Innovation Fund
  • Active project

Seaweed sun defence

Investigating the potential of algal bioactives to prevent and improve the outcomes of sunburn

Project Leader Duration Budget
Mike Packer (Cawthron Institute) February 2021 – January 2023 $250,000*


Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Studies have shown that sunscreen is vital to help prevent skin cancer and aging from sunburn and ultraviolet (UV) damage.

Sunscreen, make-up, and lip care products contain ingredients that can filter UV rays. However, many suncare products can have damaging side-effects, and many are being banned due to their environmental impact on corals and other marine life. We need better products that don’t harm us or the environment.

Some seaweed and algae species have compounds that can protect them from damage caused by UV rays. Some of these compounds are being used overseas in high-value ‘natural’ suncare products. We are interested in their potential to prevent and treat sunburn in new ways beyond simply blocking damaging UV light. This includes potentially interacting with the processes underlying the sunburn process in the skin and modulating this for beneficial effects; that is, having a 'bioactive' effect.

We are investigating the potential of Aotearoa New Zealand’s native and endemic seaweed and algal species for use in environmentally friendly and innovative suncare products. We are drawing on mātauranga Māori and science to identify which species are best to develop for sunscreen protection.

We have partnered with Wakatū Incorporation and SRW Laboratories Ltd to:

  • Undertake an 18-month marine farm seaweed biodiversity study to sample and collect species seasonally
  • Identify seaweed and algal species
  • Analyse the collected material and extracts for the target bioactives and antioxidants
  • Develop a proof-of-concept for commercialisation

Beyond our industry partners, the knowledge generated in this project will help to diversify aquaculture activities, provide employment, improve ecosystem health and develop a seaweed aquaculture industry in Aotearoa. This aligns with the goal of the Blue Economy to create economic value from marine activities, and contribute positively to social, cultural and ecological well-being.

About our partners

This project was co-developed with Wakatū Incorporation and SRW Laboratories Ltd.

Wakatū Incorporation is owned by 4,000 Māori families who descend from the traditional landowners of Nelson, Motueka and Golden Bay. They have interests in aquaculture and high-value natural products. For this project they are supplying the seaweed biomass and will carry out the biodiversity study on their marine farms, covering Stewart Island to the Marlborough Sounds. Finally, they will proactively take-up results of the research and help to commercialise them.

SRW Laboratories Ltd will feed in knowledge, market insight and resources and inform research decisions.

Research Team

Mike Packer (Cawthron)
Tom Wheeler (Cawthron)
Gary Fisher (University of Michigan)
Andy Elliott (Wakatū Incorporation)
Paul South (Cawthron)
Jonathan Puddick (Cawthron)
Jonathan Banks (Cawthron)


This is an Innovation Fund project, which is co-funded or funded in kind by the following partner(s):

Wakatū Incorporation (in-kind funding)
SRW Laboratories Ltd (in-kind funding, plus an additional $200,000 direct co-funding)

Related News


This is a national project.


  • April 2021
    Permission from iwi to sample seaweed species for biodiversity study
  • January 2022
    Assess other algal species from Cawthron Institute's Culture Collection of Microalgae for suitability
  • April 2022
    Establish methods to asses the seaweed and algal species
  • July 2022
    First pass screening for target bioactives in algal extracts
  • January 2023
    Second pass screening analysis of extracts
  • May 2023
    Results of the marine farm seaweed biodiversity study and summary report of the analysis to industry partners