By Shahnia Surendran
Over the past decade, there has been an influx of pills, capsules and even “dusts” into the health industry promising miraculous results, feeding into the old adage that beauty simply isn’t skin deep. The market is oversaturated with these “nutricosmetics”, and ads for new wellness supplements are everywhere – you probably can’t make it through a journey on the Underground without encountering some pill or potion which claims to offer a shortcut to glowing skin and radiant hair. This movement rapidly gained a large following because it ties in with millennial culture: health and wellness is at the forefront of social media, with many celebrities jumping on the bandwagon, introducing and advertising new health regimens and cosmetic supplements. But do the efficacy of these supplements hold true to their promises, or is this just a marketing ploy driven by the US$3 billion industry, with whimsical names and pseudoscientific claims?
These specialised formulations, often referred to as a “cocktail”, consist of vitamins, minerals and other popular components such as antioxidants, collagen, peptides, proteins, carotenes, and omega-3 fatty acids (Dini & Laneri, 2019). Plant extracts and botanical ingredients are also heavily utilised. These trendy concoctions are often priced at upwards of US$50 per one month’s supply, in attractive apothecary-style packaging – there’s often a 300-400% retail mark-up in price when looking at the raw materials that go into these elegant glass bottles (Scott, 2015). In the US, many of these products are not regulated by the FDA and rely on self-reporting from brands – allowing them to easily make claims that can go unchecked. According to naturopathic physician Dr Trevor Cates, N.D., this “allows brands to leave out important information regarding the nutrients such as low amounts, wrong forms, poor quality and an incorrect balance. The supplement may also contain harmful binders, fillers, artificial colours and flavours, sugars or may be laden with pesticides and even heavy metals (Mukherjee, T. & Radusky, 2019).” As a consumer, one must ensure that they are doing their own research and to never assume a product is safe just because it is on the market. In the UK, supplements are regulated by the Food Standards Agency; however, they are classified as foods and are therefore not subject to as stringent regulatory measures when compared to drugs and medication.
Even after finding a brand that clearly displays their ingredients and nutrition facts, backed with actual research and vetted by credible experts, how do you discern how much, if at all, these vitamins and supplements help? Firstly, one must understand that the potency of an ingredient applied topically does not guarantee the same results orally: your digestive system does not metabolise ingredients in the same way your skin does (Mukherjee & Radusky, 2019).
This is seen especially in collagen supplements. Collagen is a fibrous protein complex that is digested into amino acids, like any other protein. It can be very hard to determine whether ingested collagen will actually reach the skin as collagen, as it may be converted into another compound (Mukherjee & Radusky, 2019). Collagen supplements were originally designed for injury recovery rather than for aesthetic use; however, some believe that a sudden oral load of collagen can be perceived by the body as a result of injury, and therefore more collagen is produced in response (Bolke et al., 2019).
Vitamins C and E are two supplements that work synergistically, as L-ascorbic acid (the active form of vitamin C) works as a free radical scavenger and repairs the membrane-bound oxidized vitamin E (Katta & Huang, 2019) (Burns, Erin M. et al., 2013). This occurs when UV-activated molecules oxidize cellular components and induce a chain reaction of lipid peroxidation, particularly in membranous regions rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (Schagen et al., 2014a). The antioxidant D-α-tocopherol is oxidized to the tocopheroxyl radical and is regenerated by ascorbic acid back to D-α-tocopherol. Glutathione and coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) can also recycle tocopherol (Schagen et al., 2014). These vitamins, along with vitamin D, are touted as powerful antioxidants which safeguard against environmental damage and external stressors, which can cause skin ageing and acne.
Carotenoids (vitamin A derivates) like β-carotene, astaxanthin, lycopene and retinol, are all highly effective antioxidants and have been documented to possess photoprotective properties (Schagen et al., 2014). Recently, retinol has become prominent in the skincare industry for its medically and scientifically-proven ability to considerably accelerate up the skin’s cell cycle when applied topically (Mukherjee, S. et al., 2006). Lauded as a “miracle ingredient”, retinol boasts regenerating and skin-replenishing benefits. When ingested, these effects are nowhere near as potent as topical prescription medications (such as isotretinoin), but ingestible retinols could be a good alternative for those who find topical forms too aggressive to tolerate.
According to dermatologist Hadley King, “the data to support the use of most of these products is rudimentary. Most people get the nutrients they need from food and barring no vitamin deficiencies, the supplements don’t improve the skin of otherwise healthy people.” Many healthcare professionals argue that supplements are not necessary, and that a healthy, well-balanced diet is all one needs to obtain the required daily intake of vitamins and minerals. There are also safety concerns involved, as high doses of vitamins and supplements can have harmful interactions with each other as well as with prescription medications – for example St. John’s wort, which interacts unpleasantly with antidepressants. Fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, D, E, and K) can also accumulate and may potentially lead to liver damage, while some research has indicated that high doses of antioxidants could lead to an increased risk of cancer (Burns, Emily K., Perez-Sanchez & Katta, 2020).
So if essential nutrients can be acquired from a healthy diet, why have beauty supplements gained so much traction? In the opinion of Dr Cates, due to current farming practices, including the widespread use of pesticides, “produce nowadays is often lacking in some vital nutrients. In addition, we’re exposed to toxic chemicals in our air, water, food, and personal care products now more than ever. Our body requires extra antioxidants and other nutrients to help support detoxification pathways and therefore supplements are the easiest way to get a boost of extra nutrients.” Nutritional deficiencies may also be a result of poverty, drug or alcohol use, high stress, poor digestion, genetic predispositions, and high exposure to toxic chemicals (Mukherjee & Radusky, 2019). The signs of these deficiencies can show up on the skin, hair, and nails.
To conclude, while there is little evidence to prove that nutricosmetics are necessary, they can be helpful, particularly in instances where there is a nutritional deficiency underlying the particular concern. A well-balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables may represent the most healthy and safe method in order to maintain youthful, glowing skin (Schagen et al., 2014b). You should always consult your GP and check for deficiencies, and should you decide to start a new supplement regime – take the advice of experts and find a company that has credible studies and quality ingredients to back up its claims.
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