‘It does it all’: The active ingredient shrinking beauty routines

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Skincare has become a linguistic minefield. The simple task of asking for a moisturiser has been replaced by tongue-twisters such as hyaluronic acid, squalane and niacinamide.

The latest sought-after, vowel-packed ingredient is ectoin, with Google searches for the extremolyte (another Scrabble winner) increasing by 40 per cent since January, following the launch of products promoting its hydrating and protective properties. An extremolylte is a molecule that protects microorganisms from environmental stresses, UV radiation and dehydration.

Skincare entrepreneur Dr Barbara Sturm showcasing her products on stage in Hamburg, Germany.Credit: Getty

“Ectoin is a real multitasker with scientifically proven beneficial properties for our skin,” says German skincare entrepreneur Dr Barbara Sturm. “It envelops skin cells in hydration shields, helping to protect skin from external aggressors and reduce oxidative stress and cell inflammation.”

It’s the protective properties that sets ectoin apart from the hyped hyaluronic acid, which when applied to the skin only acts as a hydrator.

“It improves the resilience of the skin, reducing water loss, and boosts skin radiance, texture and elasticity,” Sturm says. “Ectoin also has additional moisturising and plumping effects. It does it all.”

With the white coat, scientific aspects covered, ectoin just needed an exotic backstory to find the same fame as hyaluronic acid. Fortunately, its discovery in 1985 in Egypt’s Wadi El Naturn desert, where it protects plants against salt-induced hydration, fits the bill.

“It comes under the category of an adaptogen, which is used by plant life to protect its surface coating, allowing it to survive harsh temperature extremes to survive and thrive,” says US skin entrepreneur Dr Dennis Gross.

“In humans, it does something analogous, namely, protects and restores the moisture barrier of skin, which is our surface protector.”

Forty years is a long journey from the Egyptian desert to online checkouts, but Gross credits the delayed attraction to a growing exhaustion with Korean-style beauty routines that start at eight steps and can keep you in the bathroom beyond breakfast time.

“More people are looking to support their skin health in multiple ways,” Gross says. “This means looking for quality, multitasking formulations that have been clinically tested instead of embarking on a 12-step routine that overworks the skin and disrupts the moisture barrier.”

Those 12-step beauty routines were a lockdown ritual for many people, bringing visible glamour to Zoom catch-ups. Ectoin’s arrival is perfectly timed for those experiencing a delayed reaction IRL.

“A lot of products that feature ectoin have launched in the last year or two,” says cosmetic chemist Dr Michelle Wong, founder of science education platform Lab Muffin. “There’s also been a lot of interest in non-irritating actives and supporting the skin barrier because so many people started using a lot of irritating skincare in the last few years while working from home.”

Don’t expect to see ectoin jumping out at you on labels, with it predominantly found in a cocktail of formulas.

“Its benefits alone are impressive but because it works so well with other actives, it is a key ingredient in a multitasking formula, like my DermInfusions Fill + Repair Serum,” says Dr Gross.

“Ectoin should be combined with many active ingredients but works particularly well with other moisturising ingredients such as my proprietary formulation of high and low molecular weighted hyaluronic acid and vitamin E,” says Sturm, who also includes it in her Better B Niacinamide Serum.

While on its own ectoin is hailed as a non-irritant, Wong suggests proceeding with caution before packing your bathroom cabinet with multitasking products.

“Like with other humectant ingredients, it can make skin a bit more permeable to other ingredients which can lead to irritation,” Wong says. “Different people’s skin can also react to different things, so while ectoin is generally quite non-irritating it’s still a good idea to introduce it into your routine slowly and stop using it if your skin starts getting irritated.”

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