You may have heard mentions of the "world's most powerful antioxidant"...but probably not in reference to astaxanthin, a breakthrough ingredient that has kept a relatively low profile in spite of its momentous promises. In the animal kingdom, this dark red carotenoid pigment is present in the skin and tissues of a variety of sea creatures, including salmon, trout, and lobster, as well as certain birds, such as flamingo and quail. But its effects on humans have only recently become known, and its availability in cosmetics is rather scarce.

Even though I've noticed trace amounts in products such as Perricone MD's Firming Neck Therapy, I have only seen astaxanthin prominently marketed in a serum by H. Maloha and a cream by Kenneth Mark MD (to be reviewed soon). More prevalent in nutritional supplements than skincare, astaxanthin is believed to produce a number of actions in the body, providing both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection. Once you learn what this unassuming antioxidant is capable of, you might wonder where it's been all your life.

Where does it come from. In commercial products, astaxanthin is most often extracted from the marine microalgae haematococcus pluvialis, the richest known source for this natural pigment. The primary use of synthetic astaxanthin today is as an animal feed additive to impart coloration to farmed fish, such as salmon and red sea bream. A number of in-vitro experiments, in-vivo pre-clinical studies, and early-stage trials performed during the past five years have indicated the possibility that astaxanthin behaves as a curing agent against various health conditions. Because of its superb antioxidant potential, the demand for astaxanthin is expected to grow significantly in the multi-billion dollar nutraceutical market in the near term.

How do antioxidants work. During normal cellular metabolism, environmental stressors such as UV light, smoke, pollution, and even oxygen create damaging by-products, or free radicals, that make the skin appear older than it actually is. A closer examination reveals that these factors cause reactive oxygen species (ROS) to build up in skin and inflict damage at a cellular level. Effectively shielding the skin and slowing down premature signs of aging caused by the environment, antioxidants scavenge free radicals and bind to them before they can do damage.

What's so great about astaxanthin. When ROS get embedded in the skin's surface, they cause lipid peroxidation of the top layer (stratum corneum), which reduces the natural barrier function. An excess of ROS can break down the collagen matrix, leading to wrinkle formation and loss of elasticity. In penetrating the skin and protecting each dermal layer from ROS-related damage, astaxanthin helps reduce moisture loss, promote smoothness, and elicit cellular renewal. Analyses have shown that astaxanthin is also an efficient absorber of specific ultraviolet sunlight rays that may contribute to skin aging and cancer. These properties explain why astaxanthin is included in topical skin care formulations.

Why it does a body good. When there is an overproduction of ROS, the resulting oxidative stress has detrimental effects that can lead to various diseases. In numerous studies, astaxanthin has proven to alleviate medical conditions by enhancing immune response and decreasing DNA damage. Astaxanthin's free radical-scavenging activity protects lipids from peroxidation and reduces oxidative damage of LDL-cholesterol, thus reducing arterial plaque formation. With a unique molecular structure that enables it to cross the blood-brain barrier in mammals, astaxanthin can extend its powerful antioxidant protection to the central nervous system, which is highly susceptible to oxidative damage by ROS because of its richness in unsaturated fatty acids.

How it compares to other antioxidants. When tested against common antioxidants, astaxanthin has demonstrated exceptional performance in combatting singlet oxygen, one of the strongest ROS, which directly damages biological lipids, proteins, and DNA. Despite some variance in numbers, there have been all sorts of claims about the superiority of astaxanthin. A clinical research study by Dr. Debasis Bagchi at Creighton University demonstrated that astaxanthin can eliminate free radicals 6,000 times more effectively than vitamin C, 800 times more than CoQ10, 550 times more than vitamin E and green tea, 75 times more than Alpha Lipoic Acid, and 20 times more than beta-carotene.

Where to find it. These findings are supported by a 2007 study sponsored by Fuji Chemical Industry, a 60-year-old Japanese pharmaceutical company and the leading manufacturer of natural astaxanthin in nutritional supplements. Asaxanthin is becoming an increasingly popular therapeutic addition to the diet to treat immune, inflammatory, and neurodegenerative disorders. Fuji's AstaReal brand of astaxanthin is approved for nutritional use in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and other markets worldwide. The company is conducting further studies on the effects of astaxanthin in cardiovascular problems, weight management, and diabetes.

At around $325 per pound, astaxanthin is a rather expensive cosmetic ingredient. Currently, it seems far more affordable and widespread in dietary supplements than in skincare products. If you come across this supercharged antioxidant in your cosmetic adventures, please leave a comment under this post and share it with the rest of Truth in Aging!