Not all skincare trends work for everyone. Salicylic acid is relegated to acne-prone routines, exfoliating acids generally belong to the strong-skinned, and sulfur is only for the oily... but algae skin benefits? Those apply across the board. Need to detox your pores? Algae. Craving moisture? Algae. Want to soften fine lines? You guessed it... algae. Consider the oceanic ingredient the skincare equivalent of denim — it just goes with everything. And just like denim, there are seemingly endless variations to try.
Algae isn’t exactly a new ingredient in the beauty space; it’s been part of La Mer’s cult-favorite formula since it originated in the sixties. But today’s brands are focusing in on specific types of seaweed in order to better address customers' individual needs, from chlorella (which is key for reducing inflammation) to red algae (scientifically proven to improve moisture levels by 128 percent).
“A truly confusing issue about the ingredients listed as ‘algae’ is that algae is the name required by law to be used for an extremely wide variety of skincare ingredients," Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based dermatologist with over 40 years experience and the founder of Dr. Loretta skincare, tells The Zoe Report. In other words, you usually can't tell which algae you’re getting from the product label alone. Luckily, dermatologists are here to demystify what type of algae you need — and where to find it — according to your skin concerns.
Concern: Dry Skin
“Dr. Loretta Micro Peptide Peel Pads have Ahnfeltia concinna (red algae) extract as an ingredient,” she shares. “This highly-tested ingredient can produce a 128 percent moisture surge with one application, which is why we use them in our exfoliating pads — so you don't dry the skin as you peel.” She also suggests looking for products with spirulina, a type of blue-green microalgae, like Youth to the People's Superfood Skin Reset Mask. “Spirulina is a wonderful source of chlorophyll, which has cleansing properties, and it also helps your skin retain moisture, which is a major key to maintaining the appearance of smoother, hydrated skin,” she says.
Concern: Fine Lines
“Algae has demonstrated anti-aging properties by inhibiting enzymes that break down collagen in the skin,” Dr. Jennifer Vickers, a board certified dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology, tells TZR. “Some algae can also reduce the break down of hyaluronic acid within the skin, thus improving hydration and suppleness.”
Every sub-species of algae has anti-aging benefits, but to really hone in on its power, look for Astaxanthin, an extract from red microalgae found in Skyn Iceland’s recently released Icelandic Youth Serum. “Astaxanthin is 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C, which makes it one of the most potent antioxidants in the world,” Sarah Kugelman, the founder of Skyn Iceland, tells The Zoe Report. “It helps improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance fine lines and wrinkles.”
Other ingredients to note include Gigartina skottsbergii and Undaria pinnatifida. “The former is hydrating and plumps up wrinkles and fine lines; the latter protects the skin's natural stores of collagen and hyaluronic acid,” Jenefer Palmer, the founder and formulator of OSEA, tells TZR. Both are in the brand's Sea Vitamin Boost.
One of algae’s biggest claims to fame is its ability to lift hyperpigmentation, including acne scars and dark circles. “Red, green, blue, and brown algae generally have notable skin brightening properties,” Dr. Vickers says — so really, you can’t go wrong here. Dr. Loretta adds that brown algae (found in MARA Algae Retinol Face Oil) and green algae (as used in WildBloom Cranberry Peptide Eye Cream) have particularly high levels of vitamin C, a skin-brightening powerhouse.
Concern: Clogged Pores
It’s rare to find one ingredient that both detoxes and adds moisture — pore-clearing clays are notoriously drying, and heavy moisturizers have the tendency to clog — but algae does it all. For a deep detox, opt for chlorella, a green microaglae that’s “rich in B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which help detox the skin,” according to Dr. Loretta. A 20-minute session with Cocokind’s Chlorophyll Mask gets the job done without drying your skin.
Algae is a potent antioxidant that helps counteract the effects of free radicals (meaning, it neutralizes pollution particles to keep your face looking fresh and young). “OSEA uses marine algae, as opposed to algae from freshwater,” Palmer says. “Marine algae is one of the most abundant sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.” The aforementioned spirulina, Astaxanthin, brown algae, and green algae variations — all from ocean sources — are formidable pollution-fighters.
Red marine algae is your best bet for handling blemishes like blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts, says Dr. Loretta. “It contains levels of beta carotene,” she explains — which gives it its red color. Beta carotene is also a precursor of vitamin A, the basis of anti-acne treatments like tretinoin, retinol, and even Accutane (but when sourced from marine algae, it’s way gentler than prescription options).
“Some of the metabolites derived from algae have been shown to have anti-inflammatory qualities,” Dr. Vickers says. Inflammation is at the root of nearly every skin issue — from acne to redness to dermatitis — so it's safe to say that everyone could benefit from a serving of seaweed. Algae’s inflammation-taming action is an across-the-board benefit, too, so it doesn’t really matter which type you try.
Concern: Chronic Skin Condition
As someone with dermatitis, a chronic skin condition, I know what a struggle it is to find products that help minimize outbreaks and soothe flare-ups. According to Dr. Vickers, though, algae just might be the answer. “In general, microalgae and chlorella were found to be especially helpful in the treatment of atopic dermatitis and eczema,” she tells TZR. Look for a gentle formula with minimal, natural ingredients — like Vintner’s Daughter Active Treatment Essence — to mitigate the risk of irritation.
Concern: UV Protection
"Gelidiella algae is unique in the fact that it's an amazing natural UV-blocker that protects any further damage to the skin,” Andrew Glass, the founder of Non Gender Specific skincare, tells TZR. While this type of algae (available in the brand’s Everything Cleanser) is no replacement for SPF, preliminary research suggests algae does have some UV-resistant qualities — so it can’t hurt to add it to your sun protection plan.
The Best Part? You Can Even Eat It
Skincare isn’t the only category with an algae obsession. The wellness scene now boasts a healthy amount of algae-infused products to try. “Algae is the nutritional powerhouse behind GEM,” Sara Cullen, the brand’s founder, tells The Zoe Report. GEM’s daily vitamins feature three different types of algae — Astaxanthin, spirulina, and chlorella — to support skin from the inside out. “Astaxanthin is our hero beauty nutrient, as it’s 150 times more powerful than vitamin E and 6,000 times more powerful than vitamin C.” Combined with chlorella (to support healthy hormones) and spirulina (the algae with the highest nutritional value), the once-daily supplement “does wonders for your skin,” Cullen says.