Seaweed and Other Marine-Derived Products in Skin Care

Marine algae are relatively common raw sources for cosmeceutical products.1 The photoprotective compounds identified among marine algae range from mycosporinelike amino acids, sulfated polysaccharides, and carotenoids to polyphenols, all of which are noted for absorbing UV and conferring antioxidant, matrix metalloproteinase–suppressing, anti-aging, and immunomodulatory effects.2 Such biologic activities understandably account for the interest in harnessing their potential in the skin care realm. Indeed, marine ingredients have been steadily flowing into the market for skin care, and research has proliferated – so much so, in fact, that I’ll take two columns to cover some of the most recent research on various marine species and some of the indications or potential uses for these products in skin care.

Key Activities and Potential Uses

Kim and associates note that carbohydrates are the primary components of marine algae, with copious amounts delivering a moisturizing and thickening effect when incorporated into cosmetic products. They add that marine carbohydrates are also known to impart antioxidant, antimelanogenic, and anti-aging activities.3

Dr Leslie Baumann

In 2017, Colantonio and Rivers reviewed the evidence supporting the use of seaweed, among other plants, for dermatologic purposes. The researchers considered four plants and algae (seaweed, witch hazel, bearberry, and mayapple) used in traditional First Nations approaches to skin disease. They found that seaweed shows promise for clinical use in treating acne and wrinkles and could deliver healthy benefits when included in biofunctional textiles.4

Atopic Dermatitis

Found in the seaweed Fucus vesiculosus, fucoidan is known to impart anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antitumor activity.5 In a 2019 BALB/c mouse study, Tian and associates showed that fucoidan, which is rich in polysaccharides, significantly improved ear swelling and skin lesions and reduced inflammatory cell infiltration. Given the resolution of the 2,4-dinitrofluorobenzene–induced atopic dermatitis symptoms, the investigators suggested that fucoidan may have potential as an anti-AD agent.5

Also that year, Gil and associates studied the effects of Seaweed fulvescens, a chlorophyll-rich green alga (also called Maesaengi) known to have antioxidant properties, in a mouse model of Dermatophagoides farinae body-induced AD and in tumor necrosis factor–alpha and interferon-gamma–stimulated HaCaT keratinocytes. They observed that 200-mg/mouse treatment hindered AD symptom development, compared with controls, with enhanced dorsal skin lesions, diminished thickness and infiltration of inflammation, and decreased proinflammatory cytokines. In addition, the investigators reported the dose-dependent inhibition of proinflammatory cytokine synthesis in HaCaT keratinocytes. They concluded that Seaweed fulvescens shows promise as a therapeutic option for AD treatment.6


In 2017, Kang and associates studied the impact and mechanism of Undariopsis peterseniana, an edible brown alga, and determined that the extract promotes hair growth by activating the Wnt/beta-catenin and ERK pathways. Specifically, they found that U. peterseniana significantly enhanced hair-fiber length ex vivo and in vivo. They also concluded that the brown alga has potential to treat alopecia as it accelerated anagen initiation.7

Skin Protection Potential of Ishige okamurae

In 2015, Piao and associates demonstrated that diphlorethohydroxycarmalol (DPHC), a phlorotannin isolated from Ishige okamurae, protected human keratinocytes from UVB-induced matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) expression by inactivating ERK and JNK. MMPs are known to contribute to photoaging and tumor promotion.8

Early in 2020, Wang and associates demonstrated that DPHC, isolated from the marine brown alga I. okamurae, exerted protective effects against UVB-induced photodamage in vitro in human dermal fibroblasts and in vivo in zebrafish by suppressing collagenase and elastase production and the expression of matrix metalloproteinases. In vivo, the brown alga extract lowered cell death by decreasing lipid peroxidation and inflammatory response. The investigators concluded that DPHC warrants consideration as an ingredient in cosmeceutical formulations intended to protect against the effects of UVB radiation.9

The same team also reported on their study of the protective effects of DPHC against skin damage in human dermal fibroblasts caused by particulate matter. They found that DPHC dose-dependently exerted significant decreases in intracellular synthesis of reactive oxygen species. The seaweed product also stimulated collagen production and suppressed collagenase activity, as well as matrix metalloproteinases. The researchers concluded that DPHC may be an effective skin-protective ingredient against particulate matter for use in cosmeceutical products.10

Skin Protection Mouse Studies Using Various Marine Species

The last 3 years alone have featured several studies in mice that may have significant implications in accelerating our understanding of how to harness the bioactive properties of multiple marine species.

In 2018, Wiraguna and associates studied the protective effects of 0.2% and 0.4% Caulerpa sp. (a genus of seaweed native to the Indo-Pacific region) extract gels on photoaging in the UVB-irradiated skin of Wistar mice, finding that topical applications of both concentrations of the seaweed extract protected mouse skin from UVB-induced photoaging, with treated mice revealed to have higher collagen expression and preserved collagen structure and decreased MMP-1 levels, compared with vehicle controls.11

The next year, Prasedya and associates showed that the brown macroalgae Sargassum cristafolium exerted photoprotective activity against UVA in mice. Mice pretreated with the seaweed before exposure displayed intact collagen formation and no increases in epidermal thickness, compared with controls.12

At the same time, Santos and associates demonstrated that mice fed a diet supplemented with the red seaweed Porphyra umbilicalis experienced significant decreases in the incidence of human papillomavirus type 16–induced premalignant dysplastic skin lesions.13

Also that year, Zhen and associates evaluated the protective effects of eckol, a phlorotannin isolated from brown seaweed, on human HaCaT keratinocytes against PM2.5-induced cell damage. They showed that eckol (30 mcm) reduced reactive oxygen species production and protected cells from apoptosis by hampering the MAPK signaling pathway.14Earlier that year, Kim and associates studied the viability of the microalga Nannochloropsis oceanica, considered most often as a possible biofuel, for potential photoprotective activity against UVB-irradiated human dermal fibroblasts. They determined that pigment extracts (violaxanthin was identified as the main pigment) were not cytotoxic to the fibroblasts and that treatment with the pigment extract upregulated collagen expression and significantly inhibited UVB-induced damage. Further study revealed that violaxanthin significantly mitigated UVB-induced G1 phase arrest, senescence-associated beta-galactosidase activation, and p16 and p21 up-regulation, among other functions, suggesting its consideration, according to the authors, as a possible antiphotoaging agent.15

Finally, early in 2020, Bellan and associates evaluated the antitumor characteristics of the sulfated heterorhamnan derived from the green seaweed Gayralia brasiliensis as seen on the biological activities in the B16-F10 murine melanoma cell line. The polysaccharidic fraction was found to be effective in reducing melanoma cell migration and invasion capacity.16


Marine ingredients have been ripe for exploration, extraction, and usage in the cosmetic realm for several years. Evidence suggests widespread potential across several species for dermatologic purposes. Indeed, data indicate that some species appear to be suited for treating AD, alopecia, and wrinkles and may possibly render effective photoprotection. More research is necessary, of course, to ascertain the extent to which such ingredients can adequately address cutaneous health and how truly effective the marine ingredients are in currently marketed products.

Leslie S. Baumann, MD, is a private practice dermatologist, researcher, author, and entrepreneur who practices in Miami. She founded the Cosmetic Dermatology Center at the University of Miami in 1997. She has written two textbooks and a New York Times Best Sellers book for consumers. She has received funding for advisory boards and/or clinical research trials from Allergan, Galderma, Revance, Evolus, and Burt’s Bees. She is the CEO of Skin Type Solutions, a company that independently tests skin care products and makes recommendations to physicians on which skin care technologies are best. Write to her at [email protected].


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This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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