Skin-Care Beverages: Do They Work?

Scott Vincent Borba says he can pinpoint the moment he conceived of his drinkable skin-care line. He arrived home from a business trip five years ago and was sitting on his couch with a bottle of flavored water in one hand, a skin-care product in the other. "I thought, what if I could have the skin-care benefits in my water," he says. "And I thought it would look like a Louis Vuitton-type of product, something that could change the world of skin care."

Today his line of drinkable (and edible) skin-care products isn't exactly as lucrative as the French retailer of leather and fashion goods, but it does sell in high-end department and cosmetics stores like Sephora. And they aren't cheap: a 12-pack of the drinks costs about $30, while a bag of "skin-enhancing" gummi bears goes for $25. Borba says his privately held Los Angeles-based firm will generate close to $7 million in retail sales during this, their second fiscal year (up from $5 million the previous year).

The Borba skin-beautifying drinks are marketed to be a cross between a cosmetic and a food. They have crisp metallic labels with proclamations such as "contains a revolutionary cultivated bio-vitamin complex which helps the skin regenerate its natural support system, remove toxins and improve the clarity of the dermis."

Such dramatic claims were once relegated to face creams, but now they're migrating to these new hybrid products that blur the line between cosmetic, drug and food. Although they often take on slick, medical-sounding names like "nutraceutical" or "cosmeceutical," the FDA regulates edible beauty products as dietary supplements--a category that includes vitamins, minerals and herbs. While a drug manufacturer must have pre-market approval before their product hits the shelves (in order to ensure the drug's safety and efficacy), an FDA spokesperson explains that "dietary supplements do not require FDA approval before going on the market." As long as the manufacturer can ensure that their product is safe, they do not need to provide the FDA with evidence supporting the effectiveness of the claims on their label. And this means that wrinkle- cream marketers can use vague but hopeful language like "reduces the appearance of fine lines," and Borba can say his gummi bears are good for your skin.

If you're skeptical you're not alone. "There might be some truth, but there is also a lot of hype," says Hayes Gladstone, director of dermatologic surgery at Stanford University. At the same time, Gladstone and others do not write off ingestible skin-care or beauty products altogether. Functional foods, those that are marketed as products that go beyond basic nutritive values and provide an extra health benefit, have already become a mainstay in the supermarket--think cereals that may help lower the risk of heart disease or low-sodium snacks that may reduce blood pressure. Vitamin-enhanced drinks like Vitamin Water (recently purchased by Coca-Cola) or the new Diet Coke Plus have taken the trend to the beverage aisle. So, providing equivalent beauty benefits in a bottle of water may not be too far-fetched.

The trend goes beyond Borba's brand. Major manufacturers are getting into the business too. In Europe, Danone (makers of Dannon yogurt in the United States) recently introduced Essensis, a skin-care yogurt loaded with green-tea extracts and vitamin E. Two million households have purchased the product since its debut in January. Back in the United States, Coca-Cola and Nestle offer Enviga, a sparkling green-tea beverage that they dubbed "the calorie burner." Drinking three each day, the label claims, will help burn between 60-100 extra calories. It will also burn your wallet--the recommended dosage costs more than $100 per month.

These multitasking foods represent a shift in American tastes, says Roger A. Clemens, a professor who studies regulatory science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In the first half of this century, food was largely viewed as a way to fill the stomach and address nutritional deficiencies. But beginning in the late 1960s, Americans began to want foods that had the health-enhancing abilities typically relegated to drugs. "The distance between food and drug has largely narrowed," says Clemens. "Now, we're living in the grey zone."

The emergence of beauty beverages and skin-care snacks largely follows this trend, tapping into advances in dermatology research. Antioxidants and green-tea extracts have, in many studies, proved particularly powerful in protecting against skin cancer. "If you asked me 10 years ago whether antioxidants would play a role in skin care I would [have said] no," says Gladstone. "Now I definitely think they do. We just need to work on targeting them to the right place."

While there is plenty of evidence that consuming antioxidants is good for you, there isn't universal agreement that chugging a bottle of antioxidant-loaded water will actually make your skin look younger or clear up your acne. Much of the industry's research comes from animal trials or studies of small populations--a good start but still quite a distance from anything that could support a general claim of antioxidants working in an ingestible product.

"This is a huge problem with the marketing of these agents," says Joel Gelfand, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. Gelfand agrees that ingestible skin care is certainly plausible, but he does not trust the unpublished studies that cosmetic companies will often use to support their claims. "If this stuff works there's no reason not to publish [in a peer-reviewed journal]," he says. He's also wary of studies that rely on mouse models or cell models and then say it's going to benefit humans. "You need to actually test it on humans, to make sure its safe and has a meaningful benefit."

But Borba insists that the trials behind his Skin Balance Water products, while not published in a scientific journal, are comprehensive enough to support the labeling claims. The Borba Web site touts two monthlong studies conducted by an independent research laboratory, which found that those who drank the Skin Balance Water saw improvements in their skin's "clarity" and "elasticity," while those in a control group, who drank a placebo, did not.

Despite the shaky science, the company points to devotees like Stacy Broderick of Visalia, Calif., who swears by the products. She says that the Skin Balance Aqua Crystalline Drink Mix-Ins, along with Borba facial cleansers, completely cleared up her adult acne. The results convinced her to begin eating the gummi bears as well. "Even if they don't work, I'm still going to eat them," she says. "They are the best-tasting gummi bears I have ever had."

And that, says Gladstone, is the perfect attitude. "If they are looking for a candy then that's fine," he says. "But they shouldn't expect dramatic skin-care improvements." At this point, the scientific community hasn't agreed that edible beauty products work. And until then, they are unlikely to win over the support of many dermatologists--in gummi-bear form or otherwise.