From the sea to the skin
From the sea to the skin

The growth of marine ingredients in skin care

From fish to sea plants and even the seawater itself, the world’s oceans are teeming with ‘ingredients’ that have been used for cosmetic purposes for thousands of years, along with an abundance of new discoveries that are proving highly valuable in new product developments. 

And with today’s consumers not only demanding high efficacy but continuing to show a preference towards natural and naturally-derived products, it’s no surprise that ‘marine’ continues to be a key sector of the skin care industry. In fact, the global market for natural skin care is predicted to grow at 8-10% per year and be worth just under $22bn by 2024. With figures like that it comes as no surprise that the cosmeceutical industry is increasingly turning to the sea in the search for new molecules.  


The ocean’s rich pickings

Sea creatures

Sea creatures are responsible for providing many of the marine actives currently found in skin care products. Marine collagen is a protein that is extracted from the scales or skin of saltwater fish such as cod and salmon, and is rich in skin penetrating amino acids. Marine collagen also binds water up to 30 times its molecular weight, so when used as a key ingredient in topical creams, it can deliver help to hydrate the skin, without causing irritation or allergic reaction. We also have fish to thank for marine elastin, another form of protein that helps to keep skin tissue elastic and thereby slow the ageing process. Salmon milt (seminal fluid) provides marine DNA, which plays an active role in the synthesis of protein in the basal layer of the epidermis and moisturises the skin while repairing skin cells. Fish roe enzymes and extracts are also playing more of a role in skin care in recent years. The enzyme that is released into the water when baby salmon hatch from their eggs has been shown to act as a natural exfoliant, dissolving dead cells while leaving healthy cells intact. As it is so gentle there is little risk of redness and inflammation that are sometimes associated with other enzyme-based exfoliants. Caviar extracts taken from fish eggs are also being used in skin care as they are rich in vitamins, provide effective hydration and assist with normal skin cell turnover on ageing skin. 


Dead sea minerals

The Dead Sea is actually a saltwater lake, but its waters contain 26 essential minerals – a dozen of which are exclusive to the Dead Sea – that are key to stimulating cell renewal. These concentrated minerals are absorbed through the skin, fighting dryness, inflammation and the signs of premature ageing. They’re even considered beneficial for countering the effects of eczema and acne. 



The sea offers its fair share of mineral actives including calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, which give it astringent and tonic properties and are considered helpful in healing the skin, treating dermatitis and helping to clear acne lesions. It is also said to improve the skin’s cellular communication while hydrating and moisturising abilities ease dryness and irritation. Marine magnesium is extracted from seawater and may help to improve the skin’s ability to retain moisture and soothe eczema. Sea salt is also rich in trace elements and is popular as an ingredient in exfoliating and peeling products.


Pearl extracts

Derived by crushing pearls into powder or dissolving them enzymatically in water, pearl extracts have long been a popular ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine and Asian skin care. Packed with antioxidants and amino acids, these extracts are commonly used to brighten the skin through exfoliation and an infusion of minerals that support cell renewal. 


New marine ingredients 

But when it comes to ocean bounty in skin care, those renowned ingredients are really only the tip of the iceberg. Skin care scientists are discovering that there are plenty more marine extracts that pack a pretty powerful punch in
skin care.


Pseudopterosins are marine compounds derived from the gorgonian soft coral Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae, which is native to the waters of the Caribbean Sea, Central Bahamas, Bermuda, the West Indies and the Florida keys. After decades of extensive research, these biologically active compounds are being recognised for their superior anti-inflammatory, analgesic and wound healing properties, and in particular for their potential for treatment of various conditions including contact dermatitis, dermatoheliosis, photodamage and psoriasis. Pseudopterosins also offer marked antimicrobial and wound-healing effects. 



It is estimated that there are between 30,000 and one million species of marine algae and they range from single cell organisms (microalgae), to plants like kelp and seaweed (macroalgae). These plant actives have been getting a lot of attention in the skin care industry because they are high in essential skin minerals like copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc, as well as vitamins A, B-vitamins, C, D, E, and K, not to mention protein and amino acids. 

The cellular structure of human skin and algae are surprisingly similar. Moreover, algae experiences similar environmental onslaught and stress as human skin. Consider the regular dehydration caused by changing tides, attacks from UV radiations, thermal stress from air and water, oxidation, bacterial attacks from wetlands, the change in seasons and even being knocked against rocks in the ocean. And yet algae has impressive defence abilities when it comes to mechanical healing, UV and antioxidant protection and abilities to maintain its own hydration levels – all things that people look for in skin care products. The study of algae’s varying protective strategies have opened up a large sector of research in the area of cosmetic actives and there are currently more than 100 algae-derived ingredients used in skin care for a variety of benefits including promoting elastin and collagen production and balancing moisture, lightening dark spots by suppressing tyrosinase (the enzyme that creates melanin) and treating acne and rosacea due to anti-inflammatory properties. What’s more, algae are known for being highly compatible with the skin as they do not seem to present any specific dermal toxicity.

In general, macroalgae can be divided into three main groups: green algae (Chlorophyta), brown algae (Phaeophyta) and red algae (Rhodophyta) and each offers a number of cosmeceutical benefits. 

Green algae are known for their ability to promote collagen production and support elastin health. For instance, a peptide extracted from the single-celled green algae Chlorella vulgaris stimulates production of four types of dermal collagen and elastin and is loaded with amino acids such as lysine, proline, glycine, and alanine, all of which are the essential building blocks of proteins and constitute each individual collagen unit. Its large amino acid component leads many to believe that it has the ability to restructure and smooth out the surface of the skin, particularly with scarred or ageing skin. In some studies, a small concentration of 0.016 percent stimulated collagen synthesis, and concentrations of 0.4 percent strongly increased the density of the epidermal layer. Other studies have shown that it can increase skin firmness and significantly reduce the appearance of stretch marks.

Brown algae such as kelps and rockweeds include potent phlorotannins (antioxidants), in addition to sulfated polysaccharides such as fucoidan, which is found mainly in various species of brown algae and brown seaweed such as mozuku, kombu, bladderwrack, wakame, and hijiki as well as in animal life such as sea cucumbers. Fucoidan boasts anti-inflammatory and procollagen synthesis-stimulating properties and is helpful in healing burns, alleviating allergic reactions and treating atopic dermatitis.  Additionally, fucoidan has been shown to successfully reduce the appearance of ageing by increasing dermal fibroblast migration and their rate of proliferation.  Another seaweed, Laminaria digitata, boasts the ability to retain water in its plant tissue – much like the skin’s epidermis holds water – mensuring it stays plump and hydrated, even in low tide.

Red algae are lauded for their healing and moisturising properties. Chondrus crispus is a red algae found along the rocky parts of the Atlantic coast of Europe and North America and it is being used in face washes as a way to gently remove dead skin cells, excess oil and dirt from the skin. Red algae also acts as a humectant, drawing moisture into the skin and holding antioxidants against the skin to help fight the production of free radicals, which can lead to cell death and premature skin ageing.


Sea fennel stem cells 

Found on the Brittany Coast in France, this particular type of sea fennel is being used for stem cell extraction and is thought to help stimulate the skin’s own stem cell production, therefore protecting the cells against premature ageing caused by exposure to UV rays along with free radical damage.


Cellynkage marine ingredient  

Inspired by a microorganism living in the saline Agua Amarga salt marsh, cellynkage marine ingredient boosts cell communication which are reduced in post-menopausal mature skin. In vivo, a two percent cellynkage cream resulted in a 15% thicker menopausal epidermis after twice daily usage for 56 days, as well as a 2.4% increase in collagen density and a 113% improvement in microrelief structure compared with placebo. 


Thalassine 2

Known as ‘nature’s alternative to Botox’, this sea anemone extract offers both unique antioxidant and skin relaxing properties by reducing muscle contractions. Its targeted action on Substance P and Acetylcholine help quickly reduce the appearance of expression lines and wrinkles. Thalassine also stimulates GAG and induces collagen production and is suitable for use on sensitive skin. 


CobioDefender EMR

A concentrated solution of highly purified marine sourced glycogen, CobioDefender EMR protects and prevents skin damage (ex-vivo/in-vitro) after electromagnetic radiation and blue light exposure, neutralising oxidative stress, reducing cell death and protecting against structural changes. It also addresses cellular epigenetic rejuvenation by regulating microRNA expression and senescence epigenetic modifications (in-vitro). It is the first active ingredient focused on reducing biological skin disorders resulting from the impact of digital premature ageing.


The future of marine discoveries

Although the oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface, the marine environment is still new to exploration, which didn’t really begin until the 1970s. Even now the area remains vastly untapped because it is hard to reach. Sampling deeper than 30 metres is not possible by scuba diving and is usually performed by trawling. However, it is unselective and often damages both the samples and the ecosystems. The most successful sampling of marine organisms in deep waters is done using manned submersibles and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), which allow the organism’s habitat to be observed. This is helpful in discovering its possible bioactivity, however ROV exploration is costly and therefore only a few cosmetic laboratories have the funds to do it. But with marine natural skin care products in increasingly high demand from consumers, in the future laboratories will surely be looking for ways to overcome these challenges. 

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