Aquaporins and their function in skincare | Ask Doctor Anne

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Maybe you have stumbled across Aquaporins in skincare through the various flashy headlines, claiming they offer “Hydration boost on a cellular level”, are the “new it ingredient to supercharge skincare formulas” and offer “deeper hydration than just a moisturizer”.

 

Aquaporins in skincare - Do you need them?
Aquaporins in skincare – Do you need them?

 

I certainly did, and as they are marketed specifically at dry and aging skin, I figured it was about time we took a closer look at Aquaporins and their role in skincare:

What are they, what do they do and is there any data on their benefits?

 

 

 

What are Aquaporins?

Aquaporins are proteins naturally present in the cells of the body that can be found in various species ranging from plants to mammals including humans. The human body can express 13 different variations with slight differences in structure and subsequent function, and the first one was discovered in 2003, leading to Peter Agre and his research team receiving the Nobel prize.

 

General structure of Aquaporins
Picture Source: Elodie Vandenhaute, Establishment and characterization of new in vitro blood-brain barrier models : from fundamental to applied research; Researchgate

 

What do Aquaporins do in the skin?

Why was their discovery worth the Nobel prize? Well, over the last years we have gained much understanding in how the skin prevents moisture loss to maintain the ideal level of hydration that is needed to perform its role as barrier against the outside world, think humectants, ordered arrangement of the intercellular lipids, all the things you are probably familiar with.

But how does the water actually get into the cells? Cell membranes are a lipid bilayer, meaning water can’t easily permeate it. And here is where Aquaporins come in: They are a transmembrane protein, meaning they cross the cell membrane border building a channel through which water can be transported into and out of the cell. Depending on the type, not only water passes through them, but also other small substances like for example Glycerol.

The density and types of Aquaporins differs between different tissues, leading to differences in water permeability, and they are present in a variety of body parts, not only in the skin.

 

more Aquaporins in the skin
Tissue rich in Aquaporins
Picture Source: Eucerin website,Die Wissenschaft hinter – Eucerin AQUAporin ACTIVE

 

Does the number of Aquaporins change over time?

Just like many other things, the amount of Aquaporins tissues contain diminishes with age and with prolonged sun exposure, meaning the older we get and the more cumulative sun damage we have, the harder it gets for the cells to get the water they need, leading to an increase in dryness.

We also know now that in certain inflammatory skin conditions like Psoriasis and Atopic Dermatitis, the number of Aquaporins in the lesions is reduced compared to what is perceived as normal. (More info: Is your skin barrier damaged?)

And that makes Aquaporins an interesting skin structure to target for cosmetics and drugs.

 

less Aquaporins in the skin
Tissue with less Aquaporins
Picture Source: Eucerin website, Die Wissenschaft hinter – Eucerin AQUAporin ACTIVE

 

Is there data on Aquaporins in skincare?

Since the discovery of the first Aquaporin in 2003, we have learned a lot about this protein and how it behaves in the body with age and in people with inflammatory skin diseases. But still there is a ton we don’t know yet.
Many studies done on their effects have been done on knockout mice, meaning mice that due to a genetic mutation lack the ability to build Aquaporin 3, and while these studies do give us important insight in their general function, there is more research needed until we can safely say who will potentially benefit and which would be the best way to do that.

The studies done on humans or on human skin models are almost exclusively done by the companies selling products targeting Aquaporin production, like Eucerin that found when product from their AQUAporin ACTIVE range were used and then stopped, the increase in skin hydration lasted for up to 3 days – I wasn’t able to access the study itself, so I can’t comment on the quality here.

 

Snail mucin is refined before it is put into your skincare.
Most studies done on Aquaporins are done by the companies using them.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

 

Are there really Aquaporins in my face cream?

Despite the name of the products sold, they don’t contain actual Aquaporins, but ingredients that are supposed to stimulate the production of Aquaporins – although they don’t claim that, as it would be a drug claim. Instead you will read things like “hydration boost on a cellular level” and similar. (More info: The difference between cosmetics and drugs)

The ingredient used here is Glycerol Glucoside that in a 2012 study showed that it could penetrate the skin and upregulate Aquaporin mRNA both in human skin keratinocytes and in the skin of healthy volunteers with the authors coming to the conclusion that it has potential and would warrant further investigation.

Usually it is lab-made, but is also expressed by two plants, one being the resurrection plant that dies off during droughts and then is resurrected to full beauty once it rains, and the other being the more broad category of blue-green marine algae, so there is potential for the popular “all natural” approach.

 

Inflamed skin conditions can lead to hyperpigmentation over time
We now know that inflammatory skin conditions often come with a reduction in Aquaporin count in the lesions
Image by Eszter Miller from Pixabay

 

Are Aquaporins good for dry and aging skin?

So is skincare targeting Aquaporins good for dry and aging skin? Quite frankly, we don’t know yet. But as they usually come as part of a moisturizer that also contains other beneficial things like humectants, emollients and occlusives, it doesn’t hurt to try if it is a product you can easily afford.

I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to get them though, at least not yet.

 

AVON Anew Hydra Pro Vita-D Water Cream Close Up
Looking at it won’t tell you what is inside…

 

Products that contain Aquaporin stimulating ingredients

If you are curious, the Eucerin AquaPorin Active line offers three different face creams for different skin types called Eucerin AquaPorin Active Moisturizer. They have done studies on their products and have been offering this line for a few years now.
The HYDRAKATE line by Kate Somerville also uses Glycerol Glucoside calling it Nobel-prize inspired AquaPort technology – there is the Kate Somerville HydraKate Recharging Water Cream and the corresponding Recharging Serum. The last one I found online is the Charlotte Tilbury Magic Water Cream.

As I said, it is also produced by blue-green marine algae, so chances are at least a bit is in your products if you skincare is made with algae.

 

TL;DR

Despite the flashy headlines you might have seen, Aquaporins aren’t a brand new thing to be targeted by skincare products – Eucerin had their AquaPorin Active range for a while now, but they are certainly interesting. Acting as channels in the cell membrane they allow the cells to regulate their water homeostasis for optimal function. As they decline with age, sun damage and in certain inflammatory skin conditions, skincare aiming to increase their production could be interesting for those with dry, aging skin. Still there is more research needed before I would recommend you go out of your way to buy skincare claiming to stimulate them.

 

The role of Aquaporins in skincare explained
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Sources

Verkman, A. S. (2013). Aquaporins. Current Biology : CB, 23(2), R52. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.CUB.2012.11.025

Draelos, Z. (2012). Aquaporins: An Introduction to a Key Factor in the Mechanism of Skin Hydration. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 5(7), 53. /pmc/articles/PMC3396453/

Ikarashi, N., Kon, R., Kaneko, M., Mizukami, N., Kusunoki, Y., & Sugiyama, K. (2017). Relationship between Aging-Related Skin Dryness and Aquaporins. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 18(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/IJMS18071559
Tricarico, P. M., Mentino, D., de Marco, A., del Vecchio, C., Garra, S., Cazzato, G., Foti, C., Crovella, S., & Calamita, G. (2022). Aquaporins Are One of the Critical Factors in the Disruption of the Skin Barrier in Inflammatory Skin Diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 23(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/IJMS23074020

 

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