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Demystifying the ingestible beauty trend and why it’s a bigger business than ever before

March 4, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC
Beauty supplements promising glowing complexions and youthful skin are everywhere these days, but whether or not they actually work is a bit more complicated.
Courtesy of Dirty Lemon

“Ladies, you can be beautiful,” read a listing in a 1902 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog. “No matter who you are, what your disfigurements may be, you can make yourself as handsome as any lady in the land by the use of our French Arsenic Wafers.”

With just a few nibbles, these wafers were a guaranteed sure cure for freckles, blackheads, pimples, redness, and rough, yellow, or muddy skin, and they were said to permanently remove any facial impurities, leaving only a “deliciously clear complexion” in their place. For decades, women flocked to their nearest drugstores and ordered tins of the wafers in masses, swallowing their false promises of beauty right alongside the poisonous metalloid. 

Over a century later, the thought of consuming a deadly compound in pursuit of vanity (or for any purpose other than one’s immediate demise) now seems absurd. Yet the promise of supple skin and a glowing visage from the mere bite of a snack or swig of a drink is as tempting as ever. From apple pie–flavored collagen protein bars to beverages infused with retinol, skin-enhancing ingredients have seemingly taken over. And whether you’re grocery shopping at Whole Foods or stocking up on foundation at Sephora, it’s difficult not to encounter at least one product that touts some amazing beauty benefit as a result of mere ingestion.

Arsenic wafers may have long since disappeared from the marketplace, but ingestible beauty as a category has persisted well into the modern era and has ushered in drastic growth in recent years. According to market research conducted by the NPD Group and Euromonitor International, of the $18.8 billion in sales generated by the U.S. beauty industry in 2018, beauty supplements were responsible for $144 million—a small portion at first blush but notably a 61% increase from their $89 million in sales in 2017. But as beauty brands and retailers small and large continue to roll out innumerable pills, powders, and drinkable liquids that ensure boosted collagen production, improved hair growth, and heightened cell turnover, industry insiders and consumers alike are beginning to wonder if these miracle products are really worth all the hype. 

“I like to use the term ‘hope in a capsule,’” says Rajani Katta, a board-certified dermatologist and the author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. “It used to be that consumers turned to ‘hope in a jar,’ but now they’re hoping for impressive results from a pill or powder.” She believes that as people have come to recognize the impact diet can have on overall health, brands have capitalized on it to market and sell specific nutrients. 

Dirty Lemon sells what it touts as the “first-ever drinkable retinol,” featuring a proprietary ingestible beauty serum to support more youthful-looking skin and to stimulate natural collagen production.
Courtesy of Dirty Lemon

The folks on the other side, however, have a slightly more optimistic take. While brands like Moon Juice and Dirty Lemon were indeed privy to consumers’ early interest in nutritional beauty, they have always sought to simply meet the demands and desires of their customers. “We recognized the interest in nutri-cosmetics early on in our business, which led to the development and launch of our first beauty elixir, +collagen, in 2016,” says Merel Petri, vice president of communications at Dirty Lemon parent company, Iris Nova. Since the launch of +collagen, the beverage company has witnessed the exponential growth of the U.S. beauty supplement market (worth just $4 million in 2015), and it has created a number of other beauty elixirs as a result.

The sector is obviously yielding good business, but the people behind many of these brands insist they are not simply chasing the money. “What you put into your body affects not just your health or how you feel but also things like skin clarity, how you age, and skin glow,” says Whitney Tingle, cofounder of Sakara Life, the perpetually trendy meal delivery service that last fall announced a partnership with Sephora to sell its beauty supplements. “We put our products through testing and clinical trials where appropriate, and we use the products ourselves. We also know that the only way we’ll get the wider population to convert to a ‘beauty from the inside out’ mentality is to give them real results that last.”

Lily Kunin, a health coach, author, and the founder of New York’s Clean Market, concurs. “I’m a big believer in beauty from the inside out, and I think that when you look good, you feel good,” she says. “Beauty is truly an inside job, so it is important to address underlying issues that may be causing inflammation, breakouts, dark circles, and more. What you ingest has a direct impact on your skin and complexion, and ingestible supplements have ingredients and nutrients we may not have in therapeutic doses in our daily diet.”

At Clean Market, where these sorts of products are blended into smoothies at the café, integrated into IV drips in the treatment area, and available for purchase in the shop, Kunin says her team puts every item through a strict vetting process to make sure it has the highest-quality and cleanest ingredients and the best formulas to support results. “That being said, a pill is never a magic fix,” she warns. “But it can definitely support a healthy lifestyle and a consistent beauty regimen.”

Sakara Life’s daily probiotic vegetarian capsules are advertised to include 11 diverse strains and a prebiotic fiber blend to enhance efficacy and reduce bloat. But experts recommend individuals research how and when to take probiotics based on age and lifestyle first.
Courtesy of Sakara Life

With so many of these ingredients—such as collagen and retinol—already available in creams, serums, and other topical forms, some consumers are puzzled as to why they might need them in supplement form as well. “It really depends on each ingredient,” says Moon Juice founder, Amanda Chantal Bacon. “My favorite is when they work synergistically, like hyaluronic acid, tocos, and silver ear mushrooms, which work best when ingested and applied topically.”

Vitamin C and probiotics are also ingredients that offer different benefits when applied topically and ingested. As Kunin explains, topical iterations of vitamin C help brighten and firm skin, but when ingested, it can boost immunity as well. Similarly, topical probiotics can balance skin bacteria and biome, and when ingested, they target the gut, where the bacteria that eventually leads to skin blemishes originates. “There is evidence that certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, can be helpful for skin health if it reaches the skin via topical use or via ingestion,” Katta says. “But, and this is an important point, we simply do not have any evidence that taking extra doses are helpful. In fact, certain nutrients can even be harmful if you get too much. I call this the Goldilocks principle: You definitely don’t want too little, but sometimes too much can be harmful as well.”

Moon Juice’s SuperHair daily complex of multi-vitamins includes Biotin. There are numerous claims about the health benefits of biotin, but studies pointing to success rates are sparse.
Courtesy of Moon Juice

There’s also a question of whether certain ingredients found in ingestible beauty products, even those that are naturally occurring in the body, should be taken at all. “The best use of a supplement is to treat a deficiency,” Katta says. “For example, if you are deficient in biotin, you may experience hair loss, and it would be important to take a biotin supplement. The marketers, however, have turned that around and now market biotin supplements as a treatment for hair growth.” Yet, in all the medical research conducted on biotin, she warns, it’s never been shown to help hair growth in consumers who have normal levels to begin with.

“It’s very important to discuss the use of any supplement prior to starting them,” Katta says. “Although they may appear innocent, there are in fact many, many reports of side effects and interactions with other medications from multiple over-the-counter skin, hair, and nail supplements, so you can never be too careful.”

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