Glycosaminoglycans (GAGS)[i] are sugars in your skin that bind water. These sugars, known as polysaccharides, link to a core protein forming proteoglycans. Proteoglycans form an infrastructure and environment that is critical for fibroblast function.
To know if you need glycosaminoglycan in your skincare routine- you first need to know your Baumann Skin Type.
What do Glycosaminoglycans Do in the Skin?
- Bind water
- Contribute to salt and water balance
- Provide an infrastructural matrix that fibroblast adhere to
- Affect fibroblast movement and function
Glycosaminoglycans in Beauty Trends
The beauty trend that is hot right now is “jello skin”. Jello skin refers to the plumpness of the skin when there is an abundance of hydrated GAGs in the skin.
Glycosaminoglycans in Cosmetic Procedures
Hyaluronic acid is a GAG and is what dermal fillers such as Restylane, Juvederm, Voluma, Versa, RHA, and Belotero are made of. These dermal fillers are made up of crosslinked hyaluronic acid and injected in the skin to plump away fine lines and wrinkles and to reshape the volume of the face.
Glycosaminoglycans and Aging Skin
Wrinkled, aged skin has a decreased amount of sulfated GAG content and HA content. (Heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate are increased in photoaged skin but the overall amount of sulfated GAGs is decreased).
Glycosaminoglycans in Skin Care Products
The most common GAGs in skin care are hyaluronic acid and heparan sulfate which are usually found in moisturizers and serums.
Which Glycosaminoglycans are in Skin?
Hyaluronic acid dermatan sulfate are the most abundance GAGs in the skin. Other important GAGs that affect the skin’s appearance are heparan sulfate, heparin, keratan sulfate, chondroitin-4, and chondroitin-6-sulfate.
Heparan sulfate (HS) improves the cellular response to growth factors. HS levels are lower in aged skin and old skin cells do not respond well to growth factors because they don’t “hear” them.
HS protects growth factors when they move between cells, insuring that a higher amount of growth factors make it to the cell so that the communication abilities between cells is strengthened.[ii] Heparan sulfate is the active component in the brand of skincare called Sente.
Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a humectant that binds water and gives the dermal layer of the skin its volume and plumpness. The name hyaluronic stands for glass because it has a glassy appearance. HA is partially responsible for the glass skin and jello skin look desired by skin care enthusiasts.
Hyaluronic acid also increases the penetration of other skin care ingredients.
HA is critical for:
- Cell growth,
- Membrane receptor function, and adhesion.
- Skin volume
- Skin Plumpness
- Cellular Communication
Other Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) in Skin
Chondroitin sulfate, decorin, dermatan sulfate, keratan sulfate and heparin are also GAGs in the extracellular matrix. Aged skin has a decrease in heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate and an increase in keratan sulfate and dermatan sulfate.[iii], [iv]
Decorin is a proteoglycan found in the extracellular matrix. Its name is derived from its apparent “decorating” of collagen fibers: it’s “horseshoe” pattern binds to collagen fibrils, helping to organize them properly. Decorin is sparse in aged skin [v] and decorin deficient mice have fragile skin.
[i] Baumann L. in Ch 2 Dermis of Baumann’s Cosmetic dermatology (McGraw Hill 2022)
[ii] Simon Davis DA, Parish CR. Heparan sulfate: a ubiquitous glycosaminoglycan with multiple roles in immunity. Front Immunol. 2013 Dec 18;4:470.
[iii] Lee, D.H.; Oh, J.H.; Chung, J.H. Glycosaminoglycan and proteoglycan in skin aging. J. Dermatol. Sci. 2016,
[iv] Oh, J.H.; Kim, Y.K.; Jung, J.Y.; Shin, J.E.; Kim, K.H.; Cho, K.H.; Eun, H.C.; Chung, J.H. Intrinsic aging- and
photoaging-dependent level changes of glycosaminoglycans and their correlation with water content in
human skin. J. Dermatol. Sci. 2011, 62, 192–201.
[v] Bernstein, E.F.; Fisher, L.W.; Li, K.; LeBaron, R.G.; Tan, E.M.; Uitto, J. Differential expression of the versican
and decorin genes in photoaged and sun-protected skin. Comparison by immunohistochemical and northern
analyses. Lab. Investig. 1995, 72, 662–669.