What do you picture when you hear the word algae? Perhaps, some dark water with long strands floating in it? Or the bright-green surface of a small pond? Or maybe long brown stems drying under the sun on a sea shore? Over 6000 known algae species inhabit our oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and streams, but they can live outside a body of water too—algae are found in some places where rain water accumulates, on trees, damp surfaces, even animal skin!
Algae can be tiny, practically invisible to naked eye, or gigantic, dozens of meters long. They don’t have leaves, roots or stems; a body or thallus is all there is. Algae are the primary source of organic matter in water and the first link in the food chain, providing nutrition for numerous living beings in the water.
The colour of algae, from bright blue and green to pale yellow or delicate pink depends on the pigments they synthesise. We’re used to calling forests the “lungs of the Earth” but in fact it is algae that produce most of our planet’s oxygen. And the most important part in this process is played by blue-green ocean algae. Although technically calling them algae or seaweed is incorrect, for they are in fact bacteria. Cyanobacteria or cyanophytes live on photosynthesis. “Seaweed” constantly exhale oxygen into the atmosphere and have been doing so for nearly 3.8 billion years. The same bacteria-seaweed are found in the fossils of the Precambrian era. It can be said that the Earth’s atmosphere has been created by the algae, and as long as they continue breathing, we exist. Another amazing thing about algae, is that they can destroy and neutralise many of the harmful things that humans pollute the environment with. The state of algae is one of the most important criteria of water purity.
Almost all algae have an organic compound in them, alginic acid. This biologically active substance is used in skincare to moisturise the skin, neutralise microbes and drain excessive liquid. Another well-known agent extracted from algae is agar-agar. In microbiology research labs agar-agar is used to grow the colonies of microorganisms on. Chefs use it to make jellies and as a universal thickening agent.
Many algae contain vitamin complexes—vitamin A, or B-group vitamins, or vitamin A derivatives, including antioxidant astaxanthin. Almost all algae have anti-inflammatory effect, because they contain sulphate polysaccharides—long chains of sugar molecules, connected with sulphur. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, found in many algae, are similar to the human skin’s own lipids and especially beneficial for ageing skin with omega acid deficiency.
Generally, it wouldn’t be too much of an overstatement to call algae a universal cosmetic ingredient, anti-ageing and normalising at the same time. Algae are relatively easy to collect, process and store, which makes them even more popular.
Is there a danger of algae allergy?
Just like any other natural ingredient, algae can cause allergic reaction. However, the basic agents of most algae rarely do.
Agar-agar, alginic acid, omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids are not very allergenic per se, so if you happen to be allergic to one species of algae, it does not necessarily mean that you’ll develop an allergy to another.
Marine and Oceanic Algae
Algae living in seas and oceans were first used in skincare decades ago, and their use in cooking and traditional medicine goes back hundreds of years. Sea water contains plenty of various minerals which affect the composition of algae. They are diverse, and many of them are highly biologically active and have beneficial effect on human skin. Unlike freshwater algae, marine and oceanic are often used for body care, including anti-cellulite solutions.
The brown strands of bladder wrack (or Fucus vesiculosus, otherwise known as black tang, rockweed, bladder fucus, sea oak, dyers fucus, red fucus, and rock wrack) are most often seen near sea rocks. The name comes from bladder-like structures in the algae. Air-filled bladders hold it up in the water making bladder wrack easy to harvest.
Bladder wrack has as much protein as spirulina, but it is a lot richer in carbs, 45–70% of its weight is made up by polysaccharides. Bladder wrack extract contains a lot of alginic acid and fucoidans, polysaccharides with fucose in their composition with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect which can improve local blood circulation and help accelerate the lymph flow. Alginic acid has draining properties too and intensifies all metabolic processes. Bladder wrack extract contains a lot of iodine — just one body treatment can compensate for iodine deficiency, help lose a few pounds and make you feel generally better. Manganese, iron, magnesium and calcium in the extract accelerate the skin’s healing, while sulphur and zinc fight harmful bacteria and suppress inflammatory processes.
Bladder wrack extract or micro powder are most commonly used for thalassotherapy and cellulite treatment, effectively reducing swelling and supporting weight loss. However, people with sensitivity to iodine, thyroid gland diseases and iodine allergy should avoid it.
Laminaria belongs to the class of bladdery algae too and its dark brown strands can be spotted in practically any sea. It is only gathered, however, in the summer and early autumn—in French Brittany it’s done with special hydraulic devices attached to boats. In Japan laminaria is known as kombu and, after nori, it is the most popular edible alga. Kombu is used in numerous recipes, eaten raw and marinated. This may be one of the secrets to the famous Japanese longevity, for as rich is bladder wrack is in iodine, laminaria is ten times richer: bladder wrack contains 500 mg of iodine per kilogram of weight, while laminaria—as much as 5000 mg! This is why laminaria is seldom found in home skin care products, and laminaria body wrap masks and powder are only intended for professional use—if a person with iodine allergy or intolerance applies some body care product with laminaria, they may experience severe intoxication or allergic reaction.
Laminaria contains nitrogen, a lot of iron and copper, some magnesium and manganese, it helps restore the skin’s elasticity. There’s a special ingredient in it too, called laminarin, that affects fat cells and accelerates fat splitting process. Laminaria is one of the cornerstones of weight loss cosmetic programs, and if your aesthetician adds to it professional body slimming massage and advice on healthy diet, you can lose weight fairly quickly.
Chondrus crispus (Carrageen)
Chondrus crispus or carrageen is otherwise known as Irish moss. It grows on stones and rocks by the line of the rising tide, forming small bouquets, while its body rarely grows larger than 10 cm long. Cosmetology has yet another name for it—sea silicon, for its ability to create a delicate film on the skin surface. This peculiar quality stems from the fact that almost half of its composition is made up by carrageenans, specific polysaccharides. Carrageen cells contain some iodine, copper, quite a lot of iron, providing its pronounced healing effect, and some agents rather unusual for algae—boron and sulphur. Both of these have antiseptic action and enhance healing processes, which is why carrageen extract is often used to treat acne. Sulphur and boron work as antiseptics, destroying pathogenic bacteria and other microelements, and healing the skin, while carrageenan keeps the skin moisturised and restores its natural protection.
Meder Beauty Science Products with Carrageenan
This peculiar alga lives at the bottom of the sea, predominantly near the shores of France. 95% of its composition is made up by minerals, so it is really no wonder lithothamnium is sometimes mistaken for coral or even stone — in a way it is a sort of a living stone. Live lithothamnium is of delicate purple colour, but in the course of life its branches change, turning grey and stone-like.
Skincare-wise lithothamnium is valuable because of high amino acid contents and mineral composition. It contains an unusually large amount of calcium and magnesium providing soothing effect, and also a collection of oligo elements: a lot of iron, fluorine, manganese, some boron, zinc, molybdenum and cobalt. The iodine contents is small, but there’s also bromine, which makes the alga a perfect “sleeping pill” for the skin. The best use for lithothamnium is all kinds of products for sensitive and thin skin, except in cases of iodine allergy, of course. Dried lithothamnium powder is used as a natural abrasive in peelings and scrubs for face and body.
Palmaria was known to Scandinavian sailors back in the times of the Vikings: they took it with them on their long journeys and wrapped fish in it, same as Japanese fishermen on the other side of the world wrapped their fish in nori. Lately palmaria has become rather trendy and is served in fancy restaurants—its unusual nutty taste is well liked by food enthusiasts in Europe and America.
Palmaria prefers cold oceanic waters, it is gathered in the Arctic Ocean, and along the northern shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Curiously, in the French town of Saint-Malo people tell a legend of palmaria: once there had been a dreadful hunger, fishermen kept coming back from the sea with their nets empty week after week, until an old stranger walked into town with a caravan of ten horses and a huge wagon; and in that waggon there were seeds of every single plant found in Brittany. The old stranger threw all the seeds into the sea, when his wagon was empty, he disappeared, and after a week the bottom of the sea was covered in purple sea weed and shoals of fish were swimming in their midst. And never again did the town’s fishermen return from the sea without a haul.
The name palmaria comes from Latin “palma”—hand. Indeed, these algae resemble little hands waving in the water. In Scotland and Ireland fishermen call them dulse or dilisk.
They are incredibly rich in protein, just like nori, and contain quite a lot of vitamins—vitamin C, provitamin A, B-group vitamins. Palmaria contains plenty of iron and iodine, some aluminium, zinc, magnesium and copper. Cosmetology has use for it as a nourishing agent, but primarily it is an active brightening ingredient: plamaria extract brightens the skin, reduces the synthesis of melanin in the pigment cells and the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, decreasing the possibility of pigment transfer from melanocytes into the surface skin layers. Palmaria extract also reduces sweating, most likely because of high aluminium contents.
This alga is called sea lettuce, because it looks a lot like the lettuce we put in salads. Sea lettuce carpets the bottom of coastal zones, favouring the calm waters of the Atlantic shores, the Black Sea and the Pacific. The round stem of sea lettuce can attach itself to sand, stones, other sea algae, and even the shells of some molluscs, so sometimes sea lettuce migrates from one place to another using their own transport!
The sea lettuce’s main characteristic is incredibly high contents of magnesium and of some vitamins—it contains 10 times more vitamin C than orange, plenty of vitamin E and the active form of vitamin A. The contents of calcium in sea lettuce is 20 times higher than in milk! All these vitamins and microelements are both good for the skin and well assimilated.
Sea lettuce is capable of binding nitrates and is used to purify polluted and infected seas and rivers. The alga absorbs toxins and is buried in the ground where it forms a nutritious layer for the growing plants.
Cosmetology employs sea lettuce for the detox programs for tired and stressed skin, as well as smokers’ skin. It is also included in the formulae of dehydrated and ageing skin care products, soothing solutions for sensitive skin. The sea lettuce powder is used as an absorbent in the products for oily skin.
Chrithmum Maritium (Sea Fennel, Samphire)
Although many call chrithmum an alga, it is in fact a sea weed, growing on the rocks in shallow waters, and it needs air, just as much as water, to survive.
Chrithmum, or sea fennel, is well known to sailors: Bretons have been taking it with them on long sea journeys for many years, knowing that it prevents the sailor’s plight—scurvy. The plant can survive in water with a very high concentration of salt, is not much affected by the sun, heat, freezing cold and strong sea tides. The secret to such endurance is hydrophobicity—the cells are able to protect themselves from water and anything diluted in it. A quarter of chrithmum mass is made up by minerals, among them plenty of zinc, magnesium and copper—these microelements help heal injuries and eliminate irritation. Curiously, chrithmum is an essential oil plant, its delicate very fennel-like scent is due to high contents of essential oil in its leaves. The oil has antiseptic, healing and brightening effect.
Until recently, chrithmum has been used in cosmetology predominantly as a brightening agent. However, a few years ago research revealed that samphire stem cells extract, even in very low concentration, can restore the epidermal barrier of human skin as well as the skin’s protective properties, including diminished with age. Today chrithmum is one of the ingredients used in anti-ageing cosmetic solutions.
Codium is one of the most widespread sea algae, it belongs to the sun-loving green algae family. Codium grows on rocks, but can descend down to 20 metres deep, if the water is clear enough, the sun shines bright above the rocks and nothing casts a shade on the water. Codium is easy to recognise, just look for velvet emerald green ropes, swaying slowly in the current. The “ropes” can grow 30 metres long, but rarely more than 1 cm wide. In the summer codium is covered with white firry fluff, light fibres giving it quite a peculiar look. Sometimes, codium “bushes” resemble some exotic animals, snuggled up in the bottom of the sea.
The Chinese and Japanese cook some traditional foods with codium and consider its taste quite refined. In Europe, codium is not often used in cooking, but recent research has discovered that it is incredibly rich in vitamin A. Pure, biologically active vitamin A, extracted from this alga, has found its use in cosmetology. Codium extract itself is used too, apparently it has a pronounced moisturising effect, helps restore the skin’s resilience and reduce the evaporation of moisture from its surface.
Codium has a curious property—it can intensify the synthesis of melanin, which is why creams and other skin care products with codium should be avoided if one has pigmentation disturbances or is undergoing skin brightening treatment.
The French call fresh water l’eau douce, which means sweet water. Algae and microorganisms, living in it, have certain special qualities. Today many of them are used in skincare, mostly for mature skin.
Spirulina is one of the most ancient bacteria. It lives in lakes, including Mexican and Indian tropical salt lakes, and African Lake Chad. Its tiny thalli, barely 1 mm in diameter, create long blue threads in the shape of microscopic cork screws, making the water look bright green-blue.
Lately, spirulina has acquired the title of “food of the future”, which may sound a bit exaggerated, but spirulina truly is a perfect diet food, containing about 6 grams of protein per 100 grams of the product, no fat and only 2.5 grams of carbohydrates. Its calorie count is very low, while the contents of vitamins and minerals is incredibly high — vitamins A, C, D, E and K, all B-group vitamins, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, phosphorus and organic fatty acids.
Some people think that the primary use of algae in cosmetology is anti-cellulite treatments, but they couldn’t be further from the truth.
Spirulina, for one, is mostly applied to restore the skin’s resilience and its ability to regenerate and heal. Spirulina extract penetrates into the deep skin layers, enhancing the skin’s restoring abilities with its vitamins and minerals. Spirulina’s proteins and amino acids are used by the skin to restore its structure, and fatty acids — to reestablish the lipid mantle of the epidermis.
Spirulina-based solutions are especially beneficial after an illness or pregnancy and childbirth — it contains a lot of iron, which is good for anaemia; phosphorus has a beneficial effect on the nerve tissue, and copper helps restore the immune system. However, people with nickel dermatitis or reaction to cobalt must treat it with caution, because spirulina may provoke allergic reactions.
Chlorella, a microscopic alga, is one of the most ancient Earth organisms. Scientists believe chlorella to have first appeared in the waters of the World Ocean more than two billion years ago. Chlorella’s amazing endurance and the ability to adapt to ever-changing environment appear to be due to its perfectly balanced cell structure and biochemical composition. More than 50% of it is protein, indispensable amino acids — the ones that are vital for human body. About 10% of chlorella’s composition is minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and selenium. Besides oligo elements, chlorella is rich in vitamins—E, the vitamin of youth, all B-group, vitamin K strengthening the blood vessels, and vitamin C. Almost 3% of chlorella’s weight is made up by carotenoids, the precursors of vitamin A, powerful anti-oxidants enhancing the skin’s protection against ultraviolet. One-third of chlorella’s weight is basically fibre, actively consuming the toxins and even heavy metals—mercury, lead and cadmium.
Sounds a lot like a fancy food supplement for skin care and maintaining youth, doesn’t it? Indeed, chlorella extract is a base of many food supplements for body detox, immune system stimulation, digestion help, etc.
Cosmetology employs chlorella to boost healing and regeneration processes, slow down ageing and restore the skin’s elasticity. Curiously, chlorella is just as beneficial for young problem skin, providing both cleansing and anti-inflammatory effect.
Chlorella lives in fresh water, preferring warm rivers and lakes, but can only be gathered in an absolutely unpolluted environment. Chlorella absorbs the toxins and metals from the water, purifying it from harmful substances, but becoming potentially toxic itself.
This micro alga belongs to the green-blue algae family. It was discovered in one of the purest lakes on the planet — Lake Klamath in Oregon, USA. Lake Klamath’s total area is 320 km2, but it is not very deep up to 18 metres in the rainiest season. Klamath is far from big cities, it is still unaffected by industrial pollution and environmental problems and possibly is just as it used to be at the dawn of time. The lake is fed by the rivers and waterfalls from the surrounding mountains, by mountain glaciers and melting snow in spring.
Like some other kinds of micro algae, AFA are in fact bacteria from the cyanobacterium family. Unicellular microorganisms make up huge colonies shaped like long threads which are often mistaken for seaweed. The indigenous people of the region, knowing of the lake water healing powers, called these threads the “flowers of living water” and algae had an important place in traditional cooking.
Today many researchers claim that Klamath alga is the most complete and balanced food of all known in the world. AFA fully satisfies the human need for vitamins—it contains 10 times more provitamin A than carrot; 100 g of fresh alga contains the required daily doze of B-group vitamins, vitamins C, E, F, K, choline (previously called vitamin J) and minerals: calcium, iron, natrium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. AFA also contains the full doze of oligo elements: chlorine, chromium, copper, fluorine, silicon, titanium, zinc, iodine and selenium. The protein contents in this alga is higher than in any other vegetable food and can reach up to 70% of its total weight, and all 20 amino acids necessary for human body are equally present. And on top of it all, AFA is rich in omega fatty acids, that our body needs to protect itself from the free radicals.
AFA alga emerged on the planet at least 3.5 billion years ago. Along with some other sea micro organisms it was one of the first life forms to fill the Earth atmosphere with oxygen. It hasn’t changed in the billions of years, remains unaffected by nature catastrophes and there are no bacteria on the planet that could destroy it. In the summer it multiplies every 4 days and during the season about 50,000 kg of this amazing “weed” is gathered in the Lake Klamath.
The rich composition of AFA has a medicinal effect on the skin. The AFA extract helps heal injuries, accelerates the skin’s regeneration, renewal, and the syntheses of collagen and hyaluronic acid. There’s a reason Lake Klamath waters were called “living” after all.
AFA is also used to make food supplement, but one needs to be extremely cautious when taking it. The problem is, along with the medicinal blue algae, the lake waters contain toxic species of green algae, and even a small amount of those, accidentally mixing with AFA when gathering and processing, may be dangerous if taken orally.
This alga was first discovered in the backwater of the Guadalete River in Andalusia. Today it is widely used by aquarian enthusiasts and therefore fairly well-known. This brown micro alga can purify the water and keep it clean for a long time, working as a sort of natural water purification system.
The main feature of this tiny round alga (barely 3 µm in diameter) is that it is incredibly rich in most potent anti-oxidants—astaxanthin, zeaxanthin and canthaxanthin. These agents belong to the pigment substance class, it is them that colour the alga brown, but they also actively bind and destroy the free radicals, including the ones of synthetic origin. The small cells of the alga contain plenty of vitamin C, tocopherol (or vitamin E) and cyanocobalamin—vitamin В12 rarely found in plants. Anti-oxidants and vitamins make up the rejuvenating formula, actively affecting the skin, which is why nannochloropsis attracted attention of cosmetic research labs.
Nannochloropsis became a foundation of a new biotechnological cosmetic ingredient Pepha-Tight. It is basically nannochloropsis extract combined with polysaccharides. Studies have proven that Peppa-Tight is able to eliminate the oxidising stress in the deep skin layers, stimulate the synthesis of collagen by the derma’s fibroblasts, noticeably reducing wrinkles and improving the skin’s tonicity and resilience.
The new biotech complex does not cause allergic reactions, is well-tolerated by all skin types, including hypersensitive skin, and is effective even in small concentrations.
Excerpt from “The Science of Beauty” by Dr Tiina Meder
© Dr Tiina Meder
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