In the extremely remote northwest corner of Iceland, not far from the Arctic Circle, boats buoyed by large pontoons skim the surface of Breidafjordur Bay
mowing kelp, like aquatic versions of tractors cutting grass for hay. The stringy marine plant is pulled aboard by a conveyor belt, which drags it to the rear of the boat, where a net catches the harvest.
The nutrient-rich seaweed from Breidafjordur Bay, after it's dried by giant thermally heated dryers at a facility in Reykholar, might be used as an ingredient in food or fertilizer—or maybe even in a shampoo or lotion.
The use of marine extracts or ingredients is still a niche market for most U.S. personal care companies, though it's becoming a popular trend in Europe. Online newsletter CosmeticsDesign-Europe reported that at one of the mainstream cosmetic industry's biggest trade shows, In-Cosmetics, held last April in Paris, marine-derived ingredients were all the rage. Such salves and suds made from the sea are reportedly good for use in everything from anti-aging creams to skin hydration lotions.
But when it comes to body care that's made with natural and organic ingredients culled from the sea, is there really much to fish for?
"There's not a whole lot of marine anything that's organic," contends Gay Timmons, founder and president of Oh, Oh Organic in Los Gatos, Calif., a distribution company that sells certified organic ingredients to the cosmetics industry. The problem, she says, is that it's difficult for sea-based operations to meet the stringent rules of the National Organic Program.
Bill Wolf knows something about that challenge. It took about 10 years for his company Thorvin to certify its Icelandic kelp harvest and processing facility as organic. "It is literally the cleanest water I have ever found, and also the highest in nutrients in the water itself," Wolf says of the 80-mile-wide Breidafjordur Bay. The nutrients come from glacial melt that carries land minerals into the sea. Deep sea vents, erupting like Old Faithful a couple hundred feet below the water surface, also thicken the nutrient soup. "It created a site where seaweed grows real aggressively."
Algae appear to be the most popular of marine ingredients. Mainstream naturals brands like Aubrey Organics use algae in facial cleansing lotions, toners and moisturizers. The company says on its Web site that the organic blue-green algae it uses are high in amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
"You can put it in anything," Timmons says of marine-derived ingredients. "It could go into lip products, lotions and creams, and hair products, and anything you wanted." In the organic realm, she says, turning seaweed into an ingredient requires using an oil- or water-based extract formula. "You can't use it as an ingredient itself" because of its high microbial count, she adds.
It took Jenefer Palmer more than a decade to formulate her marine-based personal care products for Osea International, a company in Malibu, Calif., that she founded nine years ago, because there were so few options for naturally derived ingredients when she started out.
Palmer says the seaweed used in her products comes from Brittany, Iceland and Patagonia. She uses several different species, though she prefers red algae because it hardly has an odor, and adds other naturally derived ingredients (organic when possible) like aloe vera juice to make her products. "To me, [algae are] a super food," she says. "I look at seaweed as the base—it's almost as if it's the vegetable broth for my soup—and then I start adding as many other ingredients that I can find into it."
Wolf notes that seaweed is an overly generic term. "Saying seaweed is like saying land plant, meaning there are many different species," he explains. Thorvin harvests two species from its organic kelp beds—the coastal Ascophyllum nodosum and the deep-water Laminaria digitata. In general terms, there are three major parts of seaweed: the holdfast, stipe and fronds. Think root, stem and leaf for a terrestrial analogy. The large-celled algal plant attaches itself to anything at the bottom, such as rock, sand or even sunken ships. It pulls in its valuable nutrients through its fronds.
On a farm, the nutrient profile would be driven by the quality of the soil. But sea vegetation is geographically consistent based on the quality of the water, Wolf says. "So you have a much more consistent end product."
Algae like the Thorvin kelp (large seaweed) have a number of attractive properties for companies in the business of beautifying. Algae extracts in personal care can help exfoliate, cleanse and detoxify. They also can smooth, tone, gently hydrate and re-mineralize the skin. In addition, seaweed is a source of alginic acid, laminarin, polysaccharides and polyphenols, as well as with vitamins A, B2, B3, C, D and E.
"You've got a really complex, biologically active plant, and what we're trying to do is keep the product fresh and alive when we harvest it," Wolf says.
In a very different part of the world, where the sea is so salty that bathers float comfortably on top of the water while reading a newspaper, Todd Federman has parted the waters for what he claims is the first all-natural soap made from Dead Sea minerals and salts. He formed Washington, D.C.-based One With Nature in 2004 with a Jordanian partner he met while attending business school.
"We felt it was really a shame that the best-kept secrets of [the Dead Sea were] not available in a soap that's truly natural," Federman says.
All the manufacturing takes place in Jordan, in a town just outside Amman, according to Federman. The Jordanian government manages extracting the mud, minerals and salts used in the soaps, he says. "That way they control how much is taken out. They make sure there is as little a footprint as possible. They work with environmental groups in the region to make sure they're doing it in the most sustainable way."
The Dead Sea contains 21 minerals including sodium, magnesium bromine, bitumen and potassium, with 33 percent concentration of salts and minerals compared to 3 percent elsewhere, according to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce. Federman says Dead Sea minerals help to balance the skin's pH naturally, and they serve as a gentle exfoliant.
"You find that a lot of physicians are actually prescribing Dead Sea products for a couple of skin ailments," he says, such as eczema and psoriasis.
A fresh approach
Not every algae or mineral needs to marinate in the salty sea to prove useful in a personal care product. The single-celled, freshwater green algae known as chlorella pyrenoidosa possess numerous vitamins and minerals that make it a popular food supplement. SunChlorella USA added a skin cream to its line of chlorella-based supplements a couple of years ago, believing that a key component derived from the nuclei of the algae, dubbed Chlorella Growth Factor, can rebuild and revitalize cells.
The chlorella is harvested from freshwater pools in Java, Indonesia, says Guinevere Lynn, director of sales and customer service for the Torrance, Calif.-based company. "Due to Java's close proximity to the equator, the sun's rays are the strongest, which we believe yields the high chlorophyll content," she says. Once the chlorella is ready to be harvested, it is removed from the freshwater pools, and then it is dried and undergoes a patented process that pulverizes the tough, indigestible chlorella cell wall.
"The trend toward the use of algae in products such as [our chlorella-based cream] seems to be on the rise," Lynn says.
Osea founder Palmer characterizes the popularity of marine-derived personal care products even more bluntly: "It's absolutely a growing trend."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 32, 34, 36