It’s a trendy wellness fixture at Erewhon, but the algae has also been a staple in traditional medicine for centuries.
Welcome to our series “Buzzy Beauty Ingredient of the Moment,” the premise of which is pretty self-explanatory: In each installment, we’ll explore an ingredient that’s currently trending in the industry, springing up in a variety of different products lining the beauty aisle. We’ll consult experts to find out about the science behind it — and why it’s having a major moment right now.
As of 2023, the Superfood Industrial Complex™ is a billion-dollar business — $166 billion, to be exact. Lauded as shortcuts to pristine health, these humble, hard-working ingredients like goji berries, maca powder, blue majik and medicinal mushrooms aren’t just reaching ubiquity across Erewhon supplement aisles; they are beginning to crop up in beauty products, too.
Take the current superfood of the moment, a crinkly species of red algae called sea moss (or Irish moss, for reasons to be detailed later), that grows year-round in tidepools and inlets along the rocky crags of the Atlantic coast, from the Caribbean to Northern Europe. It’s earned its “superfood” designation for good reason: The red algae — often served up in thick, goopy gel form — is packed to the gills with nutrients, containing 92 out of the 102 minerals the body needs to function and alleged to treat just about everything: acne, inflammation, mood, low energy, you name it.
Though it’s only just now hitting the mainstream, industrialized health-and-wellness circuit, sea moss (also known by its formal species name, Chondrus crispus) has been a staple in traditional medicine for centuries. In the beauty world, Lesley Thornton, founder of “eco-inclusive” botanical skin-care label Klur, explains that sea moss is being touted as a natural alternative to synthetic ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and collagen, thought to improve skin texture and overall appearance.
“We’ll see more beauty, wellness and food brands incorporating sea moss into their products as consumers continue to seek out natural, plant-based solutions for their health and beauty needs,” says Thornton, who launched the California-based brand in 2019. (She’s also an esthetician and former TV makeup expert.) “While it may not yet be mainstream, the potential benefits of sea moss make it a promising ingredient to watch in the coming years.”
Sea moss may be an alluring environmental resource, blooming abundantly across the planet’s oceans. And yet, it’s not a free-for-all. Like all naturally occurring foods, sea moss remains at risk of being over-harvested, which would greatly impact those healing traditions that have been incorporating the algae for centuries.
Should we be supporting the commercialization of this ingredient, and how can we do so responsibly?
To answer either of those questions, we must first take a step back in time to the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, when starving populations turned to then-unconventional food sources they thought may provide the same nutritional value as potatoes. For seaside communities, this included the red algae — Irish moss — that grew on the rocks. The rest, as they say, was history. As the famine began to fade, the interest in sea moss remained, and soon, it grew so ubiquitous, so accessible, that the red algae was considered something of a “peasant food.”
Ireland’s Great Hunger may be integral to the sea moss legend, but this particular seaweed has long been a dietary staple in a range of cultures across Europe, South America, Asia and the Caribbean. Beyond the colder waters of the North Atlantic, the algae can also be found in hotspots like the Java Sea between the Indonesian islands of Java and Borneo, the Solomon Sea due east of Papua New Guinea and, finally, the Caribbean Sea, from Barbados to Jamaica.
“Sea moss is probably the most nutritionally-dense food available today due to its high mineral, antioxidant, amino acids and omegas content, while being almost non-caloric, gluten-free and paleo- and keto-friendly,” says Jake Vainer, the founder of Planted Seeds, which harvests its raw, organic algae from St. Lucia, where the local government regularly tests the waters for impurities. “In other words, it provides a ton of benefits without interfering with any restrictions or trends.”
Klur features sea moss in two of its 10 skin-care products (the Gentle Matter Cleanser and Supreme Seed Mask), sourcing the algae from the Northern Atlantic Ocean before processing it in Rhode Island. Though the brand’s ingredients are already teeming with impactful botanicals like ginkgo, aloe and dandelion, Thornton considers sea moss to be especially beneficial in that it provides a “beautiful emollient texture while delivering soothing, hydrating, strong anti-inflammatory and calming benefits for skin health.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the beauty and health sectors are catching on in equal measure. Social media platforms like TikTok, Thornton says, have helped to drive interest and increase awareness of the rich benefits associated with sea moss. The numbers don’t lie: The term “sea moss” appears in more than 905 million videos on the app, and counting.
“As influencers and wellness enthusiasts share their experiences and benefits of consuming sea moss on their platforms, it has led to a viral trend of users trying and sharing their own experiences with the supplement,” says Thornton.
In 2019, this famously included Kim Kardashian, whose Instagram Story featuring a “sea moss smoothie” became a verifiable blip in that week’s news cycle. Elsewhere on the Kardashian family tree, Kourtney Kardashian Barker is putting a stake in the sea-moss ground with her supplement brand Lemme (which declined to comment for this piece). The Lemme Sea tincture launched this past January and is formulated with “USDA-certified organic wild-crafted Irish moss” as well as vitamin D3 and biotin, per the website.
In 2022, Los Angelenos were lining up at Erewhon to try the health-food destination’s new sea moss smoothie, created in partnership with “holistic nutritionist” Rebecca Leigh. Jack Harlow is another famous fan of the ingredient, after a free sample at his gym made him “horny as hell” and, apparently, unable to finish his workout.
But not all sea moss is created equal. Vainer, the Planted Seeds founder, explains that demand has already eclipsed natural supply, leading mass-market retailers to source moss grown in pools, using chemicals and other additives, ultimately minimizing its nutritional value. Less sea moss is wild-harvested than consumers are led to believe.
Planted Seeds’ own sea moss, though, is a product of what Vainer calls “regenerative and sustainable eco-harvesting,” in which harvesters leave most of the plant attached by its roots to the rock so that it can regrow, never depleting the local ecosystem. From there, the brand uses pH-balanced, ultra-filtered water, as opposed to (the more prevalent) bottled “spring water” to lessen its environmental impact. Finally, the products are third-party lab-tested and cleared of heavy metals and pathogens. Unfortunately, not all brands are so well-regulated, shoppers — even the most health-conscious among us — may pay the price for some companies’ shortcuts.
“Many brands seek to profit off of ingredients and foods that have been native to certain populations for centuries,” says Kate Glavan, a freelance content creator whose weekly podcast, “Sea Moss Girlies,” aims to make the wild world of wellness more digestible to everyday listeners. She advises the sea moss-curious among us to, “pay attention to where you’re sourcing from when you make a purchase. It’s important to support local sellers and health-store owners when taking part in different wellness practices, to be educated about the history behind the ingredient you’re now incorporating into your lifestyle.”
This will be particularly crucial in this burgeoning sea moss era, with the stuff expected to emerge across new categories like face masks, hair care and even makeup, according to Tyler Woodward, a wellness contributor at U.K.-based supplement company Eden’s Gate.
Still, sea moss has a long way to go, and its ultimate potential is not yet entirely clear: Glavan reminds that U.S. wellness culture is always on the hunt for the next big thing. Is sea moss potent enough to cut through the superfood noise?
“Ingredient trends may come and go,” says Thornton, “but the benefits of sea moss have been recognized for centuries and are likely to remain relevant.”
If you’re curious, keep scrolling for a selection of sea moss-spiked topicals and ingestibles you can shop now.
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