Beta glucans caught my attention when I started testing a (soon to be launched) serum by La Vie Celeste. Until recently, beta glucans were not much used in skincare, being mostly confined to use as a film-forming moisturizer. It had been assumed that the molecular size was too large to penetrate the skin and then most cosmetic formulators grumbled that it was too expensive. All this has recently changed and beta glucan has qualities that make it a must-have anti-aging ingredient.

The body doesn’t produce beta glucans naturally. They occur most commonly as cellulose in plants, the bran of cereal grains, the cell wall of baker’s yeast, certain fungi, oats, mushrooms and bacteria.

β-glucans are notable for their ability to modulate the immune system. They work in an incredibly powerful way by stimulating the activity of macrophages, which are versatile immune cells that ingest and demolish invading pathogens. As they do so, they stimulate other immune cells to attack. Macrophages also release cytokines, chemicals that when secreted enable the immune cells to communicate with one another. In addition, beta glucans stimulate lethal white blood cells that bind to tumors or viruses, and release chemicals to destroy it.

Not surprisingly then, they turn out to be useful antioxidants. One study found that yeast-derived beta-glucan could reduce free radical formation in vitro. Animal studies have shown it to be antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

For ages, it was believed that the large molecular structure of beta glutens would prevent them from effectively penetrating the skin. This all changed a few years ago with a study published in International Journal of Cosmetic Science. The results showed that beta-glucan, “despite its large molecular size, deeply penetrated the skin into the epidermis and dermis.” The same team tested 27 people to evaluate the effects of beta-glucan on facial fine lines and wrinkles. After 8 weeks, there was “a significant reduction of wrinkle depth and height, and overall roughness.”

So after the penetration issue was resolved, a team at the University of Alberta discovered how. It seems that the beta glucan enters the skin the same way that water penetrates a brick wall. “It does not go through the brick, it goes through the concrete binding the bricks together,” explained the lead scientist. “As a result of our study, we now know that glucan works through the inter-cellular lipid matrix, or the cells’ cement, to enter the lower levels of the skin. Of medical significance is the fact that beta glucan creams promote wound healing and reduction in scaring following surgical procedures.”

Other researchers believe that beta glucan stimulates collagen, possibly by inducing the release of immune/inflammatory mediators, such as IL-1 and NFkB.

Oats-derived beta glucan is now making cosmetic formulations with it less expensive. And given its its soothing, moisturizing and anti-irritant properties, it may start to appear in insect bite creams, baby and shaving products, as well as be being used to counteract the irritant effect of ingredients such as retinol. It could also be a great addition to sunscreen as it provides protection of the skin if applied prior to UV-light exposure, helping to prevent redness.