Once upon a time there was your skin and cold cream. And that was pretty much it. Today, the number of options are overwhelming -- with the number of available lotions, potions, and serums seeming to multiply almost daily.
But if, like many folks, you've still not found a dream cream to smooth that wrinkled brow or firm those jiggly jowls then you might be ready for the latest boom in beauty care -- treating your skin from the inside out. Experts call them "nutraceuticals," a rapidly expanding group of vitamins, minerals, and other natural ingredients that you take internally to change the way you look on the outside.
"In many ways, you can accomplish a lot more with supplements than you can with creams," says Zoe Diana Draelos, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Indeed, while topical products can help says Draelos, what you put on your face could never fully replace what is needed internally by your body to keep your skin healthy and looking great. And that's where supplements can play an important role.
"Creams cannot replace a faulty diet -- so if you are not consuming enough vitamin C, for example, there is no way you can achieve vitamin C levels systemically by putting creams on your skin," says Draelos.
While much of the buzz surrounding beauty nutrients was generated from the popularity of the skin care regimen of Nicholas Perricone, MD, who combines both topical and internal nutrients, it wasn't long before traditional skin care and cosmetic companies began to follow suit. This includes corporate beauty giants such as Olay, Avon, and L'Oreal -- all of whom now have a line of "boudoir packaged" supplements designed specifically to meet skin care needs. Traditional vitamin companies such as GNC are getting in on the trend as well, with many offering their own version of skin nutrients.
What Makes Beauty Vitamins Work
Common to many of these "beauty-vitamin" formulations is a powerful blend of antioxidants, including higher-than-average levels of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as other antioxidants such as lycopene -- the red plant pigment in tomatoes and other fruits, and pycnogenols. Not coincidentally, these are many of the same ingredients that have popped up in topical products during the last several years.
The most popular theory behind their use, say experts, involves the ability of antioxidants to beat down free radicals. These are unstable molecules that form from sun exposure, pollution, or sometimes even the foods we eat, and work to destroy collagen -- the fibers which form the basic support structure for our skin. When this breakdown does occur, the skin shows signs of premature aging -- including wrinkles, droops, and sags. Topical application of antioxidants is thought to block some of the free radical damage, and in this way preserve the integrity of our skin. But now experts say taking high levels internally can do even more.
"These formulations were developed to address specific skin problems -- and the effects go much deeper than just antioxidant protection," says Amy Newburger, MD, president of the Westchester Academy of Medicine in upstate New York and a spokeswoman for the Olay line of beauty nutrients.
As Newburger explains at least some of these nutrients are also directly involved with collagen production. So, she says, if a deficiency exists, taking daily supplements could keep collagen production going -- and our skin looking more youthful and ultimately, healthier.
At the same time, however, dermatologist Joyce Fox, MD, says it's highly unlikely that any Americans actually have a deficiency great enough to affect how their skin looks or acts. And that, says Fox, means that taking a beauty vitamin may be a waste of time and money.
"For example, keeping C levels adequate might ultimately kick back with effects on the skin -- but adding more C into the mix, over and above what you would take to correct a deficiency -- well the benefit of that has not yet been proven," says Fox, a dermatologist at the Cedar Sinai Medical Group and a clinical professor at the University of California.
In fact despite whatever claims the companies may make, they don't have to prove these supplements work, Fox says. "There really isn't any sound scientific evidence to show that they do work," she explains.
What Science Really Says About Beauty
While some anecdotal evidence has been accumulating to validate the effectiveness of beauty vitamins, to date most of the scientific research that manufacturers point to as proof is either laboratory or animal studies. Many studies involve diseases affecting other parts of the body and not the skin and almost none prove any direct effect of nutrients on skin, particularly if a deficiency is not documented.
However, for New York University nutritionist Samantha Heller, getting to the truth of what works and what doesn't may lie in the concept of "subclinical" deficiencies -- a dip in nutrient levels that's too small to measure by standard tests, but may, in fact, still cause important changes in our skin.
"We are living in a world where there is so much environmental stress on our skin, along with internal physiological stress -- even that which happens naturally when we do something healthy, like exercise -- that yes, there may be a subclinical deficiency that will respond to nutrient supplementation," says Heller. In this respect, some beauty vitamins may help she says.
But do we have to take a pill to see results? Heller says no.
"If you're eating a healthy diet with a lot of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, plus essential fatty acids from foods like flax seed oil, then you should not have to take any kind of skin supplement -- but then again, so many people are not really eating healthy," Heller tells WebMD. When this is the case, she says, a supplement can help.
"It isn't as good as eating healthy and it isn't going to give you back everything you need to have healthy skin, but it could make some difference," says Heller.
While Fox agrees that taking a supplement can be beneficial when your diet is less than perfect, she also believes an ordinary multivitamin product -- and not necessarily a beauty vitamin -- will offer all the protection you need.
"At a certain point you are going to excrete whatever you don't use anyway, so taking ultra high-dose products, particularly on top of a multivitamin, may net you nothing more than very expensive urine," she says.
Those vitamins that aren't readily excreted, such as pure vitamin A, can cause acute or chronic toxicity if taken in excess doses. In adults and older children chronic doses of vitamin A as low as 30,000 micrograms daily can cause toxic side effects. So, if you are taking more than one beauty vitamin a day, or adding them on top of a multivitamin, she says keep an eye on your total daily intake. If you are pregnant, experts say be extra cautious about high levels of all forms of vitamin A. Birth defects have been seen in children born to mothers taking a form of vitamin A (isotretinoin) for skin conditions during pregnancy.
And while it's true that in many instances regular multivitamins may provide all the help your complexion needs, it's also important to note that, depending on your specific deficiency, sometimes even a top-of-the-line multivitamin might not include all the nutrients believed beneficial to skin. These include ingredients such as lycopene, Evening Oil of Primrose, green tea extract, pycnogenols, alpha lipoic acid, and CoQ10, as well as high enough levels of vitamins such as A, C, and E, all of which can be found in these specialized skin supplements. In this respect, at least some experts say adding a beauty vitamin to your regimen may be worth the effort, as long as you are realistic about the results.
Fox agrees: "Regardless of what you take internally, your skin care basics should still include a thorough cleansing with a gentle product, daily moisturizing, and continued use of a sunscreen, during winter and summer."
Beauty Vitamins: What's Hot
Currently, both Olay and Avon offer general "wellness" supplements designed to address both overall health as well as skin health. In addition, Olay's specific beauty treatments include a formulation to increase skin's firmness, (high in antioxidants particularly vitamin C); one to protect the skin from environmental stress (also heavy on antioxidants); one to renew the structure of the skin (a combination of antioxidants and essential fatty acids from Evening Primrose Oil); and a support product for younger looking skin (high doses of vitamins A and D).
Avon's beauty vitamin line includes an acne clarifying complex (high in vitamin A) and a skin nourishing formula for moisture including hyaluronic acid, chondroitan sulfate, and MSM -- ingredients traditionally found in many joint pain relief nutrients.
L'Oreal, has released a skin nutrient in Europe based on an antioxidant complex, and is getting ready to do the same in the U.S. in the near future.
Colette Bouchez is the author of Your Perfectly Pampered Pregnancy: Health, Beauty and Lifestyle Advice for the Modern Mother-to-Be.
Published May 7, 2004.