The beauty-from-the-inside-out trend has spawned some pretty exotic skin-enhancing experiments, including collagen-enriched cheesecake and chocolate bars laced with zinc and cocoa flavanols. But astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant, has swung the beauty spotlight back to traditional nutraceuticals in capsule form.

Astaxanthin (pronounced “as-tuh-zan-thin”) is a member of the carotenoid family. Beta carotene (which gives carrots their colour) and lutein (found in the yellow part of corn) are among its relatives. And, though all carotenoids are antioxidants—they scavenge for skin-cell-damaging free radicals—astaxanthin is the most powerful of them all. Some research suggests that it’s up to 500 times more potent than vitamin E.

But very few foods contain astaxanthin. While other carotenoids can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, astaxanthin is only found in one plant: a microalgae called Haematococcus pluvialis. And few of us are going to sit down to a bowl of algae, right? One option, though, is eating wild salmon every day, as salmon and many types of seafood eat the algae. A serving of wild salmon contains about 3.8 milligrams of astaxanthin, but, realistically, getting your daily dose through a supplement makes a lot more sense.

Dr. Rudi E. Moerck, chief executive officer of Valensa—a company that supplies high-quality astaxanthin to health and beauty companies—explains how the nutraceutical ingredient is made. “We get dried algae from biomass companies that cultivate it,” he says. “Much in the same way that caffeine is removed from coffee, we extract pure astaxanthin from the biomass and stabilize it.”

Preliminary research suggests a promising role for astaxanthin in everything from improving eye health to detoxifying the liver to fighting cancer. Its beauty benefits include an ability to fight signs of aging and visibly improve the appearance of skin. “When you ingest an astaxanthin supplement, some of it migrates to the membranes of skin cells,” explains Moerck. But you need to take between two and four milligrams a day for 20 days to start seeing results, he says. These include increasing protection against UV damage and inflammation, minimizing wrinkles and evening out skin tone.

Many skin creams and lotions that feature astaxanthin as a key ingredient are currently in the works, and some are already available in Asia. But Moerck says that topical use presents some difficulties. “When you put any antioxidant on the skin, some portion immediately starts to react with oxygen in the air and gets destroyed,” he says. Astaxanthin’s red-orange colour is even more challenging. (In fact, it’s what gives salmon, shrimp and lobster their fiery hues.) If formulated in a concentration that’s too high, cosmetics manufacturers could end up with an undesirable bright-orange pigmentation in their products.

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