The secret healing powers of silk you won't believe
Silk has long been the ultimate in luxury textiles. It can conjure images of the wealthy and powerful of China, Marilyn Monroe claiming to only sleep naked in silk sheets and the high end of the sensuous lingerie market. Now, research from all around the world is showing how versatile and useful this natural fibre can be.
Medical trials are using silk proteins to save lives, while silk clothing has been shown to be able to assist with everything from dermatitis to vaginal thrush. The ability of silk to fight the signs of ageing is also becoming better understood, allowing us to use these natural properties to turn back time — at least a little!
Silk is an environmentally sustainable and biodegradable natural fibre, too, so it certainly deserves further investigation into how its amazing properties can benefit humanity.
An ancient love story
Silk fabric was originally developed in China, with the earliest example dating back to 3630 BCE. The Chinese emperors so jealously guarded the secrets of their treasured robes that silk remained a largely Chinese monopoly for a millennium. Originally reserved for the emperor and the gifts he bestowed, the fabric later began to be used by the wealthy of China both as a status symbol and for cosmetic and health benefits. The rich wouldn’t just wear silk; they would also sleep in silk bedding. Sleeping on silk, it was believed, reduced wrinkle formation and hair loss.
The secrets of silk did, of course, gradually escape China. One legend of silk’s spread tells the story of a Chinese princess in the 5th century BCE. She was betrothed to a prince from the kingdom of Khotan, then outside the borders of China on the Silk Road, but loved silk so much that she couldn’t bear to leave China without the means to keep producing it in her new homeland. Despite the ban on exporting silkworms, she managed to hide all the necessary parts for sericulture in her bridal coiffure, knowing no guard would dare to search it.
The economic realities of how silk spread around the world are less interesting but ultimately tell the same story of daring people being willing to risk grave consequences to meet the burning demand worldwide for this treasured fabric.
Benefits for the skin
Modern research into the properties of silk is split into two areas: the isolation of chemical compounds from silk for medical and cosmetic use, and the use of silk fabric to improve a variety of cosmetic and medical skin conditions. To better understand why the material is so effective, it helps to examine some of the research into the chemical properties of silk. Then we’ll turn to the use of the fabric to enhance your life.
According to research, silk is 97 per cent protein and principally composed of two main proteins: sericin and fibroin. It’s these proteins that are responsible for many of silk’s incredible properties. If you’ve been paying attention, you will have noticed that silk proteins are rapidly becoming part of many beauty creams and products. This is because cosmetic research on these proteins has revealed some remarkable findings.
Silk proteins have been shown to increase the hydration of the skin’s epidermal cells as well as naturally decrease further moisture loss from the skin. Interestingly, these are two of the benefits of sleeping on silk expounded in ancient China.
Silk proteins are being used to engineer vascular tissue, cartilage and ligaments, and skin cells to assist in a wide variety of injuries.
Studies show that silk proteins are also extremely high in antioxidants, which benefit the skin and inhibit lipid peroxidation and tyrosinase activity in the skin. Inhibiting these functions has been found to be very useful in reducing the signs of ageing. So effective are these silk proteins that, after exposure to them, the skin has actually been shown to have smoother topography.
Additionally, early research is showing that silk proteins applied to the skin may actually reduce skin tumours caused by UVB light. These studies suggest that silk proteins, when applied as part of beauty products, may have a photo-protective effect on the skin by reducing oxidative stress.
Silk in surgery
Silk proteins have extremely strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, too. This, and silk’s high tensile strength, is why silk sutures for wounds have been used for centuries in ancient Asian cultures. This fact has not been wasted on modern medicine, which now employs silk bandages. Silk bandages have been shown to repair the epidermis so well that healing actually takes place, on average, seven days faster than with conventional bandages.
It was a long-held belief in China that sleeping on silk pillowcases could reduce wrinkle formation on the side of the face that you sleep on.
The variety of silk-based medical products in use and in development is staggering. Screws made of silk proteins are now being used in place of metal to hold together broken bones. Silk proteins are being used to engineer vascular tissue, cartilage and ligaments, and skin cells to assist in a wide variety of injuries.
Even medical microchips are now being produced from silk proteins, thanks to research by a University of Sydney physicist. These microchips can be used to test vital signs in critically ill patients. In addition, they have shown promise in drug delivery for previously untreatable forms of epilepsy. Unlike conventional microchips, silk protein microchips are made from a natural organic substance that will simply dissolve harmlessly over time when they are no longer needed, avoiding the need for removal.
Silk’s health potential doesn’t stop there. Early research on injectable silk gels is showing that it may be able to strengthen the cervix of pregnant women. Researchers at the Tufts Medical Center in the US believe that, in future, silk gels may be able to help reduce premature delivery. Silk is ideal for this use as it is three times as strong as Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests, but importantly degrades over time and is not rejected by the body’s immune system as many synthetic substances are.
In the US in 2012, 12 per cent of births were premature, while about 8 per cent of births are premature in Australia and New Zealand. A new technique to reduce this could dramatically decrease both medical costs and emotional trauma for parents.
Research into the cosmetic application of silk textiles to the skin is just as exciting as silk’s medical uses, and helps explain many of the attributes ascribed to silk in the ancient Chinese literature.
It was a long-held belief in China that sleeping on silk pillowcases could reduce wrinkle formation on the side of the face that you sleep on. In one study, Scandinavian surgeons found that cotton pillow cases increase wrinkle formation. Silk, meanwhile, prevents this wrinkle formation and so is considered a much better alternative for those concerned with the signs of ageing.
The ancient Chinese also believed that sleeping on silk could reduce hair loss. It was understood that, as silk did not produce friction, it didn’t tear out the hair while sleeping. This alone can explain the modern use of silk both in fashionable hats and in pillowcases to assist in the prevention of hair loss and frizzy hair. Interestingly, research has found that the proteins in silk can adhere to the keratin in both skin and hair. By doing so, the proteins produce a perceptible protective film on the hair, which may also help explain silk’s ability to keep hair straight and strong.
Silk’s benefits for kids
Many parents will be excited to learn that silk also offers some relief to children suffering atopic dermatitis (AD). Sufferers of AD have long been advised to avoid clothes made from wool or other rough fibres that irritate the skin. Traditionally, cotton was advised as the alternative; however, cotton is also quite a rough fabric. Silk seems a natural alternative. At this point, at least three independent trials have been done on children, confirming the effectiveness of silk in the relief of AD.
Silk sheets may prove a bit of an economic stretch for children’s bedding ... but using a couple of silk pillow cases in rotation is a cost-effective way to employ the benefits of silk against allergies.
In particular, researchers have found that wearing silk clothing — including body tights for infants, socks, trousers and long-sleeved shirts — reduced the need for application of topical creams. Wearing silk reduced both the severity of the atopic dermatitis and the area of skin covered by AD, and AD also recurred less frequently. Plus, importantly, the use of silk clothing led to no known side-effects. The overall conclusion was that silk clothing significantly benefitted AD due to its antibacterial properties and smooth, non-irritating properties.
While we are focused on children and silk, it should be mentioned that silk naturally repels dust mites, mould and mildew. For this reason, it’s sometimes recommended that children and adults with allergies sleep on silk bedding. Silk sheets may prove a bit of an economic stretch for children’s bedding … but using a couple of silk pillow cases in rotation is a cost-effective way to employ the benefits of silk against allergies for your children or yourself.
Silk for menopause and thrush
In recent years, silk has gained a reputation for reducing the symptoms of menopause. Evidence is mainly hearsay from users, but people who regularly use silk products report that sleeping on silk eases the discomfort of hot flushes, and silk pillow cases reduce changes in complexion brought on by menopause. Some menopause sufferers also say it helps reduce the sweating produced by hot flushes. This is anecdotally supported by the modern use of silk cloth in many high-end sports and hiking garments to reduce sweating for the wearer.
Silk underwear, once only the domain of expensive lingerie brands and wealthy women, may also deserve wider recognition. A large study conducted in Bologna, Italy, found that wearing silk underwear over a period of six months reduced the burning and itching associated with vaginal thrush by up to 90 per cent. Additionally, recurrence of thrush was reduced by half over the period of the study compared to wearing cotton underwear.
Given that thrush affects three in four women at some point in their lives, silky smalls seem a very affordable and practical way to help combat and prevent it. The results of the Italian research were so convincing that, in the UK, some types of silk underwear are now available on prescription on the National British Health System (NHS).
Which silk to choose?
The evidence presented above makes a strong case, for many people, to incorporate more silk into their lives. Yet, alongside its reputation for sex appeal, comes silk’s reputation as a delicate fabric.
You can see from the evidence above that this is far from the case. However, to make the most of any silk products, it’s best to purchase silk of at least 19 momme. “Momme” is the unit of measurement employed in grading the thickness of silk, somewhat like thread count in cotton sheets. Garments of 16 momme or less tend to wear out quickly. Be sure to buy from a supplier you can trust. A lack of knowledge about silk in Western countries has led to many suppliers selling 16 momme silk or less as 19 momme silk. This can lead to customer disappointment when their silk products don’t last.
Mulberry silk, produced by silkworms fed solely on mulberry leaves, is considered the highest-quality silk available. Mulberry silk is finer and less coarse than other forms of silk. It’s often worth spending a little more to obtain mulberry silk if purchasing silk products for the benefits discussed in this article, as many of those benefits are dependent on the smoothness of silk against the skin.
Silk is a natural, environmentally sustainable fabric. Long associated with lingerie and sex appeal, it may now produce many medical and cosmetic breakthroughs that will improve lives all around the world. Not bad for the product of an innocuous little worm!
5 silky secrets
Want to harness the power of silk? Use these five simple tips:
- Buy natural beauty products that contain the anti-ageing proteins such as sericen from silk.
- Sleep on silk pillowcases to reduce the signs of ageing, hair loss and frizzy hair.
- Sleep on silk bedding to prevent allergies caused by dust mites, mould and mildew.
- Invest in silk clothing to reduce the symptoms of dermatitis or eczema on the affected areas of the body.
- Buy silk underwear to reduce the symptoms of and prevent recurrence of vaginal thrush.
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