Sugar cane has gained quite a reputation on the skincare scene in the past years given the surge of interest in natural alternatives to glycolic acid. But did you know it’s not glycolic acid that does the heavy lifting in sugar cane but sucrose? Sucrose is a natural sugar that weighs out about 98% of sugarcane and has a whole package of properties that can make the skin pop and glow. And even though brands already use it in beauty products, sucrose is still an unsung hero waiting in the dark. But not anymore. To get to the bottom of the benefits of sucrose for skincare, we read every clinical study about it, and we must admit, it’s quite impressive.
What is sucrose?
Sucrose is a natural sugar made up of two monosaccharide sugar forms: fructose and glucose. It can be obtained from sugar beet juice or sugar cane through an extraction process that involves diffusion, clarification, evaporation, and crystallization. The resulting form is basically tiny, crystalline particles, which allow sucrose to act as a gentle abrasive agent that exfoliates the skin. Interestingly, sucrose also has hygroscopic properties, meaning it works as a humectant to attract and hold water molecules into the epidermis.
What are sucrose esters?
If you’ve been chasing products containing sucrose, there’s a good chance you may have come across names like sucrose laurate or sucrose palmitate. These are called sucrose esters, and they result from the esterification (a process of combining an organic acid with alcohol and water) of sucrose with fatty acids. Basically, what goes after sucrose is the fatty acid used in the mix (i.e., lauric acid, palmitic acid).
Speaking of sucrose esters, they have been classified explicitly as surfactants and emulsifiers in skincare products. Emulsifiers are essential in skincare formulations because they help keep the ingredients together and enhance their absorption. On the other hand, surfactants are cleansing and foam-forming agents that help lift and remove dirt, oil, and other impurities from the skin. As natural surfactants, sucrose esters are often found in face washes to enhance the cleansing power.
Sucrose benefits for skin
Here’s how sucrose can benefit your skin:
Exfoliates and cleanses the skin
In short, sucrose is a great cleansing, exfoliating and moisturizing agent in skincare products. It has tiny crystal particles that can gently exfoliate the skin and remove the buildup of dead cells, sebum, and dirt from the surface. Because of this, sucrose can promote a soft and smooth appearance while diminishing the chances of clogging pores — one of the reasons sugar scrubs are on the rise in skincare.
Sucrose also has water-biding properties. It acts as a humectant that draws moisture from the atmosphere into the skin to increase hydration. Even though it’s not as potent as hyaluronic acid and glycerin at retaining water, it can still provide an extra layer of moisture and work nicely to reveal a plump and dewy complexion.
Lightens skin discoloration
This got us by surprise too. According to a recent in-vitro study from 2022, sucrose esters (specifically sucrose dilaurate and sucrose laurate) can help lighten hyperpigmented spots by suppressing melanin production and reducing the transfer of melanin to skin cells. Another study also adds weight to the idea that sucrose could represent an effective depigmenting treatment for skin discoloration.
Is sucrose safe for the skin?
Sucrose is a natural substance, and unless you are allergic or intolerant to sugar, you should have no problems using it in skincare products. And contrary to popular belief, there’s no evidence to show that applying topical products with sucrose would lead to glycation (aka the damage to proteins caused by sugar molecules). The reason is that sucrose can’t penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream when it’s applied topically, so it does not affect the body’s sugar levels.
In other news, sucrose is a completely safe ingredient for the skin and suitable for everyone. However, if you have sensitive skin, it’s best to perform a patch test to reduce the risk of irritation.
How to use sucrose
Just to get things straight, rubbing sugar plainly over your face is not the same as when you use skincare products with sucrose. Sugar has a crystal-like feeling on the touch, so applying it directly on the skin is not recommended as it can be too abrasive and irritate. On the other hand, most products containing sucrose are optimally formulated to be used on the face without damaging the complexion. You can find sucrose in all types of formulations, including serums, emulsions, moisturizers, scrubs, and cleansers. How you use it depends on the product at hand, so read the instruction clearly and apply it accordingly.
Though it’s not the most heavily researched ingredient, sucrose can definitely be a great addition to your skincare routine. It hydrates, exfoliates, and cleanses the skin without side effects. However, if you have easily reactive or overly sensitive skin, double-check with your dermatologist to confirm whether you can use it.
- Can you use sugar scrubs on your face?
Sugar scrubs can be too abrasive for the facial skin, so it's recommended to avoid using them on your face. You can still apply sugar scrubs on your body and use gentler alternatives for the face, such as sucrose-based skincare products.
- Can you use sucrose with AHAs and BHAs?
Plenty of products contain sucrose along with AHAs and BHAs, so there shouldn't be any problem using them together. Using sucrose with AHAs and BHAs can offer a deeper exfoliation to thoroughly cleanse the skin.
- Is sucrose bad for the skin?
As a type of sugar, sucrose can have a bad impact on the skin's appearance when indigested in high amounts since it breaks down into fructose and glucose, which can wreak havoc on the skin cells. However, using skincare products with sucrose is considered safe for the skin and is not associated with the common side effects of sugar consumption.
Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.
- J.M. Cooper, Sucrose, In Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, Optimising Sweet Taste in Foods, Woodhead Publishing, 2006, Pages 135-152, ISBN 9781845690083, https://doi.org/10.1533/9781845691646.2.135.
- Ind. Eng. Chem. 1935, 27, 3, 333–335, Hygroscopicity of Sugars and Sugar Mixtures, Publication Date: March 1, 1935, https://doi.org/10.1021/ie50303a021
- Youan BB, Hussain A, Nguyen NT. Evaluation of sucrose esters as alternative surfactants in microencapsulation of proteins by the solvent evaporation method. AAPS PharmSci. 2003;5(2):E22. doi: 10.1208/ps050222. PMID: 12866947; PMCID: PMC2751529.
- López-Díez EC, Bone S. An investigation of the water-binding properties of protein + sugar systems. Phys Med Biol. 2000 Dec;45(12):3577-88. doi: 10.1088/0031-9155/45/12/305. PMID: 11131185.
- Wang, J., Jarrold, B., Zhao, W., Deng, G., Moulton, L., Laughlin, T. and Hakozaki, T. (2022), The combination of sucrose dilaurate and sucrose laurate suppresses HMGB1: an enhancer of melanocyte dendricity and melanosome transfer to keratinocytes. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol, 36: 3-11. https://doi.org/10.1111/jdv.17846
- Bin BH, Kim ST, Bhin J, Lee TR, Cho EG. The Development of Sugar-Based Anti-Melanogenic Agents. Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Apr 16;17(4):583. doi: 10.3390/ijms17040583. PMID: 27092497; PMCID: PMC4849039.