Ectoine, the star of our sunscreen fluids, is a little known universal ingredient with extraordinary reparative and protective properties. More on its characteristics and applications in today’s article by Lucija Božičević.
Ectoine is an organic compound classified as an osmoprotectant. Osmoprotectants are small molecules produced by numerous microorganisms and plants in order to survive extreme conditions. The role of these molecules is to regulate differences in osmotic pressure of cell cytosols and the microenvironment in which the cell is situated, thereby maintaining sufficient hydration of the cell as well as stability of macromolecules necessary for normal functioning of the organism (proteins, nucleic acids). Here it is important to stress that osmoprotectants do not form direct bonds with macromolecules but by drawing water to their vicinity they create a “network” that hydrates those molecules in conditions such as high temperature, drought, high salt and electrolyte content and radiation. Since there is no direct interaction, these molecules are fully compatible with cells and do not interfere with any cell functions. Most common osmoprotectants are various sugars, polyols (alcohols containing multiple hydroxyl groups), N-acetylated amino acids and aminoacids and their derivatives and ectoine belongs to the latter group.
Ectoine in nature can be found in a large number of different bacteria that produce them for the reasons already described above. Of course, such an extraordinary protective effect on the species that produce them has prompted much research on the potential application of ectoine for human beings. It has so been discovered that ectoine is able to stabilise different enzymes in conditions of rapid temperature changes or prevent their breakdown by other agents. In addition, it has an exceptional protective effect on numerous different types of cells, defending them even from different toxins. Isolated bovine erythrocytes treated with ectoine proved to be more resistant to staphylococcal hemolysins (proteins or lipids that break down erythrocytes) due to the fact that ectoine stabilises proteins in their membranes. It is thought that ectoine could also potentially interfere with the accumulation of amyloid β, the step that precedes the development of Alzheimer disease. Another advantage is the suppression of excessive immune reactions, tested on a number of various immune cells, and this research has led to one of the most frequent uses of ectoine – as treatment for allergic rhinitis. In this case, ectoine hydrates and soothes the irritated mucous membrane of respiratory pathways and also reduces their swelling, without exhibiting any side-effects.1
However, from all the beneficial already discovered characteristics and possible applications of ectoine, the one that emerged as among the most promising is its role in protecting and preserving the normal functioning of the skin. From the very discovery of ectoine and the recognition of its water-binding potentials, it has been used as an ingredient in numerous anti-aging and moisturising creams. And with full right, since in vivo research has shown that transepidermal water loss is lower after the application of ectoine. Also, by comparing the stability of an ectoine and water molecule complex in relation to a water and glycerol complex as well as the water molecules and macromolecules themselves, it has been proven that ectoine has a better and more long-lasting hydrating effect, making it entirely deserving of the star role among all humectants.2
One of ectoine’s possibly strongest features is its ability to protect cells from damage from different surfactants present in face cleansing products, but it also helps to repair the barrier function of severely damaged skin. So it’s no surprise that ectoine could be among the more efficient solutions for fighting against atopic dermatitis. Specifically, a randomised double-blind trial, conducted in several different clinical centres, on 65 patients has shown extraordinary benefits from applying ectoine to treat atopic dermatitis. The patients’ condition was monitored using the SCORAD (Scoring Atopic Dermatitis) and IGA (Investigator’s Global Assessment) scales and the patients’ personal impressions. Thanks to its properties as a humectant and anti-inflammatory agent, as far as repairing the skin’s barrier and alleviating symptoms, ectoine exhibited results comparable to those obtained from conventional forms of treatment in cases of mid-severe to severe forms of atopic dermatitis.3
It was previously mentioned that among other things, ectoine serves the bacteria that produce it as protection against radiation. In vitro tests on human cells have proven that ectoine protects against the different harmful effects caused by UVA radiation, responsible for damaging deeper skin layers and aging4. On a molecular level, from the perspective of immunological components, ectoine has an effect on excessive ICAM-1 gene expression. ICAM-1 are glucosidal proteins known as “intercellular adhesion molecules” and they are permanently present in low concentrations on the surface of endothelial cells and immune system cells. Simply put, when an inflammatory process is taking place their concentration increases and leads to cell interactions which will start the inflammatory reaction bringing immune system cells to the place of inflammation. Common occurrence of inflammatory processes may lead to permanent changes in damaged tissue, which can be prevented by application of ectoine. Also, due to the protective effect on cells, they were also less susceptible to visible, physical damage. Certain results also suggest that ectoine may reduce the probability of development of mutations caused by UVA radiation, which in turn lead to increased production of matrix metalloproteinase enzymes which degrade extracellular matrix proteins (protein network that “supports” cells and keeps skin plump and firm) due to which wrinkles appear and skin texture deteriorates. Of course, it is evident that skin carcinoma also develops on the gene level so it is possible that ectoine may have an even bigger role in its prevention.
The multiple functionality of ectoine certainly justifies its presence in functional skincare products, and it’s obvious that its potentials have probably not yet been utilised to the full. The most prominent benefits of ectoine application are visible in the case of reducing skin damage caused by UVA radiation and alleviating symptoms of atopic dermatitis. Therefore, if you are searching for products for precisely those purposes, it might be a good idea to check product ingredient lists, choose the ones that contain ectoine and give your skin an additional boost in the form of this universal ingredient.
- Bownik A, Stepniewska Z. Ectoine as a promising protective agent in humans and animals. Arh Hig Rada Toksikol 2016, 67, 260-265
- Graf R et al. The multifunctional role of ectoine as a natural cell protectant. Clinics in Dermatology. 2008, 26, 326–333
- Marini A et al. Ectoine-Containing Cream in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Atopic Dermatitis: A Randomised, Comparator-Controlled, Intra-Individual Double-Blind, Multi-Center Trial. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2014, 27, 57–65
- Buenger J, Driller H. Ectoin: An Effective Natural Substance to Prevent UVA-Induced Premature Photoaging. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2004, 17, 232–237