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Exploring the Potential of Using Algae in Cosmetics

There is increasing interest in the use of microalgae in cosmetics, particularly for the treatment of problematic skin conditions such as wrinkles associated with aging or pigmentation disorders which can result after exposure to the sun.

While the use of micro- and macroalgae in cosmetic formulations is not entirely new, they have until now largely been used as thickening or moisturizing agents rather than an active health ingredient. The reason for this is that their utility in this regard is little understood. In a research paper that was recently published in the journal Bioresource Technology, a team of researchers review scientific studies that have been conducted on the potential use of algae as a beauty treatment for skin health, striving to identify beneficial functions that algae can contribute to the cosmetic industry, including its potential for use in anti-aging, skin-lightening and pigmentation reducing products.

The skin is the largest organ in the human body; we all have skin, and lots of it, and we need to care for our skin if we wish it to remain soft, supple and youthful. Consequently, the cosmetic industry is a billion dollar industry, which according to the financial analysis reported by Eurostaf, a French-based company, has an annual turnover estimated at around US$170 billion (Arora et al., 2012). Yet, consumers are increasingly becoming more aware of environmental sustainability as well as the negative health implications of products that contain chemical ingredients. Consequently, there is a swing to organically produced natural products that are environmentally sustainable, and microalgal extracts are proving to be a significantly valuable resource in this regard — both in terms of what they offer, and as a contributor to this market share.

Considering that 70% of the Earth is covered by ocean, which is rich in minerals and nutrients; and phytoplankton, which are extremely plentiful, absorb these minerals and nutrients; they prove to be an abundant natural resource rich in minerals and oils that offer many health benefits.

Anti-aging Properties
Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors cause the skin to age over time, resulting in changes that cause it to become thinner, drier, more fragile and less supple with enlarged pores, fine lines and wrinkles forming. Intrinsic aging causes skin degradation and loss of skin elasticity. The protein progerin, which causes cellular aging in fibroblasts, accumulates as the skin ages. However, an algal extract from the seaweed Alaria esculenta has been shown to reduce the amount progerin in aged fibroblasts.

Extrinsic aging is the result of UV exposure which damages cells in the skin's epidermis and over time leads to wrinkles, mottled skin pigmentation, as well as increased laxity and coarseness.

Exposure to UV can cause damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) to increase, which can cause free radical cellular damage, and degradation of skin elastin. This becomes noticeable as dry skin and wrinkles, and is thought to be responsible for other sun-induced aging complications such as melanoma and skin cancer. An increase in ROS can activate matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which degrade skin elastin and collagen. As a result, the skin loses its elasticity, wrinkles form and skin aging is accelerated further.

Algal extracts have powerful antioxidant properties which have applications in combatting the oxidative stress that causes skin aging. In addition, certain algal extracts have been shown to inhibit MMPs and thus prevent damage to collagen. Furthermore, some algal extracts are able to absorb UV light, and offer great potential for the formulation of natural sunscreens.

Other Cosmetic Applications
Not only does microalgae offer great potential in combatting the signs of aging, it also has powerful anti-microbial properties which can keep skin healthy and help prevent and cure infections. Microalgae also has skin lightening properties that offer great potential for cosmetic applications such as skin whitening and treatment of skin pigmentation conditions, including skin mottling associated with UV exposure and aging.

References & Further Reading

Hui-Min David Wang, Ching-Chun Chen, Pauline Huynh, Jo-Shu Chang. Exploring the potential of using algae in cosmetics. Bioresource Technology. Volume 184, May 2015, Pages 355–362;
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