For the last several months, the beauty sphere has been discussing the benefits of the Geisha facial, which boasts bird poop as its main ingredient.
It’s a fair guess to wager that most people don’t like having birds defecate on them. And it’s certainly not something you’d pay to experience.
But when it’s the tiny droppings of nightingales get collected and put into a facial, not only will people put it on their face, they’ll pay around $180 to do it. That’s because the word on Geisha facials is that, similarly to chemical peels, they make skin look brighter and clearer, but without the irritation. And many people swear by it, including Victoria Beckham (New York Times).
But there are some questions surrounding the science. While there are anecdotes from traditional Japanese medicine, the scientific data about bird feces is somewhat scarce.
Nightingale facials became prevalent several centuries ago in Japan for Geishas, who wore very heavy white, lead-based makeup that left their skin damaged. They discovered that the droppings from the Japanese bush warbler, a type of nightingale, would help to clear up skin, leaving them with a great complexion. Even after the use of lead in their makeup was stopped, Geisha’s continued to use the reportedly skin-brightening facial.
In order to make the facial now, the guano — the word for bird feces — is made into a powder and sterilized under UV-light before being used (New York Times, Telegraph). Those who have gotten the facial have assuaged many potential patrons concerns by saying that it doesn’t smell like bird feces.
Urea is the “final product of protein metabolism” and is a substance found in human urine, as well as in the skin at about 1% (Archives of Dermatological Research). When applied to the skin, it works as a natural moisturizing factor (NMF), binding water to the skin, and promoting the production of keratin.
In a study comparing a traditional detergent cleanser and a urea wash, researchers found that the both improved abnormal values of skin moisture, skin surface lipids, and transepidermal water loss (TEWL). However, they found that the wash with urea work for significantly longer (Contact Dermatitis).
In another study researchers tried to discover whether urea, which helps ingredients penetrate skin as a moisturizer, would make irritation from sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) better or worse (Archives of Dermatological Research). Scientists fond that urea did not help SLS penetrate; in fact, it improved barrier function, decreased TEWL, and helped prevent a reaction.
Other studies have found similar results. One comparing urea to glycerine in terms of treating atopic dermatitis found that while both improved TEWL, urea had a lower number for TEWL (Skin Research and Technology). Researchers concluded that urea was actually better for treating the condition.
If this word seems familiar, it might be because looks similar to the work “guano,” which is typically used to refer to bird excrement — the words have the same route. Guanine is found in most cells in the human body because it’s one of four chemical bases in DNA, the others being adenine, cytosine, and thymine (Human Genome Project).
For this reason, there are claims that guanine can speed up the healing process of the skin, making it smoother and clearer (Asian Beauty Secrets). There are plenty of products that work to target the Guanine nucleotide binding protein or G Protein, but putting DNA onto your skin won’t really make any improvements to the DNA (ASSAY and Drug Development Technologies). So putting Guanine on your skin won’t affect DNA.
While it won’t work by altering DNA, it could potentially have benefits because of its other properties. Yet, despite the popular notion that guanine — when applied topically — will make skin brighter and clearer, there isn’t a lot of scientific data to back it up.
If you’re curious and have an extra $200 to spend, you might be interested in trying a Geisha facial — after all, it does have a lot history of use. But the scientific data backs up one of the components of bird poop and has relatively little information on the topical application of the other. Urea is a common ingredient in moisturizers that can improve the skin barrier, lessen transepidermal water loss, and boost keratin production. Guanine has less research behind it. Bird poop on a whole has very little scientific evidence to support its usage and there are, of course, other ways to get both urea and guanine onto your skin. Still, it’s been popular for centuries so science could uncover benefits yet.