You’re about to meet your new BFF you can always appeal to when needing a hydration boost: betaine. You’d better pay attention because you’ll find this ingredient pretty much in a lot of your skincare (and haircare) products. From serums to moisturizers, to masks, to eye treatments, betaine is a staple in the skincare world, and it’s time you learned more about it. Get comfy, you’ll enjoy a good read that will make you wanna do a quick scan of your skincare products and add it asap to your regimen if it isn’t there yet.
What is betaine?
Betaine (also called trimethylglycine) is a small molecule naturally found in sugar beet, wheat bran, spinach, and wheat germ. In skincare, betaine is a powerful amino acid that functions as a humectant, having a crucial role in increasing skin hydration and supporting the protective barrier.
Betaine is used in skincare not only for its humectant properties but also as an anti-irritant, plus that it gives a silky texture to formulations, having a smoothing effect over the product’s viscosity. This is why betaine starts taking over glycerin in the battle of humectants since glycerin can be quite sticky.
Betaine skin benefits
OK, it’s about time to get to the good bit, meaning the benefits betaine has for the skin. Dry, flaky skin will be a thing of the past.
Betaine for skin hydration
Since betaine is a humectant, it makes it great at increasing hydration in the skin. As a short note, humectants are molecules that bind water molecules to themselves, which in turn boost skin’s water retention ability, making it appear plumper, bouncier and glowy.
Now here’s the science behind the moisturizing benefits of betaine.
Betaine acts as a humectant because it is an osmolyte. Osmolytes are water-carries molecules that help maintain water balance in skin cells. They do that by attracting water molecules and releasing them to the surrounding areas where they are more needed, such as a part of the skin affected by UV, dryness, or burn.
Basically, keratinocytes (cells found in the epidermis) use betaine to maintain their water volume and stay defended against external aggressors. Consequently, betaine helps prevent dehydration at a cellular level. As a matter of fact, osmolytes, especially betaine, are well-known components of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF), which work to keep the skin’s surface hydrated and supple.
As a humectant, betaine also supports the skin barrier by ensuring moisture stays locked in. This means betaine is an excellent addition to your skincare products — the more hydrated your skin is, the longer the products stay on and better the absorption.
The takeaway? Betaine is a promising moisturizer, and its water-binding properties can hydrate, soften and elasticize the skin.
Betaine for soothing the skin
Betaine is also often used in skincare to calm the skin. The fact that betaine is gentle, maintains water balance, and protects the skin’s natural barrier makes it a great soothing ingredient. Remember that a healthy skin barrier equals fewer chances of irritations and reduced sensitivity. As such, betaine stands out as a game-changer for people with dehydrated, irritated, or sensitive skin.
Another interesting skin benefit of betaine is that it reduces the irritations caused by surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfates (SLSs). Given that the market is cornered with products containing SLSs, betaine has emerged as an effective alternative to reduce the adverse effects of those detergents in skincare.
Betaine for anti-aging
The benefits of betaine for skin don’t stop at its moisturizing and soothing effects. For instance, betaine could also be used for anti-aging since it consolidates the skin’s protective barrier and helps retain moisture. More precisely, it can minimize the apparition of wrinkles linked with dehydrated or compromised skin.
In addition, betaine maintains skin integrity and fights aging signs by expressing indirect antioxidant activities. Buckle up because there is quite a bit to unpack here. Studies have actually noticed that betaine does not have direct antioxidant effects, meaning it doesn’t scavage free radicals (like vitamin C or resveratrol do). Instead, betaine prevents the contact of free radicals with skin cells and improves the body’s natural free-radicals scavaging power.
It seems that betaine forms a protective layer around cells, thereby preventing the contact of free radicals, which in turn reduces tissue damage. There’s also evidence suggesting that betaine increases the levels of antioxidants, S-adenosylmethionine and methionine, boosting the body’s ability to fight free radicals.
Therefore, betaine protects against skin aging by isolating cells from free radicals — molecules that cause cell damage and speed up the aging process.
Betaine for skin whitening
Finally, the benefit of betaine for skin whitening is the cherry on top. The skin-brightening effects of betaine are thought to come from its ability to reduce melanin content in skin cells by suppressing tyrosinase activity.
Melanin is the skin-darkening pigment that defines skin color and is produced by a particular enzyme called tyrosinase. The main role of melanin is to protect skin against sun damage. However, when this pigment is overproduced (due to sun exposure), it leads to dark patches. Thus, reducing the level of melanin and inhibiting tyrosinase activity is one of the most effective skin lightening and depigmenting procedures.
According to research, topical application of betaine significantly reduced 21% of melanin content by suppressing tyrosinase. Based on the results, betaine inhibited tyrosinase activity by 34%, which is similar to the effects of arbutin, a popular skin whitening agent. However, the research was done on mushroom tyrosinase, which is slightly different from human tyrosinase.
Long story short, betaine is a potent skin lightening agent that reduces melanin content by direct inhibition of tyrosinase enzyme, resulting in even skin tone and a more luminous and brighter complexion. Similarly, betaine can reduce hyperpigmentation and the appearance of dark spots.
Is betaine safe in skincare?
Topical application of betaine is generally non-irritating, high tolerated and is considered safe for most skin types. Betaine actually smooths and hydrates the skin, not messing with it, so even those with problematic skin can use it without worrying about irritations.
Natural betaine vs. amidopropyl betaines
If you search for betaine on the products label, you’ll mostly find a lot of confusing terms that include betaines, such as cocamidopropyl, avocadamidopropyl, and almondamidopropyl betaines. All these are called amidopropyl betaines, and what goes before that term refers to the compound from which the final product was derived. For example, cocamidopropyl betaine is made from the fatty acids derived from coconut oil, while almondamidopropyl betaines are made from the almond oil. You get the point!
Here’s the tricky part. Despite their name, amidopropyl betaines are not deviated from betaines, and by no means do they possess the same skin benefits as natural betaines. So cocamidopropyl betaine or other amidopropyl betaines are not the same as betaine, having completely different roles in skincare.
Betaine functions as a humectant, skin-conditioning, and skin-whitening agent, while amidopropyl betaines function as surfactants-cleansing, foam boosters, and viscosity-increasing agents. Besides, amidopropyl betaines are known to be more irritant than natural betaine and cause allergic reactions in some people.
What about betaine salicylate? Betaine salicylate results from the combination of salicylic acid, an exfoliant with acne-fighting properties, with betaine. The purpose of betaine salicylate is to provide a mild exfoliation that’ll accelerate the skin-renewing process while keeping skin hydrated and smooth.
The thumb rule is that betaine salicylate is twice as gentle as salicylic acid. So anyone experiencing dryness or irritations after salicylic acid should count betaine salicylate as an effective alternative.
The best products with betaine
Thanks to its moisturizing, soothing, and skin-protecting properties, betaine found its place in a lot of skincare products. Below are the best betaine products for healthy and glowing skin:
- Murad Rapid Age Spot Correcting Serum – View on Amazon, $78
- Perricone MD Hypoallergenic Calming Moisturizer – View on Perricone MD, $75
- StriVectin Re-Quench Water Cream – View on Amazon, $59
- PCA SKIN ExLinea Pro Peptide Smoothing Serum – View on Amazon, $135
- The Body Shop Mediterranean Instant Soothing Mask – View on The Body Shop, $28
- Farmacy Honey Halo Ultra-Hydrating Moisturizer – View on Sephora, $45
There’s enough evidence to say betaine is a skin-loving ingredient, so you can bet on it to keep your skin healthy.
- Yancey, Paul. (2001). Water Stress, Osmolytes and Proteins. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 41. 10.1093/icb/41.4.699.
- Antioxidant Mechanism of Betaine without Free Radical Scavenging Ability. Mengmeng Zhang, Hong Zhang, Huixian Li, Furao Lai, Xiaofeng Li, Yuqian Tang, Tian Min, and Hui Wu, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2016 64 (42), 7921-7930, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.6b03592
- Nicander I, Rantanen I, Rozell BL, Söderling E, Ollmar S. The ability of betaine to reduce the irritating effects of detergents assessed visually, histologically and by bioengineering methods. Skin Res Technol. 2003 Feb;9(1):50-8. DOI: 10.1034/j.1600-0846.2003.00367.x. PMID: 12535285.
- Cho BR, Jun HJ, Thach TT, Wu C, Lee SJ. Betaine reduces cellular melanin content via suppression of microphthalmia-associated transcription factor in B16-F1 murine melanocytes. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2017;26(5):1391-1397. Published 2017 Sep 22. doi:10.1007/s10068-017-0171-6