Tired of relying on serums and creams, beauty junkies are adopting a two-pronged approach to skincare: after slathering on SPF, they are sipping a water infused with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid. Before applying retinol, they’re popping a handful of collagen supplements. The goal is to banish wrinkles and dullness from the inside and the outside, thanks to a bevy of active, skin-boosting ingredients.
You could pin the start of the trend on Moon Juice, the California juice shop-turned-supplement company, which launched something called “Beauty Dust” in 2015 and kicked off a craze for drinkable beauty. Meant to be stirred into coffee, water or smoothies, the dust blends adaptogens, antioxidants and pearl powder for glowing skin. Or perhaps you could credit The Beauty Chef. In 2009, an Australian beauty editor set out to create a fermented powder based on the philosophies of naturopaths, which had cured her eczema as a young girl. It worked, and the Glow Powder she started selling quickly caught on stateside when users found that the mix of probiotics, prebiotics and antioxidants brightened their skin.
Today, there are dozens of options, from Vital Proteins Beauty Collagen and Dirty Lemon Beauty Elixir to RMS Beauty Within Probiotic + Prebiotic. Other products add glow-inducing antioxidants to the mix: Elle Macpherson’s WelleCo Super Elixir, with ingredients like turmeric and maitake and shitake mushrooms, offers an array of vitamins, minerals, fiber and small amounts of protein and meant to support the endocrine system, immune system, gut and, yes, skin.
For the most part, says leading Manhattan dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., the supplements work by improving digestion and gut health, which can impact skin’s appearance. “There are studies that show there is a connection between gut health and skin appearance,” explains Engelman. “Toxins [can] penetrate the intestines and leak into the bloodstream. This causes inflammation throughout the body, which can manifest as breakouts, eczema, dullness and other skin concerns. If we support the gut with the proper diet and supplements, we can limit inflammation that wreaks havoc on our skin.”
Some supplements rely on probiotics to heal the gut, while some offer collagen to replace what’s broken down due to inflammation, since collagen is responsible for skin elasticity and plumpness. “Collagen supplements float in the bloodstream, sending signals that the collagen is being processed as waste for removal,” says Engelman. “This triggers production to go into overdrive to replenish the collagen that is being removed,” says Engelman.
For each formulation, there’s a hoard of eager customers. “In London and Los Angeles we are seeing that some supplements are outselling serums and other formerly top-selling products,” Net-a-Porter Beauty Director Newby Hands told the New York Times in August, noting that wellness products are among the site’s fastest-growing categories. At Sephora, Chief Merchandising Officer Artemis Patrick told Fast Company, customers are “looking for beauty products that help them achieve their wellness goals.”
Supplement sales still make up a relatively small piece of the beauty industry pie, but interest — along with the number of available options — is skyrocketing. In its most recent report on dietary supplements, trend forecaster Euromonitor International predicted a rise in demand for probiotic supplements and other products meant to support gut health, driven by both a better understanding of the relation between digestion and other areas of health, and a boom in available products. And in late 2017, Mintel reported that 41 percent of American women between ages 18 and 34 have used a supplement meant to enhance their appearance. If you think we have reached a saturation point, just wait: Market research group Research and Markets projects that the beauty supplement market will reach a whopping $7.1 billion by 2023.
While consumers are sold, experts aren’t as sure. Registered Dietician Kate Scarlata, a digestive health expert and bestselling author, says she gets a lot of questions about improving skin by healing the gut. “A number of my patients have skin manifestations, and settling the gut down does settle the skin down,” she says. But calming the gut can be a little like solving a puzzle, and the answer isn’t as simple as swallowing a flavored beverage.
“Like anything in the gut microbiome space, it’s far more complicated than adding probiotics,” she explains. The research on probiotics is still early and somewhat inconclusive — some studies have shown that probiotics can fight inflammation, while others deem them ineffective, or even potentially detrimental to overall health. And while humans have hundreds of varied bacterial strains in our bodies, supplements typically offer a handful of common strains. That means that while a popular supplement might work well for you, it will do nothing for your neighbor. “I do think there is a relationship between the skin and the gut, but it’s probably not just a one-pronged approach,” she says. “It’s a complicated picture being treated with a simplistic approach that’s well ahead of the science.”
Engelman is more encouraging. “I’m a fan of science-backed ingestible beauty as one component of your skin regimen,” she says. “I like probiotics to balance, and collagen to support anti-aging.” So do customers. “People have always wanted more glowy, dewy skin,” says Vital Proteins’ Education Manager and registered dietician, Jenn Randazzo. “What’s been the biggest shift is that people want to approach it from a holistic [place]. You have people who, maybe their current beauty regimen isn’t working as well as it used to, so they’re are looking to complement their routine with an ingestible supplement.”
A decade ago, Randazzo points out, the only way to treat skin orally was by taking antibiotics laden with side effects. Holistic, nutrient-based products seem like a natural step forward. “I think people are more skeptical of pharmaceutical products,” she says. “A lot of people are shifting away and wanting a natural approach to wellness.” And then there’s the fun of it all. Who wouldn’t want to turn their morning coffee into a skin-plumping elixir? And what could be better than waking up in the morning and seeing fewer wrinkles staring back at you?
To join in, Engelman suggests looking for a blend of collagen and probiotics. Collagen should be labeled as “hydrolyzed,” which means it’s broken down into the smallest forms of peptides and amino acids, and therefore easier for your body to absorb. “As with most supplements,” she advises, “it may take up to 12 weeks to notice any effects.”
Just don’t rely solely on supplements as a means for great skin, cautions Scarlata. Good gut health is just one part of the beauty equation, along with exercise, stress reduction, and sun protection. “Diet is a modifying factor, but there are other modifying factors as well,” says Scarlata. Good skin, she says, is “not just in isolation.”
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