At the entrance to the Marine Museum, formerly beneath the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a legend on the wall gave pause for thought: “Without algae, there would be no life on earth. The oceans would be sterile and the land uncolonised…” it began. Sadly (and not portentously, I hope), the museum closed last month, its sea gardens destined for pools anew, yet the relevance of those words could hardly be more current. The ocean’s profuse and diverse vegetation supplies oxygen to the global food chain while absorbing pollution, thus keeping the planet habitable. Millions of years old, this primeval life form is also renowned for its regenerative prowess. All this being so, what better credentials for a cosmetic ingredient? Seaweed – and a shoal of accompanying deep-sea organisms – are the natural “actives” in a new wave of marine creams and treatments promising to oxygenate and detoxify land-locked urban skin.
It seems that hardly a potion or serum goes by these days without some form of marine life powering its performance. Many claim to smooth skin by boosting collagen production: consider Beauty Kitchen’s Seahorse Plankton Everlasting Radiance Moisturiser (£19.99 for 60ml) – the seahorses that feed on the plankton are not deprived: the microalgae are grown in a photobioreactor. Algenist Power Recharging Night Pressed Serum (£80.80 for 60ml) is a concentrated algae-based serum promising to smooth wrinkles in 10 days, while cosmetic drone technology delivers oxygenating wakame extracts to fatigued cells in Stoer Skincare for Men Energising Eye Serum (£32 for 15ml). Algae’s excellent moisture-binding ability also makes it the mainstay of masks that plump and soothe. MZ Skin Hydra-Lift Golden Facial Treatment Mask (£85 for five) partners Irish moss seaweed with collagen and pure gold particles to repair sun-damaged skin, while Nannette de Gaspé’s ingenious Tush and Bust Infusers ($225 each) are dry fabric masks that, when slipped into a bra or pants for one hour daily, release contouring marine collagen and hyaluronic acid to the designated areas.
Algae’s multitasking reputation is both ancient and comprehensive. As well as being a naturally abundant source of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, amino acids, minerals and essential fatty acids, brown kelp seaweeds such as wakame and kombu yield high levels of immune-boosting, iodine-rich fucoidan and are stalwarts of traditional Chinese medicine. Fat-burning fucoxanthin, not to mention diuretic and detoxifying properties, also make brown kelps integral to cellulite-banishing thalassotherapy treatments. Contouring was, in fact, seaweed’s first significant cosmetic role, introduced in the 1960s and ’70s by body-conscious French companies such as Thalgo. As a sustainable ingredient, algae’s estimated 30,000-plus species – which also include green, blue and red varieties – make it a staple of eco-conscious rejuvenating skincare. However, according to dermatologist Dr Marko Lens, not all seaweeds are equal. “Claiming seaweed has regenerative properties is a broad statement. We’re talking about plants after all, and not all plants have the same properties or are even good for skin,” he explains. For a marine-based product to be effective, it must contain specific extracts from a variety of algaes, he says. “What’s interesting to me is which algae have the most anti‑inflammatory effects, because inflammation is one of the main reasons skin ages.”
Lens points out that many marine organisms have natural interleukin regulators that mediate inflammation, so they are natural choices for sensitive skincare. Gorgonia has a mild corticosteroid-like effect, which may alleviate eczema, while polysaccharides (sugars) from algae including Chondrus crispus (Irish moss) are excellent moisturisers, he adds. While there is clinical evidence to show that Undaria pinnatifida (wakame) can boost collagen and decrease pigmentation, Lens suspects that this firming and fading is a happy side-effect of algae’s anti-inflammatory and metabolism-enhancing minerals. “A metabolic increase means greater oxygen uptake in cells, which may boost collagen production,” he says. His Zelens Marine Complex Deep Restorative Cream (£125 for 50ml) is a primordial soup of 12 types of algae, plus alteromonas ferment, a powerful anti-inflammatory peptide extracted from marine bacteria that live deep down in the pollution-free abyssal zone. Needless to say, it is profoundly soothing, especially when used as a night cream.
Also worth considering is Vetia Mare, an organic rejuvenating collection from Pure Swiss Aesthetics. The Rejuvenescence Activation Treatment (£340 for 30ml) harnesses a cocktail of marine extracts and moisturisers, the protagonists being wrinkle and pigment-regulating brown, red and green algaes, anti-inflammatory gorgonian and hydrating collagen from jellyfish, selected for its close affinity to the human variety (who knew?). The treatment comprises a marine essence, which, when freshly pumped into four weekly oil-based vials, forms a silken serum to be used day and night. After three weeks, my pores do seem a little tighter. Or is that wishful thinking?
It seems we’re predisposed to believe that whatever emerges from the Big Blue can’t help but do us good. Marine biologist and author Wallace J Nichols suggests we all have a “blue mind” – a meditative sense of peace and happiness that comes from being near the ocean. The sound of waves influences our brainwaves, relaxing us, while negative ions in sea spray trigger the release of serotonin, the body’s euphoria hormone. Nichols also points out that the colour blue is a universal favourite (not least for cosmetic packaging). Then there’s our much-vaunted affinity with the ocean. As John F Kennedy once reminded us: “All of us have in our veins the same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean… when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.”
This near-spiritual nostalgia for our briny beginnings has doubtless swelled the success of Crème de la Mer, that most legendary of all marine creams acquired by Estée Lauder 22 years ago. Reputedly fermented by physicist Max J Huber to heal his own serious burn injuries, a little of the Miracle Broth (a bio‑fermented, hand-harvested kelp) at the heart of the formula is carried over from batch to batch and links each new cream to its origins. There are those who attribute the current tide of marine creams to the cultish Crème de la Mer effect. In addition, our demand for nature-based ingredients is, quite literally, deepening according to cosmetic physicians who take note of what their patients favour. “We’ve scoured the land, now we’re trawling the sea for plant extracts that can influence our cells,” Dr Ravi Jain of Riverbanks Wellness told me recently at the launch of yet another marine serum.
In true regenerative spirit, Crème de la Mer’s latest incarnation also taps into the Korean skin-brightening trend: Blanc de La Mer Brilliance Brightening Mask (£200 for 50ml) contains an additional marine peptide ferment and lime-tree concentrate to help diminish age spots and promote a more even skin tone. Likewise, La Prairie, which was first to include collagen-enhancing caviar in its creams 30 years ago, has launched White Caviar Illuminating Pearl Infusion (£360 for 30ml) containing DGA (diglucosyl gallic acid), which the skin’s microbiota convert into a melanin-inhibiting molecule.
Other marine labels enjoying the tidal swell include Elemis, whose bestselling Pro-Collagen Marine Cream, (£82 for 50ml) has now been invested with SPF30 for summer. Imedeen, which in 1991 was among the first skincare tablet brands on the market, has ventured into the booming beauty drinks arena with Advanced Beauty Shot (from £32.99 for 15ml), a blend of marine collagen and vitamin C. Studies suggest that fish-derived collagen improves skin density and moisture levels, while helping to alleviate inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. At 53 years old, grandmother of all thalassotherapy brands Thalgo has launched Prodige des Océans, a rejuvenating trio of Cream (£120 for 50ml), Mask (£80 for 50g) and L’Essence (£136 for 30ml). At the heart of the formula a concentrate of 63 marine actives, including bioactive seawater and algae, aims to stimulate the synthesis of skin proteins and hyaluronic acid depleted by oxidative stress.
Meanwhile, a new generation of artisanal fucus aficionados is reviving grand old seaside traditions. In Margate, a town basking in its own renaissance thanks in part to the Turner Contemporary, filmmaker turned beach warden Dom Bridges hand-harvests seaweed for Haeckels, the company he named in tribute to a 19th-century German botanist. What began as a kitchen-table experiment with soap made from dried seaweed ground in a coffee mill is now a world-renowned skincare and fragrance brand. Meanwhile, its shop, with its carefully distressed decor and specimen cases of brown bottles, has become catnip for hipsters seeking potions handcrafted from local plants from both land (antioxidant and omega-rich sea buckthorn, for example, grows profusely on the Kent coast) and sea. Its Seaweed/Sea Lavender Lip Balm (£15) and Seaweed/Carrot Seed Facial Serum (£65 for 30ml) have a cult following. Scents such as GPS 26’3”E (£160 for 100ml EDP), with its sea-salty, chalk-cliff tang, document when and where the ingredients were sourced. At the rear of the apothecary, a stylish and intimate thalassotherapy room offers face and body therapies such as the Fresh Seaweed Wrap (£90 for 90 mins), which aims to boost circulation and discourage cellulite. Bridges has also upgraded Edwardian bathing to a state-of-the-art maritime experience. His Sea Bathing Machine (price on request) is fitted with a sauna, so when it is towed out into the bay the ocean is your plunge pool. Back on land, below the shop, seaweed baths are currently under construction.
Suspend childhood horror of slimy fronds waiting to ensnare paddling ankles; sharing a tub of warm seawater with the glutinous brown stuff is both hilarious and – trust me – silkily sensual. Seaweed bath houses were once abundant around the coast of Ireland, drawing punters who would soak in iodine-rich relief from the pain of rheumatism, arthritis and eczema. However, after their Edwardian heyday their popularity dwindled; the last bath house in Strandhill, County Sligo (a coastal village that once boasted nine), was destroyed by Hurricane Debbie in 1961. Nevertheless, the past decade has seen a revival of seaweed bathing, thanks partly to entrepreneurs such as Neil Walton, founder of Voya seaweed products, and his brother Mark. Since Neil reopened Strandhill Baths in 2000, some 40,000 bathers have steamed and soaked in seawater infused with organic Fucus serratus from the Atlantic coast. Voya’s treatments and algae-based skincare are also now enjoyed in luxury hotels and spas in more than 35 countries.
“We’re quick to embrace therapies from around the world but tend to ignore our own culture,” says Mark Walton. “People travel to Europe for thalassotherapy, but there’s a strong tradition of it in the British Isles.” Lying on a warm bed of bladderwrack with strands of Laminaria digitata snaking around your limbs and torso is not perhaps the envisioned experience at a central London hotel spa, yet my Voya Organic Seaweed Leaf Wrap (£180 for 1 hr 20 mins) at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park had me channelling my inner mermaid. A spirited full-body exfoliation, a profoundly relaxing scalp or facial massage (£55 extra) and a liberal anointing of algae-rich serum left my skin feeling soft – if a little tidally scented. And don’t be surprised if the therapist offers you your treatment seaweed for the garden – in Ireland, bath-house seaweed is still used to fertilise crops. Home-going hotel guests may have a slippery time convincing Heathrow security, however. Better, perhaps, to pack Voya’s algae and essential oil-infused Softly Does It Body Moisturiser (£28 for 200ml), Lazy Days Seaweed Bath (£17 for 400g) – sea salt and dried organic seaweed that can be dried again and strewn on your borders – and soothing organic tea such as Fennel Fusion (£10) to sip while you soak. Good to know that whatever stresses life deals us, kelp is at hand.