Biochemistry Within the Cosmetic Industry

Cosmetics have been used since early civilization, and products were obtained from natural compounds including flowers, milk, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, alongside minerals. Cosmetic products are principally used to clean, perfume, beautify, and prevent body odor. Many ingredients used in cosmetic products help develop complex formulations that can improve several aspects of the human house, including disease prevention, beauty enhancement, which is linked to the building of self-esteem.

Several beneficial effects are promoted concerning using biomolecule-rich substances in the formulations of products that are applied topically. These are considered to be useful in cosmetic and therapeutic contexts. Accordingly, biochemistry in the cosmetic industry is necessary to develop safe, and potentially beneficial cosmetic products for the end-user.

Several biomolecules are found in cosmetic products which could play an important role in preventing immune responses on the skin or preserving ingredients in cosmetics. Indeed, chemicals found in cosmetics may produce harmful effects combat causing allergic reactions. There are several beneficial effects promoted through incorporating lipids, polysaccharides, and protein.


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Cosmetic Lipids

Vegetable oils are a rich source of fatty acids and are used successfully in cosmetic products. Chemically, they are a combination of triglycerides, comprised of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are used in components of cosmetic formulations that are marketed for the daily care of the face and body. A deficiency in fatty acids can result in excessive drying of the skin as well as other health concerns.

Vegetable oils prevent water loss through the skin by producing a protective layer on the epidermis. They also soften the subcutaneous layer and reduce inflammation. They are also essential in synthesizing cell membranes or the production of prostaglandins, and prostacyclins, which are part of the eicosanoids. In the absence of these fatty acids, vascular fragility is increased, with a concomitant reduction in immune function which compromises the clotting process as well as increases the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis.

The use of plant vegetable oils in cosmetic products can be seen in both facial and hair care. Vegetable oils found in facial and hair care products include almond, apricot, hazelnut, jojoba, avocado, wheat germ, macadamia, and grape seed oils.

The strongest cosmetic activity is found in unsaturated fatty acids that comprise triglycerides. For skincare, the most important omega acids include Omega 6 and omega-3 fatty acids such as linoleic acid (ω-6) and α-linolenic acid (ω-3). These improve eczema. In addition, both oils can be incorporated into the cell membrane, closing regeneration of the damaged lipid barrier of the epidermis. They also serve to restrict the loss of water.

Consequently, unsaturated fatty acids can produce a healing effect on many skin conditions like skin inflammation. They are often used as the basis of cosmetic milk and creams, hair conditioners, cosmetic masks, lipsticks, bathing products, and nail polishes. In addition, compounds with high biological activity such as vitamin A, D, E hormones, steroids, and phospholipids can be dissolved in fatty acids.

The different vegetable oils used are also employed as excipients in cosmetical formulations;  a range of phospholipids are appropriate for use in cosmetics as well as pharmaceuticals in the capacity as a vehicle for therapeutic substances like liposomes.  Liposomes are used to deliver proteins and amino acids to the skin. They are small vesicles of spiracle shape that are often comprised of cholesterol and other phospholipids.

They differ in composition, size, surface properties, and method of preparation which determine how rigid or fluid they are. They play a role as a vehicle of cosmetics materials and as an active agent. In conditions such as eczema or dry skin, empty liposomes interact with the lipids on the skin alongside carbohydrates and proteins to rejuvenate it and improve its defense functions.

Cosmetic Proteins

The use of proteins in cosmetic care has been used since ancient times, for example, the use of camel milk in Eritrea. In skincare, purified amino acids such as threonine, alanine, asserine,  and pyroglutamic acid are popular due to the high moisturizing potential due to the low lipophilicity they remain on the skin surface and act to bind water. The use of proteins is attractive in cosmetics as they deliver high potency at low doses, are rapidly cleared from the bloodstream, and have very similar characteristics and properties to endogenous molecules.

Because proteins have poor penetration, short peptides are often attached to fatty acids to improve this penetration by a factor of 100-1000, which helps to achieve reductions in wrinkles and other cosmetic effects even at picomolar concentrations.

Matrikines, peptides that are produced by breaking down structural proteins like fibronectin, collagen, and elastin, are useful for matrix regeneration are they able to stimulate the production of these proteins alongside glycosaminoglycans. This subsequently confers the property firmness and thickening.

Peptides are also able to modulate the synthesis of melanin in melanocytes either by stimulating or inhibiting melanin production to speed up the rate of tanning. Proteins are also used in skin lightening and toning products. Other properties include the stimulation of lipolysis for slimming effects and anti-inflammatory properties as a product of reducing cytokine secretion on neuronal activity.

Peptides such as biotinyl-Gly-His-Lys can be used to stimulate hair growth and prevent hair loss as it can stimulate collagen IV and laminin V production, which are key structural proteins. However, the use of proteins is limited by their limited solubility, bioavailability, toxicology, stability, and penetration.

Most protein derivatives that are useful for cosmetics are taken from simple proteins, both fibrous and globular. Animals, such as mammals and fish, as well as plants such as angiosperms, can be used for the extraction of proteins for cosmetic ingredients. However, proteins taken from organisms such as algae and fungi have become more prominent.

Moreover, high molecular weight proteins from wheat, rice, and potatoes are used in skin tightening products. In addition, collagen, extracted from bovine, fishskin, or fibronectin are used as natural film formations and water-binding molecules are also used in cosmetics.

Proteins in the form of enzymes are used in skin care products to prevent acne, and acne-like conditions such as pimples, and blackheads. These include lactoperoxidase and glucose oxidase. Proteins are also used in facial masks in the form of fibrous insoluble collagen. They provide temporary moisturization and increased skin smoothness.

Native proteins and hydrolysates have high molecular weight and are used in skincare for film-forming. Soluble collagen and desamidocollagen are examples of these which form lodge continuous colloidal film on the surface of the skin to give a smooth feeling and softness.

Cosmetic Polysaccharide

Polysaccharides contain polyhydroxy groups and interact strongly with water. They can provide several properties; in personal care products; they are used as thickeners and stabilizing agents (e.g., xanthan gum, cellulose) or as moisturizing or hydrating agents (e.g., hyaluronic acid and guar derivatives).

Hyaluronic acid has recently become a component of subcutaneously injected cosmetic treatments i.e, fillers. In addition, polysaccharides derived from gram-negative bacteria such as Klebsiella pneumonia are used to enhance cell renewal and improve skin hydration.

A major source of polysaccharides on marine organisms, as they are rich in carbohydrates which are also sulfated. Seaweeds in particular have a large number of sulfated polysaccharides which are used in the cosmetics industry.

Many ingredients are using the complex formulations of cosmetic products to improve the quality and texture of skin and hair. The use of biomolecule rich substances are used as evidence of the beneficial effect of formulations of several types of topical products come up with some scientific evidence.

Recently, interest in novel bioactive compounds as ingredients in cosmetics derived from natural resources is increasing. This is because of the perceived negative consequences of chemically synthesized fragrances, preservatives, emollients, emulsifiers, acrylates – which may sometimes be hazardous.


  • Ahsan H. (2018) The biomolecules of beauty: biochemical pharmacology and immunotoxicology of cosmeceuticals. J Immunoassay Immunochem. doi:10.1080/15321819.2018.1555766.
  • Moore A. (2002) The biochemistry of beauty. The science and pseudo-science of beautiful skin. EMBO Rep. doi:10.1093/embo-reports/kvf169.
  • Puri A, Loomis K, Smith B, et al. (2009) Lipid-based nanoparticles as pharmaceutical drug carriers: from concepts to clinic. Crit Rev Ther Drug Carrier Syst. doi:10.1615/critrevtherdrugcarriersyst.v26.i6.10.
  • Müller RH, Petersen RD, Hommoss A, et al. (2007) Nanostructured lipid carriers (NLC) in cosmetic dermal products. Adv Drug Deliv Rev. doi: 10.1016/j.addr.2007.04.012.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Hidaya Aliouche

Written by

Hidaya Aliouche

Hidaya is a science communications enthusiast who has recently graduated and is embarking on a career in the science and medical copywriting. She has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from The University of Manchester. She is passionate about writing and is particularly interested in microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry.


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