervous systems, like lobsters, snails, and worms, argue that because these animals cannot process emotional information, they cannot experience suffering, a claim that PETA has challenged. “Any time that animals — no matter their size — are raised for their body parts or secretions, you can bet that cruelty will be involved,” says Jason Baker, PETA’s vice president of international campaigns.
“Given all we know about their capacity to experience pleasure and suffering, it’s inexcusable to treat them callously like pieces of laboratory equipment to be manipulated, used, abused, and discarded for any reason.”
Baker also says that because these products aren’t vegan, Korea’s animal testing ban isn’t enough of an assurance that snail creams are cruelty-free, pointing out that “since the early 1980s, experimenters have documented that snails and other gastropods detect and will try to escape from painful stimuli.”
The cited studies do show that snails retreat from certain painful stimuli, though they also concede this could be a reflex rather than the more complex emotional response and pattern of behavior we associate with suffering. One source also cites the controversy over whether anesthetized invertebrates’ slowed response to painful stimuli is proof of dulled pain or simply because their muscles are too relaxed to react.
Intended to better inform laboratory procedures when dealing with invertebrates, many of these studies note the physical reactions of these animals while still acknowledging that we cannot draw definite conclusions about how they process pain.
While researchers and animal rights activists are still debating the highly subjective definition of suffering and trying to find ways of testing and measuring it, some authorities, like Canada’s Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, have concluded that “the balance of the evidence suggests that most invertebrates do not feel pain.” “There’s a lot of debate about the extent to which animals feel pain and suffering, even amongst biologists,” says Wong, so if you haven’t made up your mind yet, you aren’t alone.
Snail slime remains a contentious, as well as popular, outcome of the K-beauty boom in the US. And while many of the brands I spoke with admitted that snail mucin receives more scrutiny than most other ingredients in the beauty industry, there still aren’t many easy answers about how each company gets its snail mucin or how invertebrates process the sensation of crawling over mesh or being put in salted water.
“Unfortunately, the beauty industry is shrouded in mystery. I think it’s been that way since it was first created,” says Cortes of Holy Snails, who thinks the “beautifying” of products and the importance of brand stories have in many cases led to “marketing [getting] in the way of information.”
In the face of barriers presented by marketing and proprietary information, it’s good to question the products we purchase and what we know about them. The shopping decisions you make, with the information that’s available, are up to you.