Nutricosmetics refer to products in the form of dietary supplements, functional foods or beverages marketed specifically for beauty benefits, and it appears this trend is on the rise. According to Nutrition Business Journal, sales grew 6% from 2012 to 2015, with supplement sales for this sector reaching more than $884 million in 2015. As the beauty from within concept continues to blossom, it may be somewhat of a challenge for consumers and retailers alike to sift through the marketing hype.
Simply put, dietary adjustments are a common recommendation for people looking to reduce their risk of chronic disease. If consumers put good things into their bodies, they are more likely to feel better and maintain a healthier body. What is now being explored—fueling the growth of wellness from within—is the concept that what is consumed internally can also be reflected in outer beauty and vitality. For example, consider that what people ingest could possibly reverse sun damage, improve skin elasticity or even alleviate acne.
The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and the one that most visibly reflects what people put into their body. For example, look at smokers whose habit is often revealed by their appearance. Those who don’t regularly hydrate might have skin that is dry and less resilient; alcohol can also dehydrate skin whereas regular consumption of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, trans fat and saturated fats may aggravate acne—and may add pounds to the scale.
The point is that “garbage in equals garbage out” often manifests in the way we look. When it comes to science to support the effect of wellness products, the evidence for topical ingredients is still way ahead of those that are ingestible. For oral nutricosmetics, the marketing potential appears to be ahead of the science, and some ingredients touted for wellness from within may offer no more than an empty wallet.
However, new research continues to indicate that several of these ingredients taken orally may offer benefits reflected in outer appearance, including hair, skin and nails.
In simple terms, free radicals are generated from sunlight, smoke and pollution; they gobble up collagen and elastin, the fibers that support skin structure, potentially leading to wrinkles and other signs of aging. As one of the main antioxidant nutrients, vitamin C helps to lessen the oxidative stress in cells and may support regeneration and production of new, healthier skin cells. It is necessary for the development and maintenance of collagen, cartilage and blood vessels; collagen is also important for strengthening hair and improving hair growth.
Researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which explored links between nutrient intake and skin-aging appearance in more than 4,000 women aged 40 to 74. They discovered that higher intake of vitamin C and linoleic acid (an essential fatty acid) and lower intake of fat and carbohydrates were associated with better skin-aging appearance (less wrinkled appearance, less dry and atrophied).1
Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to gene regulation within white blood cells. Zinc is involved in the rate at which skin heals and it helps repress oil production, which is key for people who suffer from acne. Zinc is also important for growth and repair of hair cells and keeps the oil glands surrounding follicles in peak shape.
Vitamin A is essential for formation of healthy epithelial (skin) cells and mucous membrane surfaces. Low vitamin A levels may lead to dry, flaky and/or even bumpy skin. If vitamin A levels in the diet are adequate, adding more probably won’t do much more for skin health.
Although much of the research on vitamin A is related to topical use, some studies have suggested that foods high in the antioxidant beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) may lower risk for conditions like psoriasis. Vitamin A is also necessary for healthy sebum production in the scalp, which may prevent strands from drying out.
There is an abundance of research indicating a positive role for omega-3 fatty acids in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, joint issues, inflammation, and for supporting skin health. Omegas are part of the building block of cell membranes and play a vital role in membrane fluidity, flexibility and permeability.
Specific to skin, omegas have been studied for their role in delaying visible signs of aging, regulating hydration and controlling the skin’s oil production. If skin is dry and prone to inflammation then essential fatty acids may help to produce a “calming” barrier that isn’t produced when these essential fatty acids are in less than adequate supply. In 2005, the Journal of Lipid Research published a study that explored the role eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) plays in protection of the skin from UV-induced damage linked to fine lines and collagen degradation.2
Resveratrol is an antioxidant concentrated in red wine and in Japanese Knotweed (polygonum). The benefits of resveratrol have been fairly well-documented in the research; it has been suggested that it not only protect the skin but also repairs previous damage. Resveratrol’s benefits are linked to increased skin elasticity and the strengthening of collagen, resulting in fewer wrinkles.
CoQ10 is a component involved in healthy mitochondrial function; it helps facilitate converting food into energy and acts as a protective antioxidant in mitochondrial membranes. Because of its antioxidant role in reducing cellular damage, CoQ10 may contribute to the appearance of healthy skin. Dietary sources of CoQ10 are limited to mostly meat, poultry, fish, soybean and canola oil, eggs and dairy.
Collagen is an extremely popular ingredient in the Japanese market where consumers can buy everything from collagen marshmallows to collagen-infused plum wine. Declining collagen and elastin levels are a natural part of aging, which makes skin appear less firm and elastic and more “crepe like.”
In a study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in 2015, oral supplementation with collagen peptides was shown to improve skin structure and health from within by increasing hydration and collagen density.3 Another recent study demonstrated a significant reduction in eye wrinkle depth in individuals taking a daily supplement containing collagen peptides, with improvement in collagen and elastin after eight weeks of taking the supplement.4
This antioxidant ingredient is said to be hundreds of times more potent than vitamin C because of its ability to penetrate both oil and water. Alpha-lipoic acid helps neutralize skin cell damage caused by free radicals, and has indeed been studied for this effect.5
Hyaluronic Acid (HA) is a mucopolysaccharide, which is one of the glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) best known for its role in lubricating joints, but it also appears to play a role in skin cells. HA retains water and helps hydrate and transport nutrients to cells. A 2014 review published in Nutrition Journal suggested that oral intake of HA can protect against moisture loss and UV skin damage.6
Lycopene is an antioxidant that has been touted as promoting luminous skin from the inside out, and has been suggested to help boost protection against UV exposure. Supplementation with tomato-based lycopene products has been shown to have a modest effect—similar to an SPF of 2—in protecting against UV radiation.7 While both foods and supplements are being explored for their role in sun protection, they clearly should not be used as a replacement for topical sun protection.
Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin that is generally classified as part of the B-complex. Lofty claims that biotin supports hair and nail growth and strength have given it celebrity status in the beauty from within segment. Interestingly enough, biotin’s popularity stems from effectiveness in treating abnormalities in hoofed animals, which led to research exploring the link between biotin intake and brittle fingernails in humans.
Human studies have shown that biotin supplementation (2,500 mcg per day) can produce a 25% increase in the thickness of the nail plate in patients diagnosed with brittle nails of unknown cause, and up to 91% of patients taking this dosage experience definite improvement.8,9
As far as hair, biotin was found to be effective in controlling unruly hair in toddlers with inherited “uncombable hair syndrome.”10 Although hair loss is a symptom of severe biotin deficiency, studies have not confirmed high-dose supplementation for this condition.
The Bottom Line
Sales of nutricosmetics are on the rise, but science has a ways to go to catch up with marketing and address consumer skepticism.
When adding supplements or making changes in dietary habits, consumers may feel better within hours or days. However, more supple, glowing and/or hydrated appearance typically doesn’t happen overnight and might not be noticeable until after a couple of weeks, depending on severity of changes in each individual. Be cautious of products that sound too good to be true, and remember that the best way to promote wellness from within is with a diet that includes a wide variety of antioxidant-rich whole foods, healthy fats and is low in refined carbohydrates, with minimal processing and additives.
Foods for Wellness from Within
Here are a few nutrition-packed choices that are important for wellness from within.
Colorful fruits and vegetables: The more variety of color the better; foods like berries, beets, butternut squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peppers, kiwi, etc. are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants are important for minimizing free radicals, which may help support skin health.
Avocado: Avocado is rich in healthy fats and vitamins A and C; plus they contain fiber. Healthy fats can enhance complexion by helping to plump the skin.
Yogurt: A good quality yogurt is loaded with probiotics (good bacteria), which can indirectly support skin health. Here’s how: digestion is often referred to as the foundation of health and poor digestion can be reflected in the way skin appears. Ultra-processed and refined, artificial foods are the main culprit of compromised digestion.
Citrus fruits: Citrus fruit contains bioflavonoids that may help promote capillary strength; plus they may enhance vitamin C activity in the body.
Multivitamins: Although diet should be the first and foremost way to nourish wellness from within, a multivitamin can help fill in the nutrient gaps that might be missing when people don’t eat a wide variety of antioxidant-rich foods every day. For example, Rainbow Light offers Women’s One and Men’s One multivitamins.
About the Author: Marci Clow, MS, registered dietitian, is senior nutritionist at Rainbow Light. She has been a part of Rainbow Light’s research, formulation and quality team for more than 15 years, using her nutrition, regulatory and food expertise to develop strategic and effective collateral communication materials for lectures, print, TV and social media. Her personal interests in nutrition include solution-oriented, real-food approaches to childhood obesity as well as bridging the gap between alternative and allopathic medicine. Ms. Clow has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition and a BS in Food Service Administration. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is active in several practice groups, including Dietitians in Business and Communications, Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine and Nutrition Education for the Public.
- Cosgrove, MC, et al. Dietary nutrient intake and skin aging appearance among middle-aged American women. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1225-1231.
- Kim, Hyeon Ho, et al. “Eicosapentaenoic acid inhibits UV-induced MMP-1 expression in human dermal fibroblasts.” Journal of Lipid Research 46.8 (2005): 1712-1720.
- Asserin, Jérome, et al. “The effect of oral collagen peptide supplementation on skin moisture and the dermal collagen network: evidence from an ex vivo model and randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 14.4 (2015): 291-301.
- Proksch E, et al. Oral intake of specific bioactive collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and increases dermal matrix synthesis. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2014;27: 113-119.
- Perricone, N. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, July-August 1999; vol 29.
- Kawada, Chinatsu, et al. “Ingested hyaluronan moisturizes dry skin.” Nutrition Journal 13.1 (2014): 1.
- Aust O, Stahl W, Sies H, et al. Supplementation with tomato-based products increases lycopene, phytofluene, and phytoene levels in human serum and protects against UV-light-induced erythema. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2005;75:54-60.
- Floersheim, GL. Treatment of brittle fingernails with biotin. Z. Hautkr. 1989: 64(1):41-48.
- Hochman LG, Scher RK, Meyerson MS. Brittle nails: response to daily biotin supplementation. Cutis. 1993: 51(4): 303-305.
- Boccaletti, V. & Zendri E. et al. Familial Uncombable Hair Syndrome: Ultrastructural Hair Study and Response to Biotin. Pediatr Dermatol. 2007: 24(3): E14-16.