What Is Glucosamine Used for in Beauty Products?

Is glucosamine vegan, sustainable, and environmentally friendly?

Cut glucosamine capsules
Farion_O / Getty Images

Glucosamine is a naturally occurring compound that’s found in the connective tissue of humans and animals. While it was originally used as a dietary supplement, research in the early 2000s found that glucosamine could help with pigment overproduction in skin cells due to UV exposure, which introduced it as a valuable resource in the beauty industry.

Commonly found in anti-aging skin care and moisturizers, the compound works by enhancing hyaluronic acid and collagen production.

Most glucosamine is extracted from shellfish, mainly crab, shrimp, and lobster, in a process that produces high amounts of chemical waste. However, researchers are continuing to explore more sustainable methods of extraction using plants and bacteria rather than animals.

Products That Contain Glucosamine

Listed as glucosamine sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride, or N-acetyl glucosamine in the ingredients list, this compound may be used in the beauty industry in products such as:

  • Moisturizers and lotions
  • Eye and neck creams
  • Anti-aging products
  • Skin masks, cleansers, exfoliators, serums, and toners
  • Sunscreen
  • Foundations
  • Skin brighteners
  • Joint supplements

How Is Glucosamine Made?

Though it can also be produced synthetically in a laboratory, most commercially available glucosamine is extracted from the shells of shrimp, lobsters, and crabs. These animals are a huge source of chitin, the second most common polysaccharide found in nature (after cellulose), also present in insect exoskeletons and fungal cell walls. Crab and shrimp shells are made up of about 20% chitin, making them the two most utilized sources for chitin extraction for glucosamine.

One of the more common methods of chitin extraction for glucosamine involves washing, grinding, and sieving raw shells before demineralizing them in vinegar. The product is then removed of protein using lye or potassium hydroxide.

The shells are almost always byproducts of the shellfish-processing industry, which can come from anywhere in the world where shellfish is harvested, often from Mexico or the Gulf of Alaska.

Environmental Impact

The process sounds simple enough (with the added bonus of utilizing byproducts of the shellfish industry), but the procedure is actually considered to be quite inefficient and releases wastes during each state of the extraction. It requires large amounts of acidic solutions like lye or potassium hydroxide, which are highly corrosive to animal tissues.

Apart from being costly, using large amounts of energy, and creating chemical by-products that may be released in industrial wastewater, chemical extraction methods also have a low yield, as low as 28.53% by some reports.

Going back even further, wild and farmed shellfish harvesting can generate negative effects on the environment if not performed sustainably. Destructive fishing methods like overfishing can threaten biodiversity and even cause the extinction of certain marine species.

Especially overseas, shellfish aquaculture can introduce biological waste and chemicals into the ocean. As Treehugger previously reported, shrimp farming has permanently destroyed about 38% of the world’s mangroves, which are absolutely vital for coastal ecosystem health.

Is Glucosamine Vegan?

Since glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance found in shellfish bones or shells and animal bone marrow (specifically, chitin), most varieties are not considered vegan. There are, however, a few versions of glucosamine in development that are derived from a fungus called Aspergillus niger—the same type of fungus that can cause black mold on some fruits and vegetables—as well as fermented corn and mushrooms.

Beauty products that read “vegan,” “100% vegetarian,” or “no animal ingredients'' aren't regulated unless they’re marked with an official vegan certification that’s verified by a third-party organization. To avoid animal-derived glucosamine in beauty products, look out for PETA’s Cruelty-Free + Vegan label, the Certified Vegan label from Vegan.org, the Vegan label from the Vegan Society, or the Vegan Approved label from the Vegetarian Society.

Can Glucosamine Be Sustainably Sourced?

Non-chemical extraction methods for glucosamine are becoming more prevalent as the planet’s need for more environmentally friendly processes continues to emerge. For example, scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore invented a way to extract crude chitin samples from prawn shells using fermented fruit waste that actually resulted in a stronger product than commercial chitin samples.

A 2020 study conducted in China and Thailand found that producing glucosamine from straw mushrooms not only saved more energy than animal chitin extraction methods, but also boasted a 92% higher yield. Another 2020 study suggested that, because of their large numbers and the ease of breeding, insects like cicadas could become a resource for chitin production that rivaled or even exceeded that of shellfish.

Shellfish at Risk

Dungeness crab fishing
GomezDavid / Getty Images

Currently, glucosamine is largely dependent on the global supply of crustacean shells, which runs the risk of becoming more fragmented as ocean pollution and climate change continue to surge.

Increasing temperatures in marine systems and ocean acidification from climate change have been shown to enhance disease processes in shrimp, crabs, and lobsters, as well as weaken shells or exoskeletons due to the increased absorption of carbon dioxide in seawater. Continued use of shellfish-derived chitin for glucosamine production may risk disrupting the already limited supply chain of shellfish found in nature that may dwindle even further as climate change progresses.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you get glucosamine naturally from foods?

    There are no natural food sources of glucosamine. If not applied topically in beauty products, it can be consumed via glucosamine supplements.

  • Is glucosamine sustainable?

    Glucosamine is primarily produced by extracting chitin from crab, lobster, and shrimp shells. While the process does utilize byproducts of the shellfish industry, it also uses up energy and creates a large amount of chemical waste. Scientists are working on extraction methods that restrict the use of corrosive chemicals and derive glucosamine from vegetable sources instead of shellfish.

  • What is glucosamine used for?

    The compound glucosamine is mainly used as a joint supplement, though it also has topical applications in the beauty industry to help with wrinkles and sun damage.

  • Is glucosamine made of shellfish?

    While glucosamine is a natural compound found in animal cartilage, the glucosamine used in the beauty and supplement industry is typically harvested from shells of shellfish or made in a lab.