Is algae an ingredient acne-prone skins should avoid? Below we share our thoughts and some modern research that indicates that algae is actually a low worry ingredient. Spoiler alert: we think algae is totally ok.
Is algae extract comedogenic?
We decided to write this blog when a client asked:
I’ve read and heard from various outlets that algae extract is highly comedogenic. I see it’s listed in 2 of the sunscreens you’re recommending, so I’m curious about your take on it. I’ve always steered clear from it.
However, I’ve yet to find a sunscreen that works for me and doesn’t break me out. I used to use a Neutrogena tinted moisturizer that worked great but I left it behind years ago when I ventured into a chemical free beauty routine.
So, what are your thoughts on algae in all it’s forms for acne prone skin?
The science behind algae being comedogenic is outmoded
The reason algae is often found in sun care is that recent studies have shown that it has the exciting benefit of mitigating and decreasing UV damage.
I have obviously heard that algae extract is comedogenic, and as you can see, I’m recommending products that contain it.
Here are my thoughts: there are certain beliefs about acne that are out-moded. One of them is that regular old bacteria causes acne. This is blatantly untrue and all that anti-bacterial face washes accomplish is degrading your skin barrier so your skin is LESS effective at fighting acne. I think algae is one such ingredient.
I also believe that clearing acne is a VERY bio-individual process, so I’m not trying to say that if someone is affected by algae it isn’t real. I’m sure there are some skins sensitive to it, just like with basically every single natural ingredient.
I personally believe algae is actually a low-worry ingredient. I have done the research and all I could find regarding algae and comedogenicity was that it contains a high amount of iodides which irritates the pore and triggers inflammation and that they penetrate the pore and accelerate growth of micro-comedones.
That being said, I don’t believe this is true.
The algae extracts used in skincare are actually highly processed – this means that the beneficial components are retained and concentrated and all other components are removed. This is NOT reflected in the INCI ingredient listing.
For example, a green tea extract that is 90% EGCG and totally decaffeinated, and comes in the form of a fine dark red powder will have the same INCI as a green tea extract that is a brown-green liquid – basically the result of steeping green tea leaves in water; what we actually think of when we say “tea.” These are VASTLY different in both phytochemical composition and physical properties yet will be listed exactly the same.
With truly very natural skincare that uses WHOLE PLANT EXTRACTS it might be smart to be wary of products that are TOO full of algae – like that is the main active. YET – that being said, there are MANY beneficial algaes and seaweeds that ARE safe if whole plant extracted. Astaxanthin is a popular example, and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) uses seaweed as one of the top 10 most common topical herbals for treating acne.
This is because algae and seaweeds actually have MANY benefits that can help reduce acne, ESPECIALLY if they are extracted properly and formulated properly. (If you have not read my article on comedogenic ingredients, please do so – it will also help with your understanding of this). In fact, when I search the literature for “algae and acne” the first 10 results are (recent) articles written about algae as acne treatment, NOT as acne exacerbant.
Recent studies show algae actually has benefits for acne
Here are some of the results:
In vitro antibacterial and synergistic effect of phlorotannins isolated from edible brown seaweed Eisenia bicyclis against acne-related bacteria (2014)
The authors go on to say: “To develop effective and safe acne vulgaris therapies with a continuing demand for new solutions, we investigated unique efficacy of an antibacterial agent from marine brown alga Eisenia bicyclis in treating acne vulgaris…. The results of this study suggest that the compounds derived from E. bicyclis can be a potential source of natural antibacterial agents and a pharmaceutical component against acne-related bacteria.”
Synergistic Antimicrobial Effect of Sargassum serratifolium (C. Agardh) C. Agardh Extract against Human Skin Pathogens (2016)
From the abstract: ” The object of this study was to develop an alternative way to treat human skin pathogens using marine algae. During this study, we observed that the extract of the edible brown algae exhibited potential antimicrobial activity against pathogenic commensal bacteria related with acne vulgaris (Propionibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa), and Candida albicans which causes cutaneous candidiasis. Thus, this study suggests that S. serratifolium extract could be a potential source of natural antimicrobial agents or a pharmaceutical component against human skin pathogens.”
You can see one of the benefits above is “anti-acne.” These are all very recent studies and are much more sophisticated than the research done on the 60s and 70s that was not even done on human skin or human participants, but on rabbit ears.
Algae is fine for acne-prone skin
Long story short – here is why I do not worry too much about algae, especially in “more sophisticated” formulations like sun care where it is most definitely not a whole plant extraction done by someone in a kitchen:
1) I KNOW it is a carefully refined extract and likely does not contain the iodides OR the form factor to be clogging
2) It is a small part of the formula and any comedogenicity it may have is largely mitigated (see my article referenced above)
3) When choosing sun care that I want to promote with moss, I really do a very thorough review – I personally test it for several months, I speak at great length with the sunscreen formulators, I research every single ingredient, AND I run it through my formulator/esthetician colleagues to see what their experience has been. Lastly, I look at the reviews for the product on the brand website. If I’m seeing A LOT of reviews from people saying it doesn’t aggravate their acne, it’s the first sunscreen they’ve found that doesn’t break them out, etc. then I definitely take that into consideration.
I think that looking at single ingredients in a formulation can sometimes be counter-productive, because there are SO many unknowns (How is that ingredient processed?How much of it is included? Is it combining with the other ingredients to reduce or increase comedogenicity or is there no such effect? Has it been diluted but the INCI remained unchanged? Is it refined or unrefined?).
I encourage you to do exactly what you are doing, which is to take the ENTIRE formula into account, and get the manufacturer’s explanation or an expert’s take on it.
Hope this helped!
I’m not the only expert that thinks algae is ok!
Here is another response from renowned skincare expert Paula Begoun, the founder of Paula’s Choice.
“Algae extract in skincare is fine, but it’s not a must-have or any sort of miracle, and it’s also not the least bit comedogenic. The biological and molecular structure of algae, whether in pure or extract form, is incapable of clogging pores because it’s completely water-soluble and thus easily removed from the skin. It cannot get “stuck” in the pore lining; it would be an issue only if you were allergic to it and used a product that contained it. Otherwise, although there’s no compelling reason to seek out products with algae extract, there’s no reason to avoid them, either.
Be wary of any rating system of the pore-clogging potential of cosmetic ingredients; they’re unreliable at best and misleading at worst. That’s because they typically rate ingredients based on the effects of 100% concentrations, which doesn’t apply to how ingredients like algae (or countless others) are used in skincare. Another issue that makes such lists of potentially comedogenic ingredients more useless than useful is that they do not account for the ingredient combinations in a given product or when multiple products are used, which pretty much describes an average skincare routine!”
I wanted to clarify my response so here goes:
When is algae NOT OK for acneic skins:
1) When it is a whole plant extract (usually, but not all the time. But a good rule of thumb)
2) When it is one of the main actives in a formula (ie, the name and marketing of the product call out algae or an algae blend as the hero ingredient)
3) If you KNOW your skin is sensitive to algae (This is the exception for acne-prone skin, NOT the rule)
When is algae ok for acneic skins:
1) If it has been refined to remove the iodides
2) If it has been processed to only contain certain compounds from the algae
3) If it is an incidental ingredient in an otherwise acne-safe formulation
4) If it is specifically indicated FOR helping acne
Algae extracts to avoid
That being said, there are some algae ingredients that you should avoid – these DO HAVE comedogenic properties.
Chondrus crispus (aka Irish moss or carrageen moss)
So – bottom line: stop worrying about algae!
There are MANY more beneficial, effective and pro-active things you can do to heal your skin than avoiding algae!