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You are here: Anti-Aging Skin Treatments > Topical Actives >

Oat beta-glucan's anti-wrinkle promise

Everybody knows that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. " Everybody in the cosmetic industry knows that it is almost as hard to make large biopolymers, like proteins or glucosaminoglycans, penetrate deeply into the skin when applied in a cream. In fact, transdermal delivery of growth factors and other large, highly specific actives is as close to the Holy Grail of skin care as a topical treatment can get.

Surprisingly, preliminary research indicates that a biopolymer from oat called beta-glucan may be capable of both penetrating deep into the skin and delivering significant skin benefits. Beta-glucan is a linear polymer consisting of glucose molecules linked together in a particular fashion. It has a long history of safe use in skin care and dermatology as a long-lasting, film-forming moisturizer. It has also been shown to work as anti-irritant and to speed up healing of shallow abrasions and partial thickness burns. Beta-glucan appears to enhance wound healing through several mechanisms including the stimulation of collagen deposition, activation of immune cells and so forth. Beta-glucans are found in various natural sources, such as cereals and yeast; oat beta-glucan being the most active.

While the utility of beta-glucan in moisturizing and healing minor wounds and burns has been fairly well established, the evidence of its anti-wrinkle effects on the intact skin has emerged only recently. In a 2005 study published in the magazine of International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists, Dr Pillai and colleagues investigated skin penetration and anti-aging effects of topical oat beta-glucan. In a penetration experiment on isolated skin sections, the researchers found that beta-glucan penetrated the epidermis and reached the dermis by passing in the gaps between cells. After 8 hours of treatment with 0.5% beta-glucan solution, 28% of the applied beta-glucan entered the skin and as much as 4% reached the dermis (i.e. the layer where wrinkles form). Unfortunately, the validity of this experiment remains in question because the skin sections used in the experiment were frozen and then treated with gamma radiation, which may have altered their permeability. Dr Pillai and colleagues also treated 27 subjects with 0.1 % topical beta-glucan or placebo twice daily for eight weeks, assigned randomly, using a half-face design. By the end of the study, beta-glucan treated areas fared significantly better than placebo, with wrinkles and roughness diminishing by about 10-15%. Skin firmness (tensile strength) also increased.

The evidence of beta-glucan's effects on the intact skin is encouraging but a number of questions remain. Will these results be confirmed by other researchers and via different methods? Is such skin firming sustainable in the long term with or without continued use? Assuming beta-glucan indeed stimulates collagen deposition in the intact skin, what is the mechanism of this effect? Dr Pillai and colleagues theorize that beta-glucan stimulates collagen by inducing the release of immune/inflammatory mediators, such as IL-1 and NFkB. If true, stimulating inflammatory response may not be the optimal way to strengthen the collagen network because inflammation may have negative side effects. Also, the ratio of collagen types deposited in response to inflammation may not be optimal in the long term. On the other hand, oat beta-glucan has a long history of safe use. Furthermore, many skin rejuvenation methods, including skin peels, dermabrasion, laser treatments and others work via controlled skin damage, which induces inflammation and subsequent collagen deposition and skin remodeling.

What does all this mean for practical skin care? The most prudent approach is to wait for more research on beta-glucan. This may take a long time though. Skin care research has low profile in terms of funding and beta-glucan formulations are hard to patent because it is a natural ingredient. On the other hand, oat beta-glucan has a long history of safe use in skin care and may be worth a try even before definitive research is available. The simplest way to give it a try is to use a moisturizer containing colloidal oatmeal such as Aveeno. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether products with colloidal oatmeal contain sufficient amounts of oat beta-glucan to match those used in the study. Also, when beta-glucan is mostly trapped inside colloidal oatmeal particles, its capacity to penetrate the skin, if any, may be reduced. Nonetheless, colloidal oatmeal is an effective and long-lasting moisturizing ingredient and anti-irritant. People with dry skin may want to try a colloidal oatmeal product for the sake of skin hydration and soothing if nothing else.

Skin care products containing purified oat beta-glucan (rather than whole oatmeal) do exist but are few. Also, they are hard to compare as they rarely have beta-glucan concentration stated on the label. Do-it-yourself approach is also an option. While pure oat beta-glucan may be difficult to find in retail amounts, highly enriched extracts are available and may be incorporated in DIY skin care formulations. (See DIY Anti-Aging Skin Care Infopack for specific instructions).


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