Gift of the sea
Kiwi scientists are working to unlock more of seaweed’s skincare secrets.
Words Carolyn Enting
Find out which New Zealand beauty brands use seaweed as a hero ingredient, and why. Plus, why Kiwi scientists are working to unlock more of seaweed’s skincare secrets, including its potential to be used in sun care products that are healthy for our skin and the environment. Ahydrator, brightener, exfoliant and antioxidant, seaweed is a skincare hero ingredient that you’ll find in many of your pots of gold in your bathroom cupboard for good reason. It’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and proteins, and regulates oil production, exfoliates, brightens and moisturises dry skin. And it’s compatible with many ingredients, making it a winner in many formulations. There are more than 30,000 known species of seaweed in our oceans – red, green or brown – and each have different properties that can benefit our skin health and appearance. A key ingredient of Aleph Beauty Concealer/Foundation is Alaria esculenta, a kelp extract found in Greenland’s glacial waters known for its long, golden-like fronds. It has been extensively studied and is shown to promote elasticity and suppleness by reducing levels of collagenase and elastase (the enzymes that break down collagen and elastin). It’s also been scientifically proven in vivo and vitro testing to stimulate hyaluronic acid-synthesis. “I chose Alaria esculenta extract not only because it is a sustainably grown and harvested ingredient, [but because] this plant by necessity needs to be flexible and ‘snap back’ when pulled in all directions by the extremely strong tidal waters in which it lives. These are properties that we all want to impart to our skin,” says Aleph founder Emma Peters. “We use this in our Concealer/Foundation as an active ingredient to stimulate detoxification, downregulate a particular protein associated with accelerated ageing, and increase overall metabolism of the skin.” Emma Lewisham Skincare also harnesses the power of seaweed, in particular Alaria esculenta, in several of its products. “We incorporate powerhouse antioxidant Alaria esculenta (seaweed extract) in our Supernatural 72-Hour Hydration Face Crème, Brighten Your Day Crème and Illuminating Exfoliant,” says Emma Lewisham. “Alaria esculenta is sustainably and carefully extracted from the ocean’s brown algae/seaweed. It acts as a firming agent that works to reduce the visible signs of ageing and protect the skin from oxidative damage caused by free radicals for a more revitalised complexion. Alaria esculenta is rich in amino acids, antioxidants and skin-beautifying ingredients. It is made up of a web of elastic fibres that ensures cohesion and firmness of all the cell architecture because as we age our body naturally produces less collagen so it’s important to topically apply skin fibre ingredients that increase the skin’s natural production of elastin and collagen.” Also look out for the products in The Body Shop’s Seaweed range. They contain Fucus vesiculosus (bladder wrack extract), a wild-harvested seaweed that is renowned for its conditioning and hydrating benefits, while its non-oily nature makes it particularly suitable for normal to oily skin. Chondrus crispus, a red algae extract, is another ingredient used in the range. It’s a rich source of many nutrients for skin, including the pigment beta-carotene and potent antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein, which help protect skin from the visible effects of blue light exposure. The natural polysaccharides, peptides and amino acids in red algae also help skin to stay hydrated; meanwhile, the numerous antioxidants in this and other types of algae can help shield skin from damaging airborne pollutants. Closer to home, Ocean & Green Marine Collagen contains nutrient-rich wild-grown Macrocystis pyrifera kelp, hand-harvested off Kaka Point in The Catlins. The kelp grows a metre a day (that’s not a typo!), naturally replenishing itself after a harvesting. It’s a remedy for improved gut health, strengthening the immune system and stimulating healthier hair, skin and nails, says Ocean & Green founder Daneen Morgan. Ocean & Green, which is also organic, will be releasing its first seaweed skincare range soon, too. And now a group of scientists in Nelson are investigating if New Zealand seaweed and algae can be used in sun-care products that are healthy for our skin and the environment. They are looking at how some seaweed and algae have compounds that can protect skin from UV damage, possibly even after it has been exposed to the sun says Mike Packer, co-leader of the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge Project. “Some seaweed and algae species have bioactive compounds that can protect skin from UV damage,” he says. “We are interested in the compounds’ potential to prevent and treat sunburn in new ways, not just simply blocking damaging UV light. This includes potentially interacting the processes underlying the sunburn process – to stop the damaging parts of the sunburn process.” Packer says he’s not encouraging people not to slip, slop and slap but their findings might be part of a new regime for looking after your skin while getting the benefits of exposure to sunlight without the harmful effects. That’s why the research points to “sun care” as opposed to “sun block”. The project is one year into its two-year research period and has already “had some good hits” according to Packer. The research involves testing and monitoring multiple seaweed types in locations around New Zealand looking at different temperatures and seasonal effects, and which ones will be amenable for farming sustainably. Seaweed cultivation is the most rapidly expanding sector in aquaculture production globally, accounting for more than 50 per cent of total global marine production, equating to 34.7 million tonnes. It currently supports the livelihoods of more than 6 million small-scale farmers and processors, many of whom are women, in predominantly low- and middle-income countries. Aside from skincare, food, pharmaceutical and agriculture industries it also has potential as a biofuel. Seaweed farming also increases and restores biodiversity by providing marine habitats for marine creatures and can help mitigate climate change through carbon capture and methane emission reduction. However the industry is increasingly feeling the pressures of warming seas caused by climate change, which have made coastal waters uninhabitable for some seaweed species.