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Whenever we hear about an ingredient that's generating a lot of buzz within the skincare world while simultaneously boasting under-the-radar anonymity, our ears prick up. And most recently, after discovering it's one of the top trending ingredients within the black hole depths of Amazon, we've set our sights (and hopefully soon-to-be-glowier skin) on astaxanthin. (Pronounced "asta-zan-thin," in case you were curious.) And, although it does sound like some kind of hybrid between an antibiotic and a rare, prehistoric species of dinosaur, it actually falls into the category of something supremely more recognizable: antioxidants. That being said, not all antioxidants are created equally, and astaxanthin is essentially the Clark Kent of all carotenoids (the class of antioxidants that gives healthy food fare like salmon, tomatoes, persimmons, and carrots their glowing hue of orange.)
"Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant known as a carotenoid, found in various foods," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist based in New York City and the director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "It naturally has a bright red/orange color, and its high content in salmon is what gives it its color. It also is found in some forms of red algae. Studies have shown that the antioxidant ability of astaxanthin is much more powerful than Vitamin C." Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the so-called "king of carotenoids" would find its way into our bathroom cabinets by way of bottles and tinctures. As Zeichner notes, according to research, astaxanthin contains significantly more antioxidants than other superfood heroes, is anywhere from 10 to 100 times more powerful than other carotenoids like beta-carotene and lycopene, and is significantly more potent than skin-enhancing vitamins C and E. Intrigued yet?
Read on for more about the benefits of astaxanthin, with information gleaned from Zeichner, New York dermatologist Hadley King, MD, and cosmetic chemist Marisa Plescia, of clean beauty e-tailer NakedPoppy.
Type of Ingredient: Carotenoid (yellow, orange, and red pigments that are produced by plants, algae, and bacteria).
Main Benefits: Improves dryness, protects the skin against free radicals and sun damage.
Who Should Use It: It is recommended for those of all ages and skin types and is especially beneficial for those with damaged skin.
How Often Can You Use It: It is safe to use morning and night.
Works Well With: Moisturizers.
Don't Use With: Generally, astaxanthin is safe to use with all other ingredients.
What is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin's best descriptor is that it's a potent antioxidant—one that does a world of good for skin. "Astaxanthin is an antioxidant and it can be used topically on the skin," says King. "A 2012 study showed that combining topical and oral doses of astaxanthin can help to smooth wrinkles, make age spots smaller and help maintain skin moisture."
While more data is needed to confirm those findings, research has found that the powerhouse ingredient can do wonders for skin, fighting everything from sun damage to fine lines and wrinkles. In fact, an even more recent study found that astaxanthin's benefits might be more comprehensive than previous research suggests, and include "photoprotective, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects."
Benefits of Astaxanthin
• Protects against UV rays: It's worth mentioning astaxanthin's natural knack for protecting our skin against damaging UV rays, when ingested or used topically.
• Repairs DNA damage: The fact that it protects against UV rays is actually a two-fold benefit, as sun damage causes DNA damage. Fortunately, astaxanthin helps with that. That same 2018 study mentioned above found that ASX has been reported "to improve the DNA repair capacity of cells exposed to UV radiation." In other words, it may slow the growth of skin cancer cells.
• Enhances the immune system: Astaxanthin has been found to increase the body's stores of immunoglobulin, which help the immune system fight against viruses and even melanoma, according to research.
• Wards off wrinkles: "Astaxanthin has been shown to neutralize free radical damage, calm inflammation in the skin in eczema, and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in aging skin," notes Zeichner.
• Protects against hyperpigmentation: Again, this goes back to astaxanthin's antioxidant properties. "The generation of free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), is highly connected to skin aging," says Plescia. "Thus, astaxanthin can help protect the skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation in addition to helping repair DNA damage due to UV rays."
• Moisturizes: Some studies point out that combining a topical dosage with an oral dosage (we recommend this one from the supplement geniuses at Care/of) might help youth-preserving efforts in the long run (e.g. less pigmentation and more luminosity and moisture).
• Fights free radicals: Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant and is sometimes referred to as the “strongest antioxidant in nature,” and it's no wonder. "With high levels of well-known antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E, astaxanthin can help the skin respond to oxidative damage from environmental aggressors, such as the sun, as well as inhibit free radical formation," says Plescia.
• Ideal for those with sensitive skin: As Plescia points out, "Astaxanthin has also been studied to have anti-inflammatory properties aiding in skin redness, sensitivity, and inflammation."
Side Effects of Astaxanthin
When used topically, astaxanthin's side effects are minimal. When ingested, however, some studies have suggested it could prove problematic for those with auto-immune conditions and may have an effect on the production of testosterone in the body.
How to Use It
Serums, moisturizers, and oils containing astaxanthin can be used morning and night, depending upon what else is in the products. In fact, it might even be a good idea to combine it with other powerhouse antioxidants, such as vitamins C or E. "Studies indicate that it works with other antioxidants to boost their potency," says King. As always, when trying a new product, it's best to conduct a patch test, just to ensure your skin isn't sensitive to any of its ingredients.
Best Products With Astaxanthin
This rejuvenating gel from DHC essentially does it all, revitalizing and brightening skin with an all-star roster of antioxidants. "[It's] a great option to hydrate the skin and fight off damage from free radicals," says King.
Maya Chia’s Super Couple is a multi-correctional luxe face oil serum combining astaxanthin with chia seed oil, which is rich with skin-loving omega fatty acids, antioxidants & minerals. "Using wildcrafted active botanicals, this formula works to bring vitality to the look of the skin," says Plescia. As a bonus, it's ultra-lightweight and suitable for all skin types, even sensitive.
Okay, friends, this is cool: Formulated with a "micro-encapsulated form of advanced epidermal growth factor derived from yeast," plus echinacea stem cells, green tea, and spin trap, this impressive yet little-known elixir works to protect skin in the long run (thank you, antioxidants) while increasing firmness, elasticity, and natural luminosity.
We love when we discover a little-known product that turns out to be a cult-loved nugget of gold. Infused with astaxanthin, açaí, and other exotic, tropically inclined ingredients, this face wash has 29 five-star reviews across the board on Dermstore's website. Most notably, reviewers say it's worked wonders on their acne-prone complexions.
Senior Editor Hallie Gould has sung the praises of this glow-worthy skincare brand before, and we're currently intrigued by this specific iteration that boasts an advanced formula composed of two strategic kinds of vitamin C, which collaborate to improve the health and tone of the skin.
This heavy-hitting night cream from Derma E is essentially beauty sleep in a jar. it features both astaxanthin and Pycnogenol to neutralize potentially damaging free radicals while reducing inflammation and improving circulation (i.e. that natural skin glow). King calls it "a rich night cream with potent antioxidant properties thanks to astaxanthin and pycnogenol."
Who doesn't love a good multitasker? This SPF-infused moisturizer and primer wards off damage and features organically sourced ingredients like jojoba, pomegranate, and sunflower oils, which pacify sensitive skin types.
A true all-star within organic skincare line Éminence's epic lineup, this antioxidant-rich exfoliating cleanser washes away buildup and debris with one fell scrub. Plus, thanks to pretty ingredients like red currant, elderflower, magnolia bark, and tea tree oil, it smells nice to boot.
We'll admit that part of our personal draw to this exfoliating masterpiece is the divine scent (think of having access to the warm fuzzies of fall all year round), but its loaded ingredient list (ginger, aloe vera, jojoba esters, and pumpkin enzymes) is just as appealing for its natural exfoliating and detoxification prowess.
In keeping with the trend of luscious-smelling skincare, this lavender-infused SPF moisturizer is another skin-saving pick featuring astaxanthin, tetrahydro curcuminoids, vitamin E and beta gluten, lavender vera, and micronized zinc oxide for that necessary sun protection.
Just in case the name on its own doesn't sound intense enough, we also learned that this skin-firming serum contains, wait for it, dragon's blood. (Which apparently encourages tissue repair and alleviates inflammation.) Of course, other strategic skincare ingredients anchor the formula—"copper peptides, plant stem cell extracts, and antioxidants like astaxanthin," says King.
Boasting organic ingredients like apple extract, grape stem cells, shea butter, olive oil, and the brand's unique Aquacell complex, this easy-on-the-skin eye cream fights the look of too many consecutive sleep-deprived nights.
All right. This bio-correcting face cream from Kat Burki is, indeed, an investment. That being said, it has quite the repertoire where skin improvement claims are concerned. For instance, the brand says the formula will repair the skin by tapping into the body's own healing mechanisms and also features a host of renewing agents like neuropeptides, vitamin B, and, you guessed it, astaxanthin.
Zeichner recommends this concentrated serum, with has near-unanimous five-star ratings and potent contents like antioxidants, vitamins, botanical oils, and even retinol, all making this serum a smart choice for those seeking recovery from dry and dull skin. Plus, considering its impressive composition, the price tag is incredibly reasonable.