Sustainable Ingredient Science: Brown Algae

Nature and Technology

Two common misconceptions by consumers surrounding the efficacy of natural products in general are: They are safer than synthetics, and they are less efficacious. These perceptions are often opposed by experts including dermatologists or cosmetic scientists; indeed, most dermatologists advocate for synthetic and inert products, which are less reactive on skin. Cosmetic scientists analyze these materials on a case-by-case basis, and suggest that a general rule for all does not exist.

A decade ago, vegetable extracts were often included in cosmetic formulations at low concentrations for marketing purposes. Efficacious concentrations were not used for fear of how such concentrations would affect the color, smell, solubility and stability of the formulation. Natural extracts were occasionally used but never alone. At that time it was too difficult and costly to test efficacy in vitro, much less to conduct clinical studies. DNA chips were not commonly used by cosmetic scientists, and tests were basic and useless for examining the original targets. Moreover, natural extracts were often tested at higher concentrations than those used in the final formulas.

Technological and natural products in cosmetics seem to have successfully evolved in parallel, both growing for different reasons according to customer perception. However, with advances in technology and science now available for developing and testing extracts, these parallel paths can be bridged. Naturally derived products can be efficacious and safe while maintaining their positive image for purity, sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Several companies are embracing the idea of bridging nature and science, investing in technology and improving the quality of their supply chains. This is important not only for cosmetic scientists who prefer ethical sourcing, but also for consumers who consider these elements when purchasing natural products. The natural cosmetics market is growing annually by more than 10%,1 as is consumer awareness for issues linked to ethical supply chains and biodiversity.2 This emphasis on an ethical supply chain for natural raw materials will continue to grow, along with the concepts of sustainability and social responsibility.

With all these considerations, during the sustainable ingredient development process, it is important to equally consider: the origin of the plant and how its cultivation impacts the environment and local communities (both socially and economically); the extraction procedures for purifying the fraction or molecules desired while discarding others; and analytical measures to improve the identification of molecules in the finished product. Extraction procedures in particular can be useful to improve and optimize both scientific efficacy and sustainability; careful genomics and proteomic testing of the resulting product, followed by clinical trials for specific claims, can add further science and credibility.

Algae Activity

Sea-harvested brown algae is known to have skin benefits and previously has been associated with an increase in skin elasticity.4 Fucoidan, found in brown macroalgae such as Undaria pinnatifida, is a unique marine ingredient. It is a sulfated, fucose-rich polymer that in nature, protects the seaweed against a range of external stresses, including UV radiation and environmental contaminants such as marine-borne pathogens and viruses.

In the human body, fucoidan interacts in acute and chronic inflammation via the selectin blockade, enzyme inhibition and complement cascade inhibition.5 Its capacity as an immune-modulatory agent also has been established.6 Medical targets for fucoidan include osteoarthritis, kidney and liver disease, neglected infectious diseases, hemopoietic stem cell modulation, protection from radiation damage and treatments for snake envenomation.5

As in medicine, the skin care application of fucoidan would be as an immunity regulator and soothing ingredient,7 similar to other natural-derived polymers from beta glucan to tamarindus polysaccharides.8, 9 Notably, other properties have been identified such as its capacity to inhibit metalloprotease activation while protecting collagen synthesis;10, 11 to target tyrosinase;12 and to interfere with adipocyte differentiation.13

Phlorotannins are polyphenols, found in brown algae such as Fucus vesiculosus, exhibit antioxidant and skin-soothing capacities.14, 15 In addition, their anti-glycation16 and anti-tyrosinase activities17 functions complement the fucoidan efficacy spectrum.

A leading cosmetic scientist once said to this author, “I love algae extracts. I believe they are among the most effective materials when I am looking for skin care efficacy. Moreover, they bring the ‘natural’ touch and purity.” However, he added it is difficult to convince the formulator to use them since at certain concentrations they smell, have a strong color and can make formulas unstable.

Clearly, improved efficacy and stability could therefore be achieved by removing the ingredient’s scent and color. In addition, the relative concentration of the active molecules in the extract could be improved to allow for reduced concentrations in the finished product. These processes require great care, since removing entities that produce smell and color can also remove molecules important for efficacy.

Case Study: Enriched Algae

A series of brown algae extracts was recently developed with improved fucoidan and polyphenol concentrations. F. vesiculosusa, prolific on the Atlantic coastline of Europe, North America and Canada, was first collected along the coasts of Nova Scotia, while U. pinnatifidab, also known as the edible Wakame alga, was gathered off the Tasmania and Patagonia coastlines. These extracts were enriched for fucoidan and polyphenols; the U. pinnatifida for fucoidan, and F. vesiculosus for both fucoidan and phlorotannins; the enrichments accounted for more than 95% of the whole extracts.

Overall, the extracts exhibited efficacy 100 times that of their original extracts. Further, preliminary in vitro studies on protease inhibition with the fucoidan-rich U. pinnatifida extract were followed by clinical studies and showed a reduction of wrinkle depth, improvement in skin smoothness, and an increase in skin elasticity. Further genomic studies are planned to identify the precise mechanisms of action and the genes involved, together with additional clinical trials to further highlight the skin benefits of these extracts.

In addition, by increasing desired components and removing undesired components such as salt and iodine, the purity of the extracts was verified analytically, further helping to associate the results with the identified molecules in the extract. Notably, purification in general also reduces microbiology counts, providing cleaner extracts with less of a need for preservatives.

Sustainable Harvesting

Crossing the bridge between scientific edge to an ethical, environmentally conscious supply chain, consider the harvesting technique of the alga in this case study. Endemic species of F. vesiculosus were selectively trimmed by hand to allow for regrowth. In addition, harvest areas were rotated to ensure healthy growth is maintained. Conversely, U. pinnatifida releases millions of spores every year, which means it grows in massive quantities and reduces the ability of the other algae to grow. In this case, harvesting re-establishes a balanced equilibrium in the ecosystem.

In addition, carbon dioxide pollution is reduced by decreasing the carbon footprint: both the water used for the extraction procedure and the algae waste are recycled as an organic certified potting mix—eliminating all landfill. Further, community aid is provided by the supplier through investments in local product manufacturing, bringing jobs to the area as well as generating charitable donations and educational grants to students interested in scientific careers.

All of these activities has been implemented and certified by institutions such as the Australian Government and the Cousteau Society. Moreover, the extracts are certified organic by Australian Organic (formerly the Biological Farmers of Australia); to achieve this, extracts must be purified without chemical solvents.

Formulating Considerations

As explained, reducing the scent and color of brown algae extract, increasing the active content, and minimizing unwanted and potentially reactive components allows the formulator to use smaller concentrations of the extract; i.e., between 0.1% to 1%. These lower levels reduce the risk of incompatibilities and material setting, improving overall stability. Analytical identification of the major and minor components in the extract also allow the formulator to pass toxicology reviews since all ingredients would be known, moving them quicker into formula approval. Reduced microbiological counts in the extract also reduce the risk of contamination and avoid the need for large amounts of preservatives. Finally, the increased relative actives concentration in the extract moves the formulator closer to a successful clinical proof of efficacy: a vital part of successful cosmetic development. This brings sustainability back to the science, and full circle.

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