Astaxanthin: an antioxidant with many benefits

The research on the benefits of Astaxanthin
Ασταξανθίνη, ένα ισχυρό αντιοξειδωτικό με πολλά οφέλη για την υγεία

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

I have been taking an Astaxanthin supplement for a few months. I was very attracted to the sound of its name, its deep red colour and some basic stuff I’d read online. That sounds a touch superficial, doesn’t it? So, since I’m a man of extremes, I decided to investigate all the research on the benefits of Astaxanthin.

Quite frankly, I thought this post would be a piece of cake. About a thousand cake pieces later- research papers to be specific- I proved myself wrong. Again. This is a long post: There’s way more research on Astaxanthin than I anticipated and it’s fascinating. I’ll keep on taking my supplement for sure! 

Information overload? Just find what you wish to read in the Table of Contents or read the bits in bold!

In the next post, you’ll find some Astaxanthin products that I highly recommend.

2. What is Astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is a red carotenoid with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and photoprotective benefits for humans. In nature, it is found mainly in microalgae and aquatic animals such as trout, salmon, lobster and shrimp. It performs some important functions for these animals: protection against UV light, improved reproduction, communication, and protection of polyunsaturated fatty acids from oxidation, among others.

Astaxanthin is also present in the feathers of flamingos and the retinas of quails. Flamingos are pink mainly because of Astaxanthin.

Animals and humans can’t produce their own Astaxanthin: it is mainly synthesized by microalgae in order to protect them from environmental stressors. Animals get it either directly from microalgae or from animals that eat the latter. Astaxanthin in supplements and cosmetics is usually derived from a microalga called Haematococcus Pluvialis.

Astaxanthin has a red colour which typically shows in the animals that consume it. The reddish colour of the flesh of the salmon, for example, is caused mainly by Astaxanthin. In some crustaceans, such as lobsters, Astaxanthin is released during cooking, which is why they turn red when cooked.

3. Astaxanthin as an antioxidant

Studies have shown that Astaxanthin is a powerhouse antioxidant and possibly the most potent carotenoid. It does a great job protecting cell membranes, which are very vulnerable to oxidative stress. It inhibits oxidation not just directly, but indirectly too: it restores the activity of other antioxidants in the cell, such as Superoxide Dismutase.

Astaxanthin is more potent than other well-known antioxidants such as Vitamin E and Vitamin C, as well as the carotenoids Beta Carotene (provitamin A), Lutein, Lycopene and Zeaxanthin

There may be an explanation for that: thanks to its unique molecular structure, Astaxanthin has better bioavailability and less potential side-effects than other antioxidants.

Some research was conducted in vitro (not in living organisms). Experiments in the lab can be very different to real-life scenarios! However, studies have proven the antioxidant benefits of Astaxanthin with measurements of oxidative stress markers in humans.

Exaggerated claims

You may have read that “Astaxanthin is 6000 times more powerful than Vitamin C” or “100 times more powerful than Vitamin E” e.c.t. I suggest you take these claims with a grain of salt. These values sound impressive but they are based on lab measurements. They are great for marketing purposes, but they may not apply to humans, for many reasons.

Astaxanthin is a great antioxidant but it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact antioxidant effect in humans.

4. Health benefits of Astaxanthin

Chronic oxidative damage and inflammation are closely linked. Many diseases are caused or worsened by chronic inflammation. So it makes sense that Astaxanthin, as a very potent antioxidant, has the potential to improve health. 

Astaxanthin may:

  • significantly reduce symptoms of acid reflux, at high doses (40mg)
  • have a positive effect on male fertility.
  • improve memory and protect from cognitive disorders, such as amnesia and dementia. Astaxanthin appears to improve age-related cognitive decline and it may be useful as an adjunctive therapy for Alzheimer’s.
  • have beneficial effects on prevention and treatment of diabetes.
  • improve cardiovascular health. Astaxanthin was also shown to reduce blood pressure in hypertensive rats.
  • boost the immune system. Its immunomodulating effect may be useful for autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.
  • protect against some types of cancer, such as breast cancer. It appears to affect only cancer cells, not healthy cells.
  • accelerate wound healing.
  • improve athletic performance. The jury’s still out on that one, but there is potential.
  • improve sleep quality in combination with Zinc. It’s unknown whether Astaxanthin alone has any effect on sleep.

5. Astaxanthin for eye health

Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which have a rather similar structure to Astaxanthin, are often found in supplements for eye health. They occur naturally in the human retina, and they have a protective role against macular degeneration. 

Astaxanthin is not present naturally in the eyes. However, it appears to reach the eyes when taken as a supplement and it offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support. Plus, Astaxanthin has more potent antioxidant activity than Lutein and Zeaxanthin.

There is growing evidence that Astaxanthin prevents and treats various ocular diseases. It may:

6. Astaxanthin for skin photoprotection

Dietary Astaxanthin may reduce UV damage and enhance photoprotection from sunscreen. Its intense antioxidant effect counteracts the oxidative stress caused by both UVA and UVB rays. So, Astaxanthin may help protect skin from sunburn, photoaging, and most importantly, skin cancer. 

Very simply put, Astaxanthin protects keratinocytes (epidermal cells) and fibroblasts (dermal cells) from inflammation that leads to degradation of collagen and elastin. Research on mice has shown that dietary Astaxanthin reaches both the dermis and the epidermis.

Photoprotection from Astaxanthin may not be due just to its antioxidant properties. Some researchers think that it may work in other ways too.

The evidence from research papers on the photoprotective effect of Astaxanthin is compelling. Most trials were conducted on skin cell samples and mice but this doesn’t negate their importance.

Research on humans 

Research on humans has also proven the photoprotective benefits of Astaxanthin. 

An interesting finding is that 4 mg Astaxanthin taken orally increases the Minimal Erythema Dose. Often abbreviated as MED, that’s the minimum amount of UV radiation required to cause redness on the skin. In plain English, Astaxanthin increases the amount of time you can spend in the sun without getting sunburnt.

This doesn’t mean that you can ingest a ton of Astaxanthin and then bake in the sun. But it’s an indication that Astaxanthin boosts photoprotection from sunscreen.

In the same study, Astaxanthin helped skin that was exposed to UV light retain more moisture.

Can Astaxanthin replace sunscreen?

Astaxanthin is not a replacement for sunscreen but it’s a great booster. It doesn’t prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin like sunscreen does. But it reduces the oxidative damage caused if UV rays do reach the skin. 

Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen, so Astaxanthin may reduce the damage caused by inadequate sunscreen application.

And even if you do apply sunscreen generously, a small amount of UV radiation will hit your skin anyway, especially when the sun is very strong (High UV Index).

Plus, we all know people who never apply sunscreen, so perhaps it may help if you slip a bit of Astaxanthin in their vodka cranberry at the beach. They won’t notice.

Potential bias

Some studies are linked to Astaxanthin manufacturers. So, the potential of research bias is inevitable. However independent researchers agree that the findings of the studies are very promising but they state the need for more studies.

7. Astaxanthin for skin aging

Thanks to its photoprotective benefits, oral Astaxanthin can fight photoaging, a major cause of skin ageing. There’s also evidence that it provides overall anti-aging protection and it may reduce existing signs of aging too. Dosages between 2-12 mg have been found effective. 

Protection of skin integrity

As a powerful antioxidant, Astaxanthin can increase collagen and/or protect it from degradation. 

The antioxidant activity of Astaxanthin was proven with blood tests that measured oxidative stress in volunteers. The tests found reduced levels of malondialdehyde. Malondialdehyde is a marker of oxidative stress and it increases as we age. The volunteers took 4 mg daily.

In another trial, Astaxanthin protected deep wrinkles and skin moisture from deterioration. The volunteers took either 6 or 12 mg daily. 

Wrinkles and elasticity

Two mg of oral Astaxanthin may be enough to experience an improvement in skin moisture and elasticity.

In two human trials, the volunteers experienced reduction in wrinkles and dark spots, and in improvement in elasticity and skin texture. They took 6 mg daily. In one of the trials, the volunteers also used a skincare product with Astaxanthin.

A combination of supplements and skincare products with Astaxanthin seems ideal because it improves all skin layers. Topical application of Astaxanthin may have a more pronounced effect against skin roughness.

Topical application of Astaxanthin may reduce wrinkles and soothe under-eye puffiness.

8. Astaxanthin for hyperpigmentation

As a photoprotective agent, Astaxanthin can prevent hyperpigmentation. It may improve existing hyperpigmentation too, but there’s not enough evidence from research on humans. In one trial, some volunteers did experience a reduction in hyperpigmentation.

However, research in the lab has shown that Astaxanthin inhibits Tyrosinase activity. This is an enzyme that plays a key role in the production of melanin. Other compounds that suppress Tyrosinase activity, such as Ascorbic Acid and Alpha-Arbutin, are proven to work against hyperpigmentation. So, it is likely that Astaxanthin has that effect too.

9. Astaxanthin for psoriasis and atopic dermatitis

There’s not yet enough evidence on Astaxanthin’s effect on diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. As an anti-inflammatory, it has the potential to improve inflamed skin or prevent it from getting worse. In studies on skin cells and rodents, Astaxanthin inhibited the activity of various substances that can cause inflammation on the skin. 

Patients with psoriasis or atopic dermatitis have elevated levels of oxidative stress, which plays a key role in inflammation. In a study, Astaxanthin reduced levels of Malondialdehyde in the volunteers’ blood. This substance is a marker of oxidative stress and it is typically high in people with psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

Astaxanthin may also trigger production of natural moisturizing factors. This means that it contributes to an improved function of the epidermal barrier, which is compromised in psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

10. Natural Vs synthetic Astaxanthin

Natural Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin in supplements is typically extracted from a freshwater alga called Haematococcus Pluvialis. This is the richest natural source of Astaxanthin and it is suitable for vegans. The benefits of Astaxanthin are mostly associated with the Haematococcus Pluvialis extract, which mainly contains Astaxanthin esters.

Interestingly, this form of Astaxanthin may contain small amounts of other Carotenoids that contribute to its beneficial effects. (Beta-Carotene, Canthaxanthin, Lutein and Zeaxanthin)

Synthetic Astaxanthin

Synthetic Astaxanthin is not approved for human consumption. However, it is often fed to farmed salmon, trout and crustaceans in order to give their flesh an attractive red-orange colour. This is because farmed fish don’t have access to natural Astaxanthin. 

Synthetic Astaxanthin is derived from petrochemicals and there is barely any research on its health benefits in humans. It has way less antioxidant potential than the one from Haematococcus Pluvialis. And some researchers are concerned about its safety.

Yeast-derived Astaxanthin

There is also a natural form of Astaxanthin derived from a modified yeast called Xanthophyllomyces dendrorhous, also known as Phaffia rhodozyma. Although natural, this form isn’t well researched and it is rather different to the tried and tested Astaxanthin from Haematococcus Pluvialis. It doesn’t contain any Astaxanthin esters.


If you are shopping for Astaxanthin supplements or beauty products, just check the label: If it says “Haematococcus Pluvialis extract”, then it’s the Astaxanthin variety with the proven health benefits. 

Regarding farmed salmon and trout, I think it’s difficult to know what kind of Astaxanthin they’ve been fed. You’ll need a lot of time, energy and a desire to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes. If you’re brave enough to ask at the supermarket If their salmon was fed Astaxanthin from Xanthophyllomyces dendrorhous, please make a video and send it to me.

11. Safety of Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin appears to be very well tolerated and it doesn’t cause side-effects. Even a daily intake of up to 40 mg is well-tolerated. That’s a lot higher than the 2-10 mg range typically found in supplements. The European Food Safety Authority considers a daily intake of 8 mg of Astaxanthin from supplements as definitely safe.

In two different trials, the participants took 4 mg and 6 mg daily and a very wide range of blood tests didn’t return any abnormal changes. This was also the case in another study in which volunteers took either 6 or 12mg. 

Astaxanthin doesn’t seem to have any of the potential side-effects of Beta-Carotene. The latter, under certain circumstances, does a “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and turns into a pro-oxidant. This also appears to be the case with Lycopene. However, thanks to its molecular structure, Astaxanthin doesn’t misbehave. At least that’s the verdict so far.

12. Astaxanthin and Vitamin A

Astaxanthin is chemically related to other antioxidant carotenoids, such as Lutein, Zeaxanthin and Beta-carotene. In contrast to the latter, it does not convert to Vitamin A in humans. It behaves like Lutein and Zeaxanthin, which don’t convert to Vitamin A either. So, you don’t need to worry about exceeding your recommended Vitamin A levels when taking Astaxanthin supplements.

13. Verdict

As it’s often the case with ingredients in supplements and cosmetics, some studies are associated with companies that manufacture Astaxanthin. 

However, I believe there’s way too much evidence to dismiss Astaxanthin as another overhyped ingredient. Just click on the respective links throughout the post or scroll down to the References to get an idea about the number of research papers on the benefits of Astaxanthin. The endless research for this post almost aged me about 40 years but luckily I’ve been taking an Astaxanthin supplement in the last few months!

And there are more studies not included in this post. The perfectionist inside of me is suffering.

I really think that Astaxanthin is a supplement worth taking. It’s not a miracle-cure, of course. But it’s a great enhancement to a healthy diet and a good skincare routine.

If you eat salmon very regularly, you may not need it. But for those of us who hate seafood, it is an excellent supplement. I’ve been taking it for a while and I intend to keep on taking it.

14. Some tips

Astaxanthin, just like other carotenoids, becomes more bioavailable when taken with fats. So it’s better to take it after eating rather than first thing in the morning. Some researchers think that it makes a good combo with Omega-3’s.

There’s also a skincare tip that I’m a bit reluctant to share, but I will, anyway: Skincare products with large concentrations of Astaxanthin are uncommon. Astaxanthin has a very intense red colour and even a small amount leaves an unflattering red cast on the face.

However, here’s a workaround I’ve discovered: I use an Astaxanthin supplement daily and the only other ingredient in the softgel is Sunflower oil, so it’s safe to use on the face. I bite the tip of the softgel -or you can use a needle- and I apply 2-3 dots the size of a pinhead on each side of my face and I swallow the rest of the softgel. I then apply the rest of my skincare to spread out the Astaxanthin and I instantly look like the missing link between human and lobster. 

However, the magic happens when I apply my mineral sunscreen from The Ordinary as the last step of my routine. 

As you may know, mineral sunscreens usually leave a white cast on the face. But the white cast of my SPF and the red cast of Astaxanthin cancel each other out, leaving a natural finish on my face. You’ll have to use a generous amount of sunscreen for the red cast of Astaxanthin to completely go away. But that’s only a good thing.

I’m prone to psoriasis and applying Astaxanthin directly on my face definitely has a soothing effect. Plus, because of its proven photoprotective effect, I see it as a good investment for the future of my skin.f

So, if you love mineral sunscreens and Astaxanthin, but they make you look like a creature from outer space, this trick may be a solution. If you have a very dark skin tone and every single mineral sunscreen makes you look like a ghost, it’s worth trying it.

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What’s your experience with Astaxanthin? Leave a comment below!

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Hi, I’m Tassos and I’m the creator of Skinchat.  Read more.