Using marshmallow in anything but between a graham cracker and a slab of milk chocolate in a s’more might seem a bit “new age,” but the truth is that marshmallow root —Althea officinalis — is an herb native to Northern Africa, Europe and Western Asia long used in the food and medicinal traditions that date back to ancient Egypt. Lucky for us, its benefits go beyond overall health and into anti-aging properties that make it ideal for our skincare regime.
The root of the marshmallow plant contains a thick, gummy substance called mucilage, plus a slew of other ingredients like polysaccharides and flavonoids, which have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that support skin health.
“Marshmallow root’s high amount of mucilage help coat the skin,” says Karyn Grossman, M.D., a dermatologist at Grossman Dermatology in Santa Monica, Calif. “It also has high amounts of ceramides, which help with hydration and repairing the skin barrier. In general, people with dry, sensitive skin could benefit from this ingredient, as it helps to hydrate and soothe the skin.”
The mucilage itself is very high in protein and considered a demulcent, which means that it swells up when it comes into contact with water and relieves irritation by forming a protective film over a mucous membrane. Not only will it protect the skin from the rigors of shaving, thanks to the mucilage wash, it also makes it a great option to treat skin conditions rooted in inflammation, like eczema, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and plump the skin. “When it comes to skincare, a nighttime moisturizer is a great choice,” she says.
Grossman also thinks it is safe to incorporate into hair routines, particularly for people with brittle and damaged hair, as it can make the strands appear thicker. In general, its moisturizing and plumping properties give a volumizing effect with a bit of slip that helps hair feel smoother. The glycerin also functions as an emollient that softens skin and moisturizes hair.
“This ingredient works well in hair care products, as the mucilage can bind to the hair shaft, improving texture and detangling,” says Grossman. Look for it in shampoos and scalp scrubs that address irritated scalp issues.
But skincare is not the only way to see results from this ingredient. “Some people ingest marshmallow root,” says Grossman. “It’s been used for many years in herbal medicine to help with coughs and digestive problems.”
Studies have found that the root helps reduce inflammation and irritation associated with respiratory problems rooted in excess mucus production — think coughs, colds and even sore throats. Similar to how mucilage reduces irritation in the skin, it reduces irritation in the respiratory tract and the lymph nodes. To harness its soothing powers, marshmallow tea may work wonders, since it soothes almost everything it touches, treating swelling of the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, and even the stomach lining.
But, remember, while you might be tempted to warm up the sticky candy confection we have known and loved for years, a marshmallow, as we know it today, is no longer made from the real marshmallow root. Instead, you can find marshmallow root extract in liquid form, which you can work into anything from face masks to hair washes — or better yet — find yourself a good serum that includes the star ingredient.