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The problem with ingestible beauty

When it comes to ingestible beauty supplements, why are we so willing to swallow vague promises of inner radiance?

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

Cult wellness brand Moon Juice’s Beauty Dust can be mixed into your green juice, matcha latte, or superfood smoothie. The powdered beauty supplement promises to “expand beauty, lustre, and glow from within.” Elsewhere, Goop is peddling a mix called Goopgenes, which claims to “support smooth, firm, hydrated skin,” while The Beauty Chef – maker of GLOW Inner Beauty Powder – has actually trademarked the phrase, “beauty begins in the belly.”

From Whole Foods to Sephora, people are trying to sell us a more radiant quality of life through magical ingestible powders and elixirs. But when it comes to beauty supplements, why are we so willing to swallow vague promises of inner radiance?

The cult of wellness has bridged the gap between ingestible and topical cosmetics, and the beauty industry is all for it. In the US especially, diminishing access to healthcare and a growing mistrust of big pharma companies are just some of the factors leading consumers toward alternative approaches to health, while the explosion of clean beauty and products free from certain “toxic” ingredients has beauty junkies more invested in notions of wellness.

In 2017, Mintel reported that 41% of US females aged 18-34 use an oral supplement designed to enhance their appearance. Skincare and colour cosmetics brands like Oskia, Dr. Barbara Sturm, and RMS Beauty have diversified their product offerings to include supplements. Supplement brands like Moon Juice, The Nue Co., and The Beauty Chef are now hawking topical skincare products of their own. Indicative of a paradigm shift that taps into consumers’ desire for an all-inclusive, holistic approach to health and wellness, these hybrid beauty-lifestyle brands sell the promise of radiance from the inside-out and the outside-in.  

But while so-called “inner beauty” formulas have only recently become a priority for beauty retailers, hair, skin, and nail vitamins are not a new concept. They’ve been around in health food stores forever. What’s new, however, is their market positioning alongside serums and contour palettes in SpaceNK and Sephora, where sleeker product designs, increased visibility to beauty consumers, and potentially questionable advertising all make it easier than ever to be seduced. But what exactly are we being seduced by?

“Strip back the millennial pink product design and celebrity endorsements and you’re left with nutrients, most of which can be found already in your food”

Strip back the millennial pink product design, high concept ad campaigns, and celebrity endorsements and you’re left with nutrients like probiotics, collagen, and adaptogens, most of which can be found already in your food. Of course, as pharmacist and co-founder of online beauty and supplement retailer Shabir Daya argue, due to poor agricultural practices and the amount of time it takes to transport food to our tables, the food we eat often lacks essential nutrients. In this sense supplementation, in addition to a balanced healthy diet, can be vital. But just because we’re getting those nutrients, does that really affect our beauty?

The cosmetic benefits of ingestible beauty products hinge on the theory that dietary supplements can be beneficial to our skin, hair, and nails. And there is merit to these claims. For example, probiotic supplements (featured in ingestibles from The Beauty Chef and RMS Beauty) have had a cult following among skincare enthusiasts long before they were branded for beauty consumers. Early research even suggests that oral probiotics may be beneficial in treating specific inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, acne, and rosacea. Similarly, though the science is also still in its early stages, there’s reason to believe that collagen supplements – Goopgenes or otherwise – may help improve the appearance of wrinkles.

Daya, who formulates his own line of VH Supplements, as well as his newly-released ingestible Fulvic Acid Elixir, sees merit to the cross-pollination of supplements and beauty. “Many skin conditions respond well to the use of cleansing herbs, so why should herbs or vitamins not help other skin concerns such as protecting skin against ageing?”

“The problem with ingestible beauty products is that they all promise some version of the mythical wellness panacea”

However, when it comes to this new brand of flashy ingestible beauty products, it’s hard to tell the strength of the nutrients actually included in them. Some brands, like Moon Juice, don’t even disclose the exact breakdown of their “proprietary blends,” making it difficult to identify how effective the formula will be. Given the lack of information available, it’s important to question whether these companies are using their nutrients at the appropriate strengths for them to be therapeutic. Daya tells me that many of the buzziest beauty supplements “simply use the nutrients that have been around for years,” and at “well below their maximum strength.”

So then why are these formulas so expensive? With 24% of US vitamin and supplement sales occurring online, as per Nielsen’s 2018 trend report on health and wellness, eye-catching packaging is more important than ever. Millennial-focused beauty supplements are designed to appeal to consumers’ desire for well-considered, shareable product design. But Instagram-worthy packaging comes at a (prohibitively high) price – Goopgenes is $95 for a one month supply. However, shelf appeal does not equal efficacy when it comes to supplements.

For this reason, Daya warns consumers against falling prey to glamorous packaging. For pioneering formulas that are way ahead of the ingestible beauty curve, he recommends products from the decidedly unglamorous supplement brand Life Extension ($15-45 for 30-day supply).

“The language beauty supplements use to hook us is the slipperiest of all slopes”

On top of this, as supplement buying trends continue to skew more in favour of the digital marketplace, consumers lose out on one-to-one health advice. Scrolling through pages of beautifully-packaged so-called “edible radiance” products, it’s easy to feel like you need them all, when in reality, you don’t.

“Health is a custom job,” says New York-based holistic nutritionist Daphne Javitch, who works with her clients to determine what is most effective for their unique bodies and lifestyles. When she does recommend supplements, she opts for formulas from vitamin brand MyKind Organics ($25-40 for 30-day supply).

The language beauty supplements use to hook us is the slipperiest of all slopes. It’s how we’re sold products and how we build expectations for their effects. It’s also what makes us feel cheated if we don’t think a product has lived up to its claims or hype. In an effort to offset this – while also adhering to FDA standards – the ingestible beauty industry trafficks in the art of intangible claims. They weave us a yarn, suggesting vague outcomes that just so happen to defy measurement. I’ll never really know if a supplement powder is expanding my beauty, lustre, or glow from within, and that’s kind of the point.

The problem with ingestible beauty products is that they all promise some version of the mythical wellness panacea. Where vitamins were once seen as extras, ingestible beauty products are sold to consumers as a prerequisite for achieving “inner beauty.” Vitamins lead with ingredients. Beauty supplements lead with promises that cash in on our insecurities.

If you’re looking to experiment with beauty supplementation (but don’t want the high price tag or problematic claims), vitamin brands like Life Extension and MyKind Organics both make their own versions of the nutrient formulas mentioned above. The bottles are much less sexy, but that doesn’t need to be the point.