Beta Glucan is used in natural skin care products for its ability to penetrate deep into the skin and for delivering other ingredients to the dermal layer. Beta glucan is a natural compound, extracted from plants, that helps to maintain a youthful appearance for skin.
This compound works indirectly in the human immune system by activating the production of an important part of the immune system called the Langerhan cells. The Langerhan cells are important both for over-all health and youthful looking skin, since they protect the body from major infections and provide a way to repair the day-to-day wear that comes from age.
Unfortunately, over the course of aging, the production of Langerhan cells is slowed down by such factors as over-exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, contact with chemicals and the simple wear and tear of age. As the human body begins to slow down the production of these very important immune cells, beta glucan acts to re-start the system that creates them. This system works in three stages: an activating compound – beta glucan – the immune cell and the reaction of the skin’s cells that make up tissues to help your skin look smooth, healthy and youthful.
There are a variety of sources for beta glucan. Most commonly, in skin care products, it is derived from the cell walls of baker’s yeast (Saccharmoyces cerevisiae), but beta glucan can also be extracted from the bran (the inner, most nutritious part of the seed) of oats, barley, rye and wheat. Beta glucan is, oddly enough, also a product of the shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes). Looked at chemically, beta glucan is made up of a long chain of d-glucose molecules, which are small enough to be quickly absorbed through the skin and which can be immediately used by the human body. This is important because, in medical terms, this means that beta glucan is both bioavailable and bioactive. This makes the compound able to be easily absorbed, so it can get right to work, and be quickly accepted by the body’s immune system so it can make a difference.
For thousands of years, folk medicine healers had recognized that rubbing a paste, called a poultice, made of oat bran onto the skin helped to relieve itching and pain and to help more quickly heal minor wounds, such as cuts, sores and rashes. Even without understanding the process, the results were obvious. Modern medicine has identified the connections regarding active compound – beta glucan – and what it actually is: how it works and what it does.
The chemical structure of beta glucan allows it to interact with a specific type of microphages (immune cells) called Langerhans cells. (Confusingly, there are other cells with a similar name, called the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas, but these have an entirely different function.) The part of the immune system called Langerhans cells are a very specific type of cell located in the skin tissues and mucus. They provide an extremely important function by activating microbial antigens, the actual germ-killers. So, beta glucan is the key and the Langerhans cells are the factories that create the cells which actually do the work of protecting the body.
When applied topically, beta glucan is quickly absorbed into the skin and is accepted by the immune system, starting a process that attacks invading bacteria and viruses. By using skin care products which contain beta glucan, the body receives this necessary compound to jump-start the process which results in the production of immune cells. More than just helping to stimulate the production of immune cells, beta glucan has also been found to be effective in reducing blood cholesterol concentration and in reducing nasal inflammation caused by allergies.
In practical terms for human skin, beta glucan begins a process which will help heal skin from over-exposure to the sun, mild burns, rashes and even cuts and wounds. It not only helps the body’s immune system active and able to resist bacterial and viral infection, it also helps to stimulate the skin tissue to re-build surface cells and to restore the collagen structure. Fresh, youthful skin cells are grown while the supporting structural cells are also continually maintained. Beta glucan is an immune system guardian; it works at such a basic and important level – and in a completely natural way – that it provides the best and most basic skin care protection.
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.
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.
beta Glucan Synonyms
Amylodextrins, baker’s yeast, barley, beta-glucans, beta glycans, beta-glycans, d-fraction, GD, grifolan, griton-d(r), GRN, lentinan, maitake mushroom, PGG glucan, PGG-glucan, oat beta-glucan, oat fiber, oat fibre, oat gum, Plantago major L., poria cocos sclerotium, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, schizophyllan (SPG), Sparassis crispa, SSG, yeast-derived beta glucan.
Concentrated yeast-derived beta-glucan is more easily incorporated into food products than grain beta-glucans, which are found in cereal grains such as oats and barley. Yeast-derived beta-glucan is also more palatable than oat because it is not soluble in water and does not become viscous in water as beta-glucan from oats does. However, oat derived beta-glucan may have a higher therapeutic benefit potential.
The use of beta glucan is a relatively new practice. Practitioners have used beta-glucan as an immunostimulant or as an adjunct cancer treatment. Beta-glucan is also used for its cholesterol-lowering effects and glycemic (blood sugar) control. In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a ruling that allowed oat bran to be registered as the first cholesterol-reducing food at an amount of 3 grams beta-glucan daily.
Antioxidant: In patients with high blood pressure, foods containing oat beta-glucan did not appear to have antioxidant effects. More research is needed before a conclusion can be made.
Burns: Beta glucan collagen matrix, which combines the carbohydrate beta-glucan with collagen, has been used as a temporary coverage for partial thickness burns with good results. Beta-glucan collagen matrix may help reduce pain, improve healing, and lessen scar appearance. However, further study is needed to confirm these results.
Cancer: Treatment with a beta-glucan, called lentinan, plus chemotherapy (S-1) may help prolong the lives of patients with gastric cancer that has returned or cannot be operated on. More research is needed in this area.
Cardiovascular disease: Evidence suggests that reductions in endothelial function induced by a high fat meal may be prevented when a high fat meal is taken along with a beta-glucan-containing cereal or vitamin E. Diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), and hypertension (high blood pressure) data are also promising. Further study is needed in this area.
Diagnostic procedure: Early research suggests that the amount of beta-glucan detected in the body may help doctors diagnose and monitor fungal infections, called candidiasis.
Heart protection during coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG): Early research suggests that treatment with beta glucan before a heart surgery, called coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), may help protect against heart damage. More research is needed in this area.
High blood pressure: There is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of beta-glucan for high blood pressure. Better study is needed to determine a relationship.
Immune stimulation: Beta glucan may boost the immune system. Therefore, it has been studied as a possible way to increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Although early research is promising, more studies are needed to determine if beta-glucan can help treat breast cancer patients.
Infections: PGG-glucan, an immunomodulator, has been studied in patients undergoing surgery, particularly abdominal surgery. Currently, PGG-glucan appears to have positive results in decreasing postoperative infection. More study is warranted to make a firm recommendation.
Weight loss: Researchers suggest different types of fiber may have an effect on satiety and energy intake. Short-term use of fermentable fiber or nonfermentable fiber supplements does not appear to promote weight loss. More study is needed to confirm these findings.