The ocean has a (beauty) secret.
Irish moss is a type of red algae that is primarily found in cool and temperate regions, including the North Atlantic coastlines of Ireland, Scotland and parts of North America. Its distinctive forked, fan-shaped fronds range in color from greenish-yellow to brownish-purple.
Chondrus Crispus has a long history of culinary use in Ireland and other coastal communities. It was added to broths, soups and other dishes as a natural thickener and a source of vitamins and trace minerals and nourishment — particularly during times of scarcity.
It’s probably most famously known for its role in making a traditional jelly-like dessert known as “carrageen moss pudding.” The carrageenan extracted from Irish moss acts as a natural thickening and gelling agent when boiled in milk.
A simple recipe for Irish moss lemonade can be found in The Boston Cooking School Cook Book published by Fannie Farmer in 1896. There’s also several Irish moss-thickened blancmange recipes (a creamy flan-like French dessert) — yum!
In traditional herbal medicine, Irish moss was particularly valued for its rich mucilage. When ingested, the mucilage creates a protective and soothing layer over irritated or inflamed tissues, such as the throat and gastrointestinal tract. It can be prepared as a soothing demulcent drink or syrup to help alleviate coughs, bronchitis and other respiratory discomfort. Likewise topically, it can be used as an emollient to soothe and protect chapped skin.
Irish moss as a rheology modifier
It also happens to be a terrific choice for water-based skincare formulations where a gel-like texture is desired! Thanks to its high mucilage content, Irish moss is an excellent natural gelling agent, capable of forming a natural hydrogel.
A hydrogel is a type of gel that consists of a network of crosslinked polymer chains capable of holding a large amount of water within their structure.
Marshmallow root, slippery elm, comfrey, plantain, calendula, flax and chia are all examples of mucilage-containing plants that can create natural hydrogels. Gums such as guar, xanthan and glucomannan can also be combined with water to create hydrogels with various properties. Hyaluronic acid (the high molecular weight variety) is another example of a popular skincare ingredient that can create a hydrogel.
An Irish moss hydrogel is made up of polysaccharides called carrageenans, which have the ability to absorb and hold impressive amounts of moisture, adding texture and viscosity to skincare formulations without the need for added gums. Hydrogels in general are excellent for applications that require hydration, moisture retention and delivery of active ingredients.
You might recognize the word ‘carrageenan’ from food, cosmetic and skincare ingredient labels. It’s commonly used in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries for its gelling, thickening and emulsion stabilizing properties. Commercial carrageenan is typically derived from certain species of red seaweed, including…
(you guessed it)
Sometimes called carrageen moss.
Irish moss’ natural carrageenan polysaccharides make an effective thickening agent for products that require a certain viscosity or need to be able to adhere to the skin’s surface. Blended with water at room temperature, Irish moss swells to form a thick, aqueous gel, which can improve the consistency and spreadability of emulsified formulas, helping to prevent phase separation and improve the overall stability of the final product.
When you blend the Irish moss in water, its cell walls break down and release the natural mucilage and carrageenan present in the plant, creating a smooth, gel-like texture. The softened Irish moss itself becomes part of the gel mixture, so there is generally no need to strain out the plant material after blending, as it becomes uniformly dispersed in the gel.
Irish moss in skincare
In addition to its use as a rheology modifier, Irish moss also has value as a cosmeceutical.
Irish moss contains vitamins A, B, C and E, all of which are beneficial to healthy skin. Vitamin A supports skin cell turnover and renewal, contributing to a smoother and more youthful appearance. Vitamin B aids in maintaining skin moisture and elasticity. Vitamin E helps protect the skin from oxidative stress, and vitamin C is well known for its antioxidant properties and its skin brightening effects.
Note that there are plenty of commercially available sources of Irish moss that have been sun-bleached to a creamy white color, however, the unbleached, naturally dark-colored Irish moss will retain more of its vitamins and antioxidants.
Irish moss is also rich in minerals such as iodine, sulfur, copper, magnesium, calcium and potassium, all of which play various roles in supporting skin health.
Irish moss vs. oily & acne-prone skin
By controlling the growth of bacteria on the skin’s surface, iodine may help regulate the activity of the sebaceous glands, support balanced oil production and minimize the risk of clogged pores. Magnesium and calcium are involved in the synthesis of lipids and healthy skin barrier function, while potassium helps the skin to maintain proper hydration levels.
Sulfur also has antibacterial and antifungal properties that may be useful for oily or acne-prone skin. Sulfur is often incorporated into exfoliating and peeling treatments for its ability to promote cell turnover — helping to remove dead skin cells and improve overall texture.
Irish moss vs. collagen loss
Sulfur is also involved in the synthesis and maintenance of the skin’s collagen and keratin.
Collagenase and elastase are enzymes that break down collagen and elastin fibers in the skin’s extracellular matrix. These enzymes can be influenced by various factors, both internal and external. Things like UV exposure, chronic stress, hormonal changes, autoimmune disease, smoking, environmental pollutants… and just plain ol’ aging can all cause an uptick in collagenase and elastase activity — leading to collagen and elastin loss, sagging skin and wrinkles.
Irish moss contains a group of sulfated polysaccharides known as fucoidans (few-koi-dens), which play a major role in inhibiting collagenase and elastase activity. Fucoidans have been shown in ex vivo studies to directly interact with collagenase and elastase enzymes by binding to the enzymes’ active receptor sites and preventing them from attaching to collagen and elastin fibers and breaking them down.
Irish moss vs. UV damage
Irish moss contains antioxidants that may help to protect the skin from oxidative stress caused by environmental factors like UV radiation and pollution, which can lead to inflammation and DNA damage.
Fucoidans, along with other antioxidants found in Irish moss, have been shown (in vitro) to mitigate the effects of oxidative stress by donating electrons to unstable free radicals, neutralizing their damaging effects. Irish moss’ carotenoids are particularly efficient at neutralizing singlet oxygen, a type of free radical generated by UV radiation.
Irish moss also contains compounds called mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs), which may offer some level of protection against UV damage. When seaweeds like Irish moss are exposed to UV light, these MAA compounds absorb the energy from the UV rays and release it as heat, preventing the UV radiation from causing damage to the seaweed’s cells. There is ongoing research focused on Irish moss’s photoprotective qualities and its potential to protect human skin against UV damage.
Irish moss vs. dermatitis
The anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols found in Irish moss can help manage the symptoms of eczema, a skin condition characterized by redness, itching and inflammation. The same fucoidans that discourage collagen and elastin degradation and quell oxidative stress have also been studied for their potential in eczema therapies — performing as well as prescription corticosteroids according to one animal study.
Carrageenan’s naturally emollient and hydrophylic qualities make it capable of holding many times its weight in water. The resulting hydrogel can be useful as a protective barrier on angry, inflamed skin, preventing moisture loss and reducing irritation, redness and itchiness in skincare products designed for individuals with sensitive or reactive skin.
In fact, at least one study suggests that algae may actually be a better humectant than hyaluronic acid!
Blue spirulina powder, also known as phycocyanin, is a natural water-soluble pigment derived from a type of blue-green algae called Arthrospira platensis (spirulina).
To obtain the unnaturally vibrant blue powder, harvested spirulina is subjected to a process known as cell disruption, which involves breaking open the algae cells to release the cellular contents — including the phycocyanin pigment. The disrupted spirulina is filtered to separate the solid components from the liquid portion, which contains the phycocyanin pigment. Techniques such as centrifugation or precipitation are used to separate the pigment from other soluble components. The phycocyanin is then typically spray-dried or freeze-dried to obtain a concentrated powder form.
Used topically, the isolated phycocyanin possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies suggest that phycocyanin may also have wound healing actions by helping to stimulate the growth of new skin cells, enhance collagen synthesis and aid in tissue repair — all of which could be beneficial for wound healing and the recovery of damaged (or aging) skin.
An important note about adding essential oils
I’ve seen multiple references to carrageenan’s properties as an “emulsifier” but this is actually a bit of a stretch. True emulsifiers have bipolar properties, meaning they have both hydrophilic (water-attracting) and hydrophobic (oil-attracting) components, which allows them to effectively bind water and oil together in a stable emulsion that prevents separation of the two phases.
Carrageenan, on the other hand, is used to create aqueous gels and can provide texture and stability to (actual) emulsions. While it can effectively disperse a small amount of oil within its gel matrix, please don’t add a bunch of undiluted essential oils, thinking that it’s a true emulsion. It’s not.
If you want to add essential oils to a hydrogel, take care to keep the amount of essential oils under 1% of the total formula.
In order to safely incorporate more than 1% essential oils, you’ll need to incorporate a solubilizer such as Poly Suga Mulse, Solubol or 175-proof (or higher) ethanol. Solubilizers are used to incorporate oil-based ingredients into water-based products by breaking down and dispersing the hydrophobic substance (the essential oil in this case) into tiny particles that can remain stably dispersed in the liquid.
Remember, essential oils are hyper-concentrated bioactive plant compounds that can cause adverse reactions when applied undiluted to the skin. Without a proper solubilizer, you risk complications like skin irritation, redness, itching, burning, allergic reactions, phototoxicity, sensitization — and in extreme cases, chemical burns.