Astaxanthin study drills down into skin protection mechanism

A study using astaxanthin has helped shed light on the mechanism of action by which the carotenoid can help battle so-called “photoaging.”

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

May 16, 2023

4 Min Read

A new astaxanthin study helps explain how the carotenoid, which is derived principally from algae and yeast, exerts its skin health effects.

The latest research was conducted by Be’er Sheva, Israel-based firm Lycored on its astaxanthin ingredient derived from Haematococcus pluvialis algae.

Astaxanthin helps give the flesh of salmon its red color. The ingredient has been studied for several effects mostly centered on its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory potential. 

The high levels of astaxanthin in the muscles of salmon is one reason postulated as to why these fish can sustain such intense levels of activity when migrating up rivers (sometimes for hundreds of miles) to spawn.

Lycored sources its astaxanthin from algae grown in a closed-tube farm in a desert in southern Israel. The facility is operated by Algatech, a biotech company that formed a joint venture in 2017 with Lycored.

The latest study, published in the Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences, employed an in vitro model to assess the ability of the carotenoid to ameliorate skin damage by blunting the effect on collagen structures from neutrophils.

It has long been known that ultraviolet light exposure can damage and prematurely age the skin. The postulated reason for this is the high levels of free radicals in skin that have been too long exposed to the sun.

A placebo-controlled human clinical study done in 2018 in Japan using an astaxanthin produced by Japanese firm Fuji (another H. pluvialis supplier under its AstaReal subsidiary) found that the treatment group could take more UV radiation before developing a sunburn compared to placebo. In addition, astaxanthin helped keep the skin hydrated better.

Deep dive into mode of action

The new Lycored research continues further along this pathway by focusing on the actions of neutrophils and how these cells play a role in skin damage from UV exposure.

Neutrophils are specialized white blood cells that are an important part of the immune system. According to the researchers, UV exposure in the skin triggers an immune system response. During that response, neutrophils can release free radicals. Those free radicals then damage collagen type I and collagen type III molecules, which are key components of the skin’s structure and responsible for its elasticity.

A big reason overexposed skin tends to wrinkle, sag and in general look weathered can be attributed to the destruction of some of its underlying structure in this process.

To test how astaxanthin might help arrest this process in part, the researchers mimicked this effect by triggering a neutrophil immune response using Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNF-a). When astaxanthin at levels of 5-50uM was added to TNF-a primed neutrophils, a dose-dependent restraint was found in free radical activity. This was also directly related to collagen I and III damage. 

Quantifying the effects

The researchers were able to quantify these effects. They pegged the reduction in collagen I loss afforded by astaxanthin at 28 percent, ±8 percent, and that of collagen II at 49%, ±6 percent.

The most recent Lycored-sponsored research and the 2018 Fuji study are among several astaxanthin studies that relate to so-called “photoaging” and that have been conducted in the past decade.

The Lycored researchers noted a similar mechanism underlies the joint discomfort and damage that can accompany exercise, meaning astaxanthin could well be helpful there, too.

"This study not only showcases astaxanthin's capabilities for skin health, but also underscores how beneficial astaxanthin can be for joint health and recovery for active individuals,” said Elizabeth Tarshish, Ph.D., head of claims and clinical affairs at Lycored.

Pair of promising sports nutrition results

The pace of astaxanthin research seems to have declined since the heady days of 2011, when 11 studies on the ingredient were published. Overall, 66 studies on the ingredient have been published in the past two decades.

One of the 2011 studies was a headline-grabbing study that found astaxanthin significantly improved cycling time trial performance. Subsequent studies on the performance boost that astaxanthin might provide return mixed results, however.

Two studies found either minimal or no benefit.

A third, using AstaReal’s astaxanthin, found astaxanthin provided a 50-second improvement in cycling time trial performance over a 40-kilometer distance.  

That result could be seen as even more significant than the 2011 study but did not seem to have garnered as much attention. The fact that the study was published during the height of the global pandemic likely affected its visibility.

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About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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