Three plants, one name
Ginseng is the name given to the roots of several plants in the same Panax genus. The most common three are South China ginseng, Korean ginseng and American ginseng. Unlike many plants, these are each unique species rather than different variations of the same species that have been bred for some unique characteristics in different geographies.
Ginseng is further distinguished by whether it was grown wild or cultivated, and by the degree of processing it has undergone. Fresh or green ginseng undergoes the least processing, white ginseng is peeled & dried, red ginseng is steamed & dried, making it less vulnerable to decay.
Why ginseng matters in the modern world
Ginseng is widely used in various eastern medicine traditions, and is gaining popularity in the US as a nutritional supplement.
It is purported to have a number of health benefits, although none of these have been yet sufficiently studied for the FDA or medical establishment to support ginseng’s medicinal use. However, some preliminary studies have shown promise with regards to possible effects on fatigue, memory, diabetes and menopause.
Both the root and leaf are also eaten or infused in beverages, particularly Korean cuisine.
Okay, but why is it on a beauty blog?
One of the most interesting proposed benefits — from the perspective of the cosmetically inclined — is early research suggesting that ginseng can promote hair growth and prevent hair loss.
Hair loss and hair growth are actually two separate phenomena. Hair loss and alopecia (balding) occur when the amount of hair fall exceeds the amount of hair growth, or when new hairs do not replace those that have fallen.
Hair growth concerns both the rate at which hair grows, and the ultimate length hair is capable of reaching before it reaches the point in the growth cycle when it is ready to fall. (More on this in a future blog post).
There is preliminary evidence suggesting that ginseng, and its major bioactive constituents called ginsenosides, can promote hair growth by keeping hair in the growth stage longer, and prevent hair loss by interrupting the signal that triggers hair fall.
It is fairly common knowledge at this point that skin should be protected from the sun, and slowing damage from free radicals by using antioxidants. What is less well known, is that the same applies to the part of the skin responsible for hair growth, the hair follicle.
Sun damage to the hair follicle can interrupt the hair growth cycle as a whole. Early evidence suggests that ginseng has a protective effect on the hair follicle, reducing oxidation and the creation of tissue degrading enzymes in the hair follicle.
Although early studies have shown significant promise, ginseng is not medically recognized to date because it has not yet undergone the extended human trials.
So, while you will find ginseng offered in an increasing number of hair growth products on the market, none of these are yet officially medically cleared, and none have been vetted and approved for sale by a medical oversight commission.
This is important because it means that any topical ginseng product you do buy will not have the sort of official quality oversight you would expect from anything regulated as a medicine, drug, or over-the-counter product.
There are extensive and well-documented problems in the ginseng supplement market, where an alarming number of product either either do not contain ginseng at all, or have harmful contaminants alongside the ginseng. This is known only because some degree of quality assurance testing has taken place around consumable ginseng.
So if you do opt to try a ginseng product for your hair, make sure you purchase from a known, reputable company to ensure that any product you get actually has ginseng in it. Moreover, be aware that there is no minimum threshold of an ingredient a product needs to contain to put the ingredient on the front of the label. So, a product may contain 0.05% ginseng and be called a “ginseng shampoo” even though there is practically no ginseng in it.