Gifts from the Seven Seas

By Anne Williams

Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, February/March 2007. Copyright 2007. Associated Skin Care Professionals. All rights reserved.

Half woman and half sea creature, a sea siren is the ultimate temptress in Greek mythology, with beauty that reflects the wondrous treasures and power of the ocean. How does she do it? How does she keep her skin so soft and beautiful when constantly exposed to wind, sun, and salt water? Her secret, of course, is seaweed.

What the sea siren would tell you if she would only stop practicing her operatic scales, is that seaweeds are marine-based algae that fall into one of three groups: green seaweed (Chlorophycota), brown seaweed (Phaeophycota), and red seaweed (Rhodophyta). Brown and red seaweeds are the most common types of seaweed used in cosmetic products and for spa treatments, although all seaweeds have some therapeutic value because of their high mineral content and antimicrobial activity. French women are considered direct descendants of sea sirens, so it is no surprise France is the largest market for seaweed used in cosmetics, with an estimated five thousand tons of wet seaweed being harvested and processed annually to meet the demand.1 The vitamins, minerals, amino acids, sugars, lipids, and other components
of seaweeds (e.g., alginic acid, silicone, alginates, agar-agar proteins, cellulose, mucilage, and fucosterol) make them useful for a variety of cosmetic products. Seaweed extracts react with skin proteins to form a protective gel on the skin's surface that reduces moisture loss.2 Seaweed also appears to promote local vasodilatation and increased circulation of blood and lymph flow. This may be the basis for the widespread use of seaweeds to treat cellulite. Seaweed cleanses, purifies, tones, firms, softens, and hydrates the skin. It is recommended for most types of skin because of its balancing and soothing effects. It is used in acne treatments for its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties, and it can also be used on clients with dry skin to retain moisture, stimulate circulation, and promote nutrient exchange. When used on mature skin, it's firming and toning action has a positive effect on the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Zinc, a mineral found in most seaweed, acts as a biocatalyst. It is useful for stabilizing the skin by balancing glandular secretions. Commercially, zinc creams are used to treat acne, give protection against exposure to the sun, and regulate the sebaceous glands.

Sea Siren Recommendations
One of the most widely used seaweeds in skin care is Ulva latuca, known commonly as sea lettuce. The sea siren recommends Ulva when skin is dry, irritated, and edematous from overexposure to the elements. Research supports the sea siren's recommendations,3 showing Ulva species produces a biologically active steroid that reduces edema when applied topically.

When skin is oily, the sea siren recommends a type of brown seaweed called Sargassum. Citrinol, a chemical component found in Sargassum is effective against gram-positive bacteria, including Propionibacterium acnes, the bacterium associated with inflammatory acne.4

While sea sirens usually don't have problems with weight gain, they find brown seaweed species, such as Laminaria, Sargassum, Fucus, and Ascophylum, stimulate metabolism, raise body temperature, and affect cell membrane transport, thereby facilitating detoxification. Brown seaweeds contain iodine, which influences thyroid activity.4

Brown seaweeds help the sea siren maintain her youthful appearance as she ages. In a study conducted in Japan and published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science,5Fucus vesiculosus extract applied
topically (1 percent in a gel) to one cheek twice daily for five weeks decreased skin thickness and increased skin elasticity. With age, cheek skin usually increases in thickness and its elasticity decreases, leading to wrinkles and sagging skin. An absolute (alcoholic extract) of Fucus vesiculosus can be obtained commercially from some aromatherapy suppliers and mixed into creams and lotions for easy use by the skin care professional.

Ascophylum nodosum contains large amounts of fuciodan, a sugar-based polysaccharide that retains moisture and has immunostimulating, anticoagulating, and antiaging activity.6-9 Two separate French studies published in Biomedical Pharmacotherapy show that fucose and fucose-rich polysaccharides penetrate the skin, decrease free radical scavenging, and increase the cell proliferation to slow down the aging of skin cells.10,11 French women traditionally use Ascophylum nodosum extracts to increase hair growth and soften rough and damaged skin.12

Red seaweed, such as carrageen extracted from Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) and agar-agar (Gelidium amansii), is a good emulsifier, balancer, and lubricant.13 The sea siren uses red
seaweeds when her skin is feeling sensitive and inflamed. A
study conducted by the Estee Lauder company showed that
sulfated polysaccharides from red micro-algae have anti-inflammatory properties when applied topically to the skin.14 There is no doubt red seaweeds improve the skin's texture.

Seaweed Cautions
While sea sirens never experience negative reactions to seaweeds, this is not always the case for land-dwelling sirens, as skin sensitivity and allergic reactions are always a possibility. While skin care professionals will most often use a preblended product for a particular skin type, it is important to point out that brown seaweeds are strong. If the skin type of the client is fair or prone to sensitivity, choose a green or red seaweed product instead. Alternatively, the therapist can add aloe gel or kaolin clay to the seaweed product to dilute it.

If skin irritation occurs during a treatment, remove the product with cool towels and apply a lipid (fixed oil), such as sweet almond or jojoba, to the skin in a heavy layer. Do not massage in the oil; instead, remove the excess oil with more cool towels. Rinse the face in cool water or shower in cool water until the irritation subsides. Have hydrocortisone creams on hand in case of skin reaction.

Full body skin care or slimming treatments often use seaweed as the primary treatment product. In this case, substantially more seaweed permeates the skin, so an in-depth health history is needed beforehand to rule out contraindications.

Individuals with vascular problems such as high or low blood pressure, pregnant women, or those on multiple medications should not be given a seaweed treatment. Seaweed tends to increase blood flow and accelerate detoxification, which increases the load on the cardiovascular system and may cause complications in weakened individuals. Brown seaweeds have high concentrations of iodine and may overstimulate the thyroid gland. In a healthy person, this usually results in a feeling of increased energy and well-being, but for individuals with thyroid disorders or who are taking thyroid medications, a full-body treatment may throw the body out of balance. It is also very important to check for shellfish or iodine allergies. If clients are allergic to either, they should not receive any seaweed treatment, as they may have a serious allergic reaction.

* * *

While land-dwelling sirens cannot hope to develop the vocal expertise of sea sirens, or expect to have their special powers with sailors, they can benefit from the use of seaweed for their skin and rival their sea sisters in beauty.

Anne Williams is a licensed esthetician, licensed massage therapist, aromatherapist, certified reflexologist, registered counselor, educator, and author. The work outlined in this article and the images are adapted from portions of her textbook, Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams Wilkins, 2007). Williams is also education program director for Associated Skin Care Professionals. She can be reached at

1. Environment Resource Technology Ltd. "Economic Appraisal
of Seaweed," circa 1995: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
2. Natalia and Varinia Michalum, Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients
Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Albany, NY: Milady, Thomson Learning, 2001), 73.
3. Nagwa E. Awad, "Biologically active steroid from the green alga
Ulva lactuca," Phytother Res 14 (2000): 641-43.
4. Isao Kubo et al. "Antibacterial activity of crinitol and its potentiation." Nat Products 55 (1992): 780-85.
5. Tsutomu Fujimura et al. "Treatment of human skin with an extract
of Fucus vesiculosus changes its thickness and mechanical properties," J Cosmet Sci 53 (2002): 1-9.
6. TA Kuznetsova et al. "Immunostimulating and anticoagulating activity of fucoidan from brown algae," Antibiot Khimioter 48 (2003): 11-13.
7. O Berteau et al. "Characterization of a new alpha-L-fucosidase isolated from the marine mollusk Pecten maximus that catalyzes the hydrolysis of alpha-L-fucose from algal fucoidan (Ascophyllum nodosum)," Glycobiology 12 (2002): 273-82.
8. I Fodil-Bourahla et al. "Effect of L-fucose and fucose-rich oligo-and polysaccharides (FROP-s) on skin aging: penetration, skin tissue production and fibrillogenesis," Biomed Pharmacother 57 (2003): 209-15.
9. G Peterszegi et al. "Studies on skin aging. Preparation and properties of fucose-rich oligo-and polysaccharides. Effect on fibroblast proliferation and survival," Biomed Pharmacother 57 (2003): 187-94.
10. I Fodil-Bourahla et al. "Effect of L-fucose and fucose-rich oligo-and polysaccharides (FROP-s) on skin aging: penetration, skin tissue production and fibrillogenesis," Biomed Pharmacother 57 (2003): 209-15.
11. G Peterszegi et al. "Studies on skin aging. Preparation and properties of fucose-rich oligo and polysaccharides. Effect on fibroblast proliferation and survival," Biomed Pharmacother 57 (2003): 187-94.
12. "IMPAG: Active Algae Ingredients: Out of the Biosphere Reserve
into Cosmetics," IMPAG News 12 (2002):
13. ET Miller, Salon Ovations: Day Spa Techniques. (Albany, NY: Milady Publishing, 1996).
14. MS Matsui et al. "Sulfated polysaccharides from red microalgae have anti-inflammatory properties in vitro and in vivo," Appl Biochem Biotechnol 104 (2003): 13-22.

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