Beta-Glucan Is Finally Having Her Cinderella Moment
Here's why everyone is talking about this skincare ingredient.
Hyaluronic acid might be the best-known humectant in skin care, but a lesser-known polysaccharide called beta-glucan is about to steal the spotlight. According to Beverly Hills-based oculoplastic surgeon Kami Parsa, MD, beta-glucan actually outperforms hyaluronic acid by as much as twenty percent when it comes to hydration. Plus, it offers other healing, soothing benefits that go far beyond its plumping abilities
That might explain why you can find beta-glucan popping up in the skincare market: For instance, it's used in the popular barrier cream, iSClinical Sheald Recovery Balm, as well as Biojouvé's Living Biome Essentials Duo and Révive's Sensitif Calming Serum. "We added beta glucan to the formula because of its power to strengthen your skin's barrier and soothe red or irritated skin — as well as to smooth fine lines and wrinkles with hydration," says Gregory Bays Brown, MD, plastic surgeon and founder of Révive, tells InStyle.
The skincare industry is clearly in on the healing properties of beta-glucan, and it's time to learn why.
Related:What Exactly Is Hyaluronic Acid?
What Is Beta-Glucan?
"Beta-glucan is a polysaccharide, a carbohydrate that forms the structural components of cells," says Katie Sobelman, a holistic esthetician based in California. "It is naturally produced by bacteria, fungi, and lichens, mimicking the natural structures found in the top layer of our skin and acting as a phenomenal humectant." (A humectant, for the uninitiated, is a molecule that attracts water.)
Natalie Aguilar, a celebrity facialist and dermatological nurse in Los Angeles, also points out that beta-glucan is found in many food products, including oats, barley, seaweed, and rye. Of them, she adds that oats have some of the highest concentration of beta-glucan — hence the therapeutic nature of oat extract and oatmeal products.
The (Many) Benefits of Beta-Glucan for Skin
Beta-glucan benefits in four primary ways, says Dr. Parsa: It imparts hydration, boosts skin barrier function, addresses signs of aging, and helps heal. These avenues of skin health yield synergistic benefits that contribute to your skin's overall immune function, aiding with wound healing, eczema, dermatitis, and beyond. Here, exactly how it achieves those benefits:
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Hydration and Barrier Support
The hydrating and barrier-support functions of beta-glucan go hand-in-hand, plumping skin while retaining hydration. "While hyaluronic acid is [known for its ability to] retain and hold water, beta glucan works by improving the skin's natural ability to retain moisture," says Aguilar.
Supporting the skin barrier helps offset with trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) — through which water literally evaporates from skin — and as a result can help alleviate dry, dehydrated, or barrier-compromised skin. This renders reactive and compromised skin less susceptible to pathogens and environmental aggressors — which can treat, soothe, and prevent inflammatory sources of skin eruptions like eczema and some types of acne..
Defense Against Signs of Aging
Hydration and retained moisture create a plumping effect, which obviously helps to smooth the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. As a result, beta-glucan can "visibly minimize signs of aging, reducing wrinkle depth and overall roughness," confirms Sobelman. Dr. Parsa also points out that there is also an antioxidant effect, which works by protecting the skin cells against free radical damage — which is one of the leading theories of skin aging.
Beta-glucan's healing function works by empowering the skin's innate immune system. It does so by stimulating the Langerhans cells found in the skin's protective external epidermis. Beta-glucan "binds to specific receptors on the surface of Langerhans cells, which stimulates them to produce cytokines and other immune mediators [that] strengthen the skin's defenses against external stressors, and regulate the skin's immune response," says Aguilar.
Its ability to cue cytokines and other regenerative mechanisms explains its anti-inflammatory and pro-healing functions — which she has personally used to treat burns from curling irons to sunburn.
The role beta-glucan can play in the skin's microbiome of beneficial bacterias is also intricately related to skin immunity and health. This balance can be disrupted easily — by stripping cleansers, aggressive treatments, antibiotics, or even antimicrobial active ingredients, for instance.
This is where beta-glucan's prebiotic function comes in. "Beta-glucan can be used as a food source for beneficial microbes," says Thomas Hitchcock, PhD, chief science office at Crown Laboratories. "These are turned into short chain fatty acids, such as propionic acids, which do all kinds of good for the skin, such as lowering pH and reducing UV-induced skin pigmentation." A healthy microbiome basically equips the skin with its own built-in self-protective, healing, and regenerative mechanisms.
Related:The Dos and Don'ts of Mixing Skincare Ingredients
What Sets Beta-Glucan Apart From Other Active Ingredients?
What makes beta glucan unique is its multi-hyphenate nature. It is most easily compared to its fellow polysaccharide, hyaluronic acid, because of their shared hydrophilic properties, meaning they attract water. But as Sobelman points out, hyaluronic acid is a postbiotic — a byproduct of the microbiome — whereas beta glucan is a prebiotic, or fuel for the microbiome.
Another advantage: It plays well with other active ingredients, such as niacinamide. To be clear, this is not an "either/or" situation. Aguilar points out that any formula's efficacy will be determined by its purity, potency, and concentration. If anything, it's simply an effective, science-backed skincare ingredient to add to your arsenal, stat.
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