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Hyaluronic Acid – Is it really from abattoirs or horse gut bacteria?

August 21, 2018

A client of mine just sent me a link to a scathing review about Hyaluronic acid. Amongst other things the review mentioned the following:

  • Hyaluronic acid is too large to be absorbed through the skin and instead sits on the skin drawing moisture out and dehydrating it.
  • Promotes build-up of keratin cells which are responsible for flaking.
  • That it is made in China through fermentation of Streptococcus Zoepidemicus bacteria, commonly found in the guts and lungs of sick horses.
  • That a safer way of making Hyaluronic acid from Bacillus Subtilis fermentation failed commercially thus leaving this unsafe, dirty process HA as the only vegan option (which is clearly not good enough).
  • That a high percentage of Hyaluronic Acid in the market is made from rooster combs and other animal parts.

Now before I look into all of the above I’ll just remind the reader that Hyaluronic acid is a long, sugar-like molecule that we classify as a GAG (Glycosaminoglycan). Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally throughout our bodies. It forms part of our extra cellular matrix, neural tissues and epithelial tissues such as the inside of the mouth and the Lung air sacks.

In cosmetic science we have mostly been using this as an active delivery system (delivery via osmotic pump), humectant, thickener, feel-modifier and general biomimetic skin balancing active.  Maybe we got that all wrong…

So let’s have a look, firstly at where Hyaluronic Acid comes from. 

Hyaluronic acid is often manufactured from Streptococcus Zoepidemicus as we can see by following this link.

This particular Streptococcus strain is most commonly found in horses although it is also found in cows, rabbits and occasionally humans.  This link provides a bit more background.

Factories manufacturing Hyaluronic Acid do not need to have a field full of horses or cows hanging around in order to harvest live bacteria from them. These factories usually purchase a starting culture for their manufacturing and starting cultures of bacteria can be purchased from a number of sources and these sources can germinate the bacteria in a number of different ways.

Here is one such culture, I’m not sure if this would be suitable for Hyaluronic Acid production but if you look through the data we can see that this bacteria has been grown  (incubated) on agar plates made from animal matter.

This version of the bacteria culture is patented for Hyaluronic Acid production.   The culture is also said to be available grown on a Todd Hewitt medium which is referenced here.

So right about now we can take a step back and say the comments above were right, that Hyaluronic Acid is made from a nasty pathogen that lives inside horses.  Only that would not be telling the whole story and in life, sometimes the whole story is what we need.

While all of the above is true, it is also true that the biotechnology industry is also subject to the same ethical and moral codes AND increasingly marketing pressures as everywhere else.  The market for animal free microbe culture is growing both for use in probiotic foods and for things like this.  Needless to say a fair amount of research has gone into looking at alternative growth medium for the microbes that go on to make Hyaluronic Acid.   The preferred non-animal broth is now either Soy peptone (let’s just hope that’s GMO free), yeast extract or glucose monohydrate.  Here is a paper about this. Here is another interesting paper that is looking at growing HA in Palmyra Palm (no, not that palm) in a bid to find a value-added application for this under-utilised material. This article has only just been published and interest in this space is really growing.

One key fact in the production of hyaluronic acid is that the cost of production is heavily influenced by the cost of the growth medium.  These non-animal derived sources are not only helping to give us a source of vegetarian hyaluronic acid source but they are also keeping the price down and in addition are also helping to address another part of the puzzle, safety.

Pathogenic microbes sound awfully scary and one wouldn’t want to put a disease-causing organism onto the skin if it stood any chance of causing disease.  Now I’m no expert in biotechnology but what I have read confirms that the microbes that get used in the manufacture of Hyaluronic Acid have been somewhat genetically engineered to a) be better at the job in hand (making HA) and b) reduce any harm from the use of the microbe.  On top of that a non disease-causing growth medium makes for a pretty safe process for skin care. Here is an article looking at one aspect of recumbent Streptococcus Zooepidermicus and here is another.  Again, this has been an area of intense research over the years and as with all things, I’m sure that as the years continue to roll on we will find safer and better ways to utilise microbes such as this to make materials such as hyaluronic acid.

Just as an aside, it might be useful for me to explain quickly why microbes are in this story. Basically the Streptococcus produces hyaluronic acid as a shield for its pathogenic bombs. The disease-bomb part of the microbe effectively hides in hyaluronic and makes its way into the body that way.  It is because hyaluronic is so well tolerated by the body that the microbe uses this technology as its armour – bio-mimicry.  So, it is odd that there is talk that Hyaluronic in its self can somehow be bad for the body? Maybe yes, in the wrong place and at the wrong time but most of the time these conditions wouldn’t necessarily happen.

Another point – the use of HA in eye surgery.

Hyaluronic acid is used in eye surgery and this requires a very different standard of additive including different molecular weigh, purity and longevity.  While these are both hyaluronic acid it is not helpful to view the two applications as the same thing, rather like it is not equivalent to view table salt the same as road de-icing salt.

So now let’s look at the claim that HA is too big to penetrate the skin.

This is absolutely true, whether the HA is high or low molecular weight but it is somewhat inconsequential as cosmetics must act on the surface and hyaluronic acid is totally capable of doing a good job there including delivering moisture and actives.  The only way to get hyaluronic acid INTO the deep tissue layers to plump the skin is via injection and the brand that has the patent for that is Restalyne.

It is highly unlikely that HA would ever dehydrate the skin.  As an osmotic active it is always going to want to share moisture from high to low areas. The skin contains, at best around 0.7 x it’s weight in water whereas the HA contains around 1000x it’s weight.  The osmotic pump-action of Hyaluronic Acid has been well documented as has the general action of Hyaluronic Acid as a humectant (water binder). In fact, Hyaluronic is thought to be so useful in dermatology that it is being increasingly used as a hydrogel base for tissue protection and repair. Hyaluronic Acid’s polymer structure can also be exploited to help create different textures, hardnesses and breathability all from one highly bio-compatible and non immune-stimulating natural polymer.

As for the comment about this ingredient leading to a build up of keratin cells I can find no reason why that should be so.  Hyperkeratosis can occur in skin that has been irritated such as when there is an eczema flair up, sun damage, warts or other disease. There is also a condition called Keratosis Pilaris which is harmless but can cause some distress as it leaves the skin looking lumpy and rough – this is also affectionately known as ‘chicken skin’ and I am sporting some of this.  This is caused by a build up of dry skin but it is somewhat of a dysfunction so usually there is more than just a lack of moisture to blame – think genetic malfunction of a minor kind or similar.   It might be that the writer has extrapolated that if the HA dehydrates the skin it will leave it more prone to this. I can follow that line of thinking but feel it is well and truly over-stated and unlikely to be linked to HA use in any case.

So what about the last claims about the materials origin?

It is true that lots of Hyaluronic Acid is made in China but that has more to do with their investment in biotechnology than anything else. Several manufacturers in China now have natural standard accreditation and I’ve had no problem in getting data out of the main players as to their supply chain and animal origin when asked.

As for the animal derived material, it is true that there will still be animal material on the market but the research into alternatives has given us materials that are not just better quality and more reliable a supply source but also that is  cheaper so that leaves very little reason for the animal origin material to thrive.

With regards to there being safer ways of making HA and other microbes can be used, it is true that there are many companies looking for even safer ways to make this, cheaper ways to make it, better ways to improve yield and ways to make the quality even better and that is involving the investigating into other micro starting cultures.  Not all of these will be (or have been) successful as with the specific example cited above but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be successful alternative in future. What is important now is that the microbes used to make HA now are able to make safe and clean HA for cosmetic use. The massive push for even safer alternatives is mainly for the high-end injectable market and especially for eye surgery.  Eye surgical needs for HA are growing as this is a key component in many types of eye surgery related to ageing and with an ageing population we will be needing more and more HA!

So, how did that all stack up?

There is no need to use Hyaluronic Acid if you don’t want to and sure, check your sources, ask the questions and make sure you feel comfortable with the supply chain but do try to keep things into perspective.  I remember watching a documentary about a farm once, the farmer was growing organic veggies and he had a rat problem. He ended up trapping and killing the rats then using them as blood and bone for his veggie patch. It did remind me that that’s what soil is after all – the microbes, the carbon matter, the trace minerals etc.  At some point you just have to draw the line.

In conclusion, based on the experiences I’ve had, the reading I’ve done and the products I’ve tested I would say that Hyaluronic Acid is more likely to do good than nothing and more likely to do nothing than do something bad so go for it!

Amanda x




5 Comments leave one →
  1. Farah permalink
    August 21, 2018 11:02 pm

    interesting post!

  2. August 23, 2018 7:02 am

    Love all the details in this piece. Thanks for sharing the science 😉

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 24, 2018 8:29 am

      Thanks. It was just such a juicy journey.

  3. Cath permalink
    January 6, 2020 9:03 pm

    Thanks for a really good explanation of HA. Now rethinking facecare again. I recently started using HA serums as a boost of hydration under moisturiser. I live in the French Pyrenees and train at altitude so I need hydration and barriers. There is so much crap to sift through trying to determine what I should use and in what order, I just can’t get the gist of the need for overload of products on the face – cleanse, tone, serum, moisture, oil, SPF routine. It just can’t be good for the skin to use that amount of product. I do understand this is marketing business. But seriously impossible to find sane advice out there. I drink as much water before and during activity. I would drink more but it keeps me up half the night due to menopause. Serum, SPF cream, oil, then sunscreen. Except for sunscreen is there any point using products that just sit and stop the skin from breathing. This is as confusing as French grammar. I know I cannot be the only person overwhelmed by facecare out there.

    Is there help out there in determining the application of products to skinl. Mid forties, grumpy and looking for sanity. Apologies for chuntering about this – unimportant in the grander scheme. I look up to you for your bullshit free posts.

    Enjoy your articles (the ones I can understand)

    Stay safe in Australia Amanda, we despair at the situation you are all in the midst of out there

  4. RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
    January 10, 2020 3:17 pm

    Hi there, Ummmm your question about whether there is a need for a lot of products… Generally I think this is up to you – a question of personal taste or preference so to speak. Some people get all the nutrition they need from eating only a very small amount of food items either through necessity or choice, others have broader and more varied or experimental taste. Same could be said of skincare. Your skin will have its own set of needs and you may also throw in some wants (repair, restore, anti-ageing, visual look and feel etc) that go beyond the purely physical. If you are the kind of person that prefers a simple, quick and convenient skin regime you may find everything you need in a small number of products. It could be that the multi-functional formulations you choose are less effective for one reason or another than if you used a layering approach but if you don’t like doing that or can’t remember to do that or have no time for that then one could argue that the dip in efficacy of the combination is irrelevant because you get no efficacy from a product you don’t use and you are not going to use a regime based on multiple, complex steps. Other people find the routine of putting on one thing then another soothing and it enables them to target effects and pay attention to issues they want to avoid or repair more closely. Of course, some brands do bring out multiple different SKU’s just to get you to buy more so they make more money but often there is some science behind different chemistry for different products. I’m glad you enjoy the articles and so far so good for us in terms of our human physical wellbeing but not necessarily so good mentally or for our flora and fauna. That’s so sad and today is another challenging day.

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