• Anna Solana, science journalist

    Nutricosmetics: elixir of youth?

    25 Apr

    Nutricosmetics are foods with functional ingredients that promise to rejuvenate the skin from within. Berry, fruit and green tea extracts, coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, polyphenols and hyaluronic acid sold in the form of drinks or bars make up one of the most dynamic segments of the beauty and skin care industry. Doubts remain, however, regarding the effectiveness and safety of these products.


    These products offer no guarantee of good health or eternal youth but are in demand in markets worldwide. And everything indicates that they are here to stay. Nutricosmetics are located on the boundary between nutrition and personal care, on the thin line dividing medical science from the cosmetics industry. They are presented as anti-wrinkle drinks containing antioxidants and minerals, as anti-ageing chocolate bars or simply as capsules containing different types of supplements, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) to combat skin dryness, or carotenoids (the beta-carotene of carrots or the lycopene of tomatoes).

    As early as 2006, an article in the New York Times predicted that this market would grow, yet warned readers to be sceptical regarding the effects of these products. Not just because miracles do not happen, but also because there were no thorough scientific studies that confirmed that these products worked – although likewise, neither have articles been published that indicate the contrary.


    How it all began

    The father of the nutricosmetic was the Swedish biochemist Ake Dahlgren, who launched the first such product (under the Imedeen brand) in the late 1980s. He maintained that the bioavailability principle meant that skin cells were capable of absorbing available nutrients, thereby improving the appearance of the body's largest organ. His slogan was: “Beautiful skin begins within.” However, others claimed that this was a pure marketing ploy and that all one needed was a healthy diet and proper hygiene.

    The industry, not surprisingly, has played and continues to play this card and to do so according to different concepts.

    The first is that of the cosmeceutical, the earliest representative of the growing trend to fuse products.  This category covers topically applied cosmetic products (creams, lotions and ointments) containing pharmaceutical ingredients and typically promising an anti-ageing effect. Although the term was coined in 1980 by Dr. Albert Kligman, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “the term has no meaning under the law.”

    The second concept refers to the nutraceuticals, also called functional foods. This term was coined in 1989 by Dr. Stephen DeFelice to refer to all foods with a health benefit over and above the food’s inherent nutritional value. One example is the red grape, which contains resveratrol, a natural phenol with anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

    Finally, the nutricosmetics, the latest market offering, represent an evolution of the two previous concepts. These foods, specifically formulated and marketed for beauty and skin care purposes, include nutraceutical ingredients and take the form of drinks (Japan) or tablets (Europe and the USA).

    Nonetheless, despite the different denominations, it is always a matter of cultivating “beauty from within” (more “natural”, “organic,” “without additives”). This undoubtedly innovative idea has penetrated deep into the consciousness of consumers. This would explain the spectacular sales forecasts made by market research studies for the coming years, both in the USA and Europe. In fact, if trends continue, the sector will reach a turnover of 4.24 billion dollars within five years.


    Star ingredients

    The largest market segment is that referring to fruit extracts, green tea and coenzyme Q10 (an essential molecule that helps to “create energy” for the body). Next in importance are the polyphenols like resveratrol (mentioned above), which activates proteins called sirtuins, associated with slowing down ageing and improving metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. David A. Sinclair, a researcher in the University of Harvard, argues that these truly work and do improve our health. Behind them come collagen and vitamins A, C and E.

    Another active ingredient has, relatively recently, been recruited to the race against time, namely, hyaluronic acid, a polysaccharide that is used as filler material in medicine and dentistry and which is now also consumed orally. Industry is, of course, already developing tablets or capsules containing most of the nutricosmetics mentioned above along with many others – as if adding them all together multiplied their rejuvenating effects.


    Adverse effects

    It is uncertain, however, whether these products have any effect.  In fact, studies are beginning to appear that link the excessive consumption of supplements with cancer. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published one such study in 2011 that associated daily intake of vitamin E supplements with a 17% increase in the likelihood of developing prostate cancer.

    Nonetheless, even as nutricosmetic labels specify that the product cannot be used to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” and even as they continue to be sold as innocuous products, their use will continue to grow, irrespective of the cost. You cannot put a price on youth.



    US News Health