Characterisation of cytotoxicity and immunomodulatory effects of glycolipid biosurfactants on human keratinocytes

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Skin irritation and allergic reactions associated with the use of skincare products formulated with synthetically derived surfactants such as sodium lauryl ether sulphate (SLES) have encouraged the search for naturally derived and biocompatible alternatives. Glycolipid biosurfactants such as sophorolipids (SL) and rhamnolipids (RL) offer a potential alternative to SLES. However, most studies on the bioactive properties of microbial glycolipids were determined using their mixed congeners, resulting in significant inter-study variations. This study aims to compare the effects of highly purified SL (acidic and lactonic) and RL (mono-RL and di-RL) congeners and SLES on a spontaneously transformed human keratinocyte cell line (HaCaT cells) to assess glycolipids' safety for potential skincare applications. Preparations of acidic SL congeners were 100% pure, lactonic SL were 100% pure, mono-RL were 96% pure, and di-RL were 97% pure. Cell viability using XTT assays, cell morphological analyses, and immunoassays revealed that microbial glycolipids have differing effects on HaCaT cells dependent on chemical structure. Compared with SLES, acidic SL and mono-RL have negligible effects on cell viability, cell morphology, and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Furthermore, at non-inhibitory concentrations, di-RL significantly attenuated IL-8 production and CXCL8 expression while increasing IL-1RA production and IL1RN expression in lipopolysaccharide-stimulated HaCaT cells. Although further studies would be required, these results demonstrate that as potential innocuous and bioactive compounds, microbial glycolipids could provide a substitute to synthetic surfactants in skincare formulations and perform immunopharmacological roles in topical skin infections such as psoriasis. KEY POINTS: • Purified glycolipid congeners have differing effects on human keratinocytes. • Compared with SLES, acidic sophorolipids and mono-rhamnolipids have innocuous effects on keratinocytes. • Di-rhamnolipids and mono-rhamnolipids modulate cytokine production in lipopolysaccharide stimulated human keratinocytes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-152
Number of pages16
JournalApplied Microbiology and Biotechnology
Issue number1
Early online date28 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by a Vice Chancellors Research Scholarship awarded to SAA by Ulster University. Additional support was obtained from Invest Northern Ireland, UK, proof of concept grant number 826. The authors would like to thank the Mass Spectroscopy Unit at Ulster University for their assistance with all chemical analyses of glycolipid compounds. We also acknowledge and thank Jeneil Biosurfactant, USA, for providing rhamnolipid samples and Givaudan France and IMCD, UK, for providing samples of Sopholiance-S sophorolipids,

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Glycolipid biosurfactants
  • Sodium lauryl ether sulphate
  • Keratinocytes
  • Cosmetics and personal care
  • Immunomodulation
  • Skin irritation
  • Skincare formulations


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