Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nutricosmetics, Part I

Tastes like berries! May or may not do jack shit for your skin, but efficacy is hardly the point.

I was 15 the first time I tried what’s now known as nutricosmetics. I read in some magazine that it was prenatal vitamins, not being great with child, that gave pregnant women their famous “glow,” and that the glow was easily obtained by taking prenatal supplements. I bought a bottle, and despite taking the pills faithfully, my hair didn’t suddenly start growing in glossy and lustrous, my nails didn’t sprout more quickly, and while I probably was aglow, what 15-year-old girl in reasonably good health isn’t? Just about the only change I noticed was the classic B-vitamin effect (i.e. neon pee).

I could tell the vitamins hadn’t really done much, so I didn’t buy them again--until college, and then again in my early 20s. It’s the same reason I sometimes buy boxes of “Skin Detox” from Yogi Tea, and used to apply a vitamin C cream under my eyes until I finally admitted it really wasn’t doing anything: I wanted them to work. And hey, if the whole idea is that it’s hope in a jar anyway, then maybe my wanting them to work would be enough. It’s like my beauty editor pal said: “It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology… If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant.” I can get all huffy about some anti-aging snake oils, but vitamins and teas? Yeah, I’ll play.

For once, I was ahead of the curve. Once relegated to “the dusty aisles of health food stores” (the kind that smelled like carob nut clusters, not the kind that smelled like, say, lemongrass-freesia candles and California Baby Wash), nutricosmetics, or nutriceuticals, are expected to grow 6% a year to reach $8.5 billion by 2015, the New York Times reports. Nutricosmetics are foods, drinks, or supplements meant to enhance beauty, usually the skin. (Some consider skin creams containing nutrients purported to aid beauty, like vitamin C cream, to be a nutricosmetic; others loosely apply it to novelty cosmetics meant to be eaten with no ill effects, like a godawful brown sugar-honey lip scrub I got at a beauty sale. I’m using it here to mean ingestibles meant to enhance beauty.) You can find Borba “Skin Balance Waters” in delis; dermatologist Dr. Perricone peddles his “Skin Clear” supplements at Sephora; Balance’s Nimble bar, designed “specifically for women” (because our skin is different?), was at the checkout the last time I went to Duane Reade.

I’m curious about nutricosmetics, and suspicious of them too. In the coming days I’ll be talking more about my larger hesitations about them, but for now I’d just like to look at how we created a market for them, and why it happened now instead of during the 1970s vitamin boom. Nutricosmetics have been around in other countries for a while now; the Times article touches upon their role in China, where supplemention has long been a part of regular health care. (And the first time I saw a drink purported to aid with beauty, it was in the Czech Republic. The drink was sugary, which seemed to defeat the purpose, but perhaps it was easier for me to dismiss its claims because I couldn’t make out much of the labeling on the bottle. Funnily enough, “Beauty Water” was in English.) I think there’s a market for them now because of the ways we segment information, particularly health information, and particularly health information for women.

Pretty much any women’s magazine will repeatedly and explicitly state that simply eating right and exercising is good for you and that the particulars of it are up to you, and they’re absolutely correct. But that larger message gets lost in the drive for microinformation that fills every inch of space in ladymags: runners at the bottom of the page about what this vitamin can do, starbusts of information on health pages about the benefits of everything from beet juice to gingko biloba. Microinformation has gotten more plentiful due to the web (duh) but also publishing advances that make it easier to make information more graphic--easier to digest, but also with less room for exploring complexities.

Here’s how microinformation gets onto the page: Let’s say a journal publishes a piece about the effect of lutein on skin elasticity. An editor would find the study and pitch it to her boss to be included in an upcoming issue as one of the short information busts (like those one-sentence “didja know?!” brightly colored circles you see all over ladymags). They decide to run it, and the magazine’s research team verifies the information for factual accuracy, usually just reading the study but possibly talking to the people who conducted the study. It’s factually correct, and the information burst runs as, say, “Lutein increases skin elasticity! Be sure to eat your turnip greens.” It’s correct--lutein does increase skin elasticity, and turnip greens contain a lot of lutein--so the magazine has done its job.

It’s not really that simple, though. Consumer magazines are meticulous about fact-checking, and most fact-checkers I know are good at their work and care about making sure they don’t let bad facts slip through. So it’s not that anyone’s negligent; it’s more that fact-checking too often serves the purpose of making sure things aren’t wrong, not making sure they’re right. A study might say that lutein is good for skin elasticity but also note that most adults get plenty of lutein with relatively little effort through their diet, or note that the study was done on people who were lutein-deficient and that the effects don’t increase once you’ve met the relatively low recommended daily allowance. Or maybe it increased skin elasticity by 2%, or maybe the study involved 12 people, all of whom were white women over 50. Or maybe the study was just a bad study, in a way that wouldn’t be clear to a diligent but overworked fact-checker with an English degree, not a medical one. Or, more likely, the fact-checker points out all of the above, but there’s only room for 15 words in 18-point font with the wraparound on the graphic element, and art can’t give us more room on the page, and you’re running at deadline and the information isn’t wrong, it’s just not as holistically accurate as it could be, so let’s just take one for lutein, okay? What’s the harm?

And there isn’t any major harm, of course. But our hoarding of nutrition microinformation takes away from the larger point, which is that if you have a balanced diet you won’t have to be chowing down turnip greens because you’ll organically be getting your RDA of lutein, and you won’t have to worry about what nutrients will make your skin elastic because you’re getting what your body needs just by being sensible. More to the point here, it creates a market for things like the Nimble bar, because oh hey it’s got lutein and didn’t I read somewhere that would make my skin more elastic?

The more we segment information, the more we segment ourselves and our buying choices. Now, I don’t think nutricosmetics are abhorrent (probably the worst thing about the Nimble bar is that it tastes like chalk). But when I stop and think about how we’ve dug our own hole here through our constant intake of microinformation, I get uneasy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nutricosmetics have only really caught fire in the States in the past couple of years, despite Americans’ love affair with pills, which is nearly matched by our love affair with easily digested health informationCouple our love of health information with the quest for beauty, and you’ve got a market waiting to happen. There is no new way to become more beautiful; it’s all variations of the stuff that’s been around forever, e.g. painting your face, getting a little exercise, styling your hair, and trying to make the most of what you have. Creating niches of service-oriented information can be helpful, but it also leads the march toward creating niche markets. Lutein, iron, and beta carotene aren’t new; they’re just being packaged as new and branded with a hyperinformed consumer in mind. Without niche information as provided in mainstream women’s media, the Nimble bar wouldn’t exist.

“Slow living” might be a fad, but we’re still American, forever looking for shortcuts to something that takes real time, real effort, or real skill. Nutricosmetics don’t give us anything we don’t get in a well-balanced diet, and that’s one reason to question the sudden market for them--but it’s not the most important one. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at some of the larger ideas behind nutricosmetics, as well as nutrition-based beauty regimes that might fall into the “slow living” category. In the meantime, tell me: Have you bought nutricosmetics? Do you take any supplements with your looks in mind? I’ve already copped to my “Skin Detox” tea, and I’ll also admit that a major motivation for taking my omega-3 oil and eating lots of salmon is because I notice a difference in my skin when I’m diligent about it. What about you?


  1. I bought those Skin, Hair and Nails vitamins (mostly biotin, I believe?) because I have really weak nails. I haven't taken them diligently and I haven't seen a difference, but I still hold onto the hope that one day I could have nails like diamonds!

  2. I hardly do any more. I take a general catch all multivitamin 'just in case' to make sure I'm not missing anything, and I guess strong (or at least not weak) hair and nails are part of my motivation. The vitamins do make me ill when taken on an empty stomach, so when they run out I won't replace them. I don't see any difference between periods when I take them every day and when I don't take them at all, but it's that just in case thing,

    I used to be much more into that stuff when I was a teenager, but became much more sceptical after a dermatologist told me that my acne was completely unrelated to food and all to do with hormones. And it's true, I went on the pill, it pretty much disappeared, I came off the pill, it's back within a couple of months. No change in diet.

  3. I believe, especially in the long run, that we are what we eat. While I think most of the nutricosmetics are pointless, being careful abt your diet and taking things like fish oil and avoiding things like sugar are definitely a good idea. People need to be more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, that way they wont fall for things like the nimble bar.

  4. I've never bought nutricosmetics--I focus primarily on making sure I wear SPF and get enough moisture and that's about it. I love this post because you hit the nail on the head about journalists and fact checkers. They try to do a good job and ensure that facts are correct, but the other thing that bothers me about all the hype is the way the news and magazines tend to focus very specifically on one nutrient or mineral or food at a time, as opposed to how everything works together.

    BTW, I just found your blog in December, and I think it's terrific!

  5. Miya, I've always wondered about those--I feel like hair/nails would be more easily measured because you can tell if your nails are brittle or not, but it could be the sort of thing where there's "progress" in the lab but not, you know, in real life...

    Franca, one of the great shockers to me was that diet doesn't really affect acne (for most people). I certainly notice a difference in my skin when I'm eating well *in general* versus eating poorly, but the whole thing about French fries or chocolate causing acne? Ugh.

    Bella, absolutely. I find myself hedging sometimes even on the idea of "you are what you eat": I think it's true, but I also think that leads to making food moral, which is what I'll be exploring later this week. But absolutely, doing the diet basics is just good sense!

    Eveningreader, pleased to meet you! Glad you enjoy The Beheld. And yep--it's the lack of holistic information that's really the damage here. The information is always correct but never accurate, if that makes sense.

  6. I started taking biotin for brittle nails about 6 months ago because a manicurist recommended it to me, and I have definitely noticed my nails being stronger and less likely to split since then. But hey, in the last 6 months I've also moved into a new apartment, acquired a puppy, gained about 10 pounds, and exercised less than I had been before. Who's to say my stronger nails can't be attributed to any (or a combination) of those factors?

  7. At one time I would buy the tea that was titles "clear skin" in order to enhance my skin tone and clear up my acne. I think it was a more of a mental thing that any actual benefit. In order to see results I think you would have to take high dosages. I don't rely on nutricosmetics. I think it is more of "hope in a bottle" as you might say.

  8. I've been taking prenatal vitamins daily for several years, and I think I'm doing it (a) to make up for an unhealthy diet and (b) for stronger hair and nails. If it wasn't for the purported cosmetic effects, I'd probably still take a multivitamin supplement, but it wouldn't be a prenatal vitamin.

    I think the two motivations are more related than we generally imagine though. Here's what I mean: I'm not really taking a multivitamin because my diet is unhealthy; if my recent physical is any indicator, my diet is just fine. I'm taking it because I BELIEVE my diet is unhealthy, regardless of what my blood test results say. I sometimes skip breakfast, I often eat "meal replacement" bars for lunch, I occasionally binge on sweets, etc. I've been taught -- conditioned, really -- that all of these things are terrible for me, and that conditioning is much more powerful than the actual evidence of my cholesterol numbers, vitamin levels, etc.

    ...which is no different, really, from my belief that prenatal vitamins can make me prettier, even though my hair doesn't seem any stronger or thicker and no one else I've ever met has ever actually experienced these positive effects.

    So why do I continue to take them? One nagging doubt surfaces with only a little bit of casual introspection: "What if the actual effect they're having is simply to keep things from getting worse than they already are?"

  9. I am sure I tried nearly every nutricosmetic I could afford when I was younger. I tried the Detox Tea and the skin vitamins and all that crap. Who knows if it was working since I was also drinking like a frat boy, eating crap food, and getting little to no sleep at that point in my life.

    You say you notice a difference in your skin from Salmon and Omega-3...so then it's working...right? Would you consider salmon a nutricosmetic, though? I wouldn't. I am a firm believer in the power of food being medicine.

    And I do break out when I eat too much sugar or stray too far from my norm.

    Love this! Looking forward to pt. 2!

  10. Anne, that's exactly the kind of holistic thinking that is often missing from this sort of segmented information. Even if you hadn't had those life changes, just deciding to take a nutricosmetic means attention is being paid--so there's partly the placebo effect, and then there's also probably partly other smaller changes that we implement when we pay attention to our health that we don't even realize we're making. In any case, glad your nails are doing better! Wearing nail polish makes mine brittle, and I didn't have a breakage problem before I started painting them regularly. O the price we pay!

    Kourtney, at one point I was drinking probably a quart of that Yogi "Skin Detox" tea a day, ha! And the placebo effect is very real.

    DeeDee, excellent point about the gap between what we THINK our diets give us and what our diets actually give us. When I started seeing a nutritionist I was shocked when she told me I was taking in about half the amount of calories I thought I was (no wonder I was binging--girl was HUNGRY), because my portion control was out of control. And I think there's a logical extension to nutrients and what we believe we need. I'm hardly at risk for kwashiorkor but damn if I'm not obsessive about getting my protein, in part because of the skin/hair/nails thing.

    Cameo, heh, that's part of why I slowed down on the skin tea--at that point I wasn't sleeping enough and was trying to get a tan, which certainly was far worse for my skin than not drinking my little Yogi Tea, ha! But yes, I do think that the omega-3s make a difference. I don't consider food a nutricosmetic, not exactly, but I feel like the segmenting of nutrition information leads women to treat foods in this manner. I'm still working out my thoughts on this--it's complicated, for reasons that you touch on often in your own writing. How can we draw the line between what's just good for us and what we're doing to try to manipulate our bodies in a destructive manner? Is the line an individual one? Is eating with beauty in mind any different than eating with thinness in mind?

  11. "How can we draw the line between what's just good for us and what we're doing to try to manipulate our bodies in a destructive manner? Is the line an individual one? Is eating with beauty in mind any different than eating with thinness in mind?"
    That's something I've been thinking about a lot lately- both in my eating and exercising. For the first time in my life, I've been exercising with other goals in mind besides looking better (rock climbing is great for that because the goals are so tangible- just getting to the top!), but it's still hard to keep out the thought of how it's going to affect my appearance. I think it is very much an individual line.
    I'm not sure if eating with beauty in mind is different that eating with thinness in mind (especially because "beauty" and "thinness" are so often conflated in our society).

  12. Vitamins/supplements have never made a difference that I can see in my skin/general health. But...I have seen huge changes eating more whole foods and getting rid of dairy and gluten. Dairy especially. My skin is definitely better, I don't get bloated anymore, and even my nails are harder and smoother.

  13. Anne, that line...man, it's a hard one. It's hard to know when we're being healthy or trying to feel and look our best, and when we're tiptoeing into obsession or even just preoccupation. I feel like it varies from person to person, and even from day to day. It's easier for me to find an example with sort of the flipside, overeating: Sometimes I'm stressed out and want a brownie, and I have it, and no big deal. Other times I feel like I might suffocate if I don't have that brownie, you know? It's the same thing for the same person, but the circumstances shift and make it an entirely different scenario. Ah, well, we soldier on. And I love the rock climbing goal!

    Janet, diet definitely has a role in how we look, and those two things in particular are things that if you're sensitive to them, it can easily show on your face and body. I don't have a sensitivity to dairy or gluten, but I remember a friend of mine who looked WAY different (better) after discovering her lactose intolerance--no more undereye circles, pale pallor, bloating, etc. Glad it's worked for you!

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