Beauty from within: Do skincare pills work?

Nutricosmetics are big business but it’s important to know the difference between marketing and science, says Margaret Jennings.
Beauty from within: Do skincare pills work?

WE have been chasing the so-called fountain of youth since time began.

Alas, there is no magic potion or lotion that can turn back the clock on our ageing faces, but that hasn’t stopped us plumping up the coffers of the mega multinational skincare industry.

Even throughout the Irish economic downturn, we didn’t stop investing in our skin care, according to the market research company, Euromonitor International.

And the most recent figures for Ireland show a further 2% hike in sales to €144 million, in 2015.

What is relatively new is the big sell around the promotion of nutricosmetics, digestible beauty products, which claim to offer that radiance and hydration, from within, rather than without.

Since we have long bought into taking vitamin enriched dietary supplements to prevent ill health, it’s not a major leap to trust that popping capsules daily, might keep our wrinkles at bay.

An increased per capita spending in Europe on anti-ageing products is helping drive demand for supplements based on collagen and peptides, hyaluronic acid, phytosterols, carotenoid, fruit/plant extracts, and vitamins according to a report carried out by Global Industry Analysts Inc, which provides a comprehensive review of market trends.

The report claims two of the main drivers behind the nutricosmetics surge are our desire to fight signs of ageing and an increasing emphasis on less invasive treatments.

With a growing band of younger consumers into staying fit, eating well and believing in — as the brand makers put it — Beauty From Within (BFW), then pills, powders or liquids offering extra ‘beauty insurance’ is a seductive promise.

At the other end of the demographic spectrum, we are living longer and searching for the best way to do so.

From the BFW perspective, naturopathic doctor and skincare specialist, Dr Nigma Talib says: “We don’t really have a choice; we are all going to age. But the key is to age gracefully and not prematurely — to keep your health to optimal levels with diet and supplements.

“The new old is when you see that really Botoxed face, where a person has no expression and looks like everybody else. The new young is having that fabulous skin — just glowing — and not pigmented and all that can be achieved through diet and lifestyle.”

Those of us seeking that BFW natural “radiance” are prime candidates for the nutricosmetic market, which by the way, is projected to be worth €7bn globally by 2020.

Arguably taking a supplement that’s promoting good health should benefit our skin anyway, so why pay more for one that claims added beauty benefits?

It’s a confusing and competitive market.

On her nutrition website, for instance, model Rosanna Davison and author of the book Eat Yourself Fit, suggests using Nordic Naturels Algae Omega 3 capsules which she says keeps “your skin soft, smooth and plump”.

It features under a heading “My Top Five Skin Saviours”.

But the manufacturers themselves make no such claim, listing instead their benefits as supporting “normal vision, heart health, positive mood and immunity”.

How can we decide whether the beauty payoff linked to a nutricosmetic is significantly different to an ordinary food supplement promoting preventative health?

Celebrity endorsements help big time of course, in enticing us to try a product.

For instance the nutricosmetic Viviscal, a hair growth tablet which has increased sales by 120% in Ireland over the past five years, has been endorsed by model Pippa O’Connor and rugby coach Ronan O’Gara.

Another first generation nutricosmetic, Imedeen, tablets sold here for the past 25 years, which are marketed with the claim to “nourish the deep layer of skin untouched by traditional creams and lotions”, recruited model Roz Purcell as the Irish face of the product last year.

“Virtually every patient I see nowadays is taking some vitamin or mineral of all varieties,” says consultant dermatologist, Rosemary Coleman, from the Blackrock clinic in Dublin.

“Previously available products contained natural collagen which is a very large molecule and couldn’t just get absorbed and end up in your skin. The newer generation of natural food supplements claim to provide a ‘soup’ of all the necessary ingredients, for building blocks of collagen and connective tissues.”

Coleman uses two products herself, Viviscal and Dermacoll, a drink which she takes at bedtime “to boost collagen and elastin metabolism and tissue hydration, while simultaneously reducing free radical damage with anti-oxidants”.

The dermatologist says she has researched these products in detail. One of the biggest selling points for Viviscal, for instance, is that it markets its proven results “backed by nine separate clinical trials”.

Not all nutricosmetics and their clinical trials hold such solid ground, however.

A scientific study needs just two people to call itself that. And claims can be made around the effects of absorption of ingredients in studies carried out in vitro (a lab) which can be irrelevant in terms of their effects in vivo (on actual humans).

The science behind a nutriscosmetic is important, because how else are we going to be convinced?

We can’t actually see the internal transformation created by a capsule which claims to alter the process of cell formation from within.

One person who echoes those doubts is dietician Paula Mee.

“Many quick-fix nutricosmetics completely ignore the complexity of real nutrition. The idea that a nutricosmetic is as good as, or superior to, fresh food and a good pattern of eating is a stretch too far.

“The pivotal question is, where is the evidence the product works? Can the company substantiate the claims? I’m talking about robust methodical clinical testing. Hyperbole from small and poorly controlled studies doesn’t count.”

Nutricosmetics fall under the regulatory body the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) because they are classified as a dietary food supplement which contains a natural compound element (and doesn’t pose any danger to the consumer ) and not a drug (which can have side-effects).

Many nutricosmetics are marketed around antioxidants, molecules that fight cell damage and around hyaluronic acid (HA) which keeps the skin hydrated.

In other words, their active ingredients which we are told will keep our skin healthier, more hydrated, more elasticated — looking younger — will do us no harm.

This is the case with most dietary food supplements which claim to provide a health function beyond basic nutrition.

But how do we know that the products do what they say?

“There are an awful lot of products on the market that say they do A to Z and in fact they don’t. There is no substantiation and credibility to them.

"And unfortunately the FSAI and every other regulatory bodies are hugely under resourced and they don’t have the manpower or the time to pull products off the shelf,” says Mullingar-based Roz Martin, founder and CEO of Martin Biotech.

Martin, who introduced a nutricosmetic called MedColl on the market three years ago and is carrying out clinical studies on it with UCD, says that claims around one of the heavyweight ingredients in nutricosmetics — hydrolysed collagen — don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Collagen is a natural protein that is the underlying structure of our skin, keeping it smooth, firm and “youthful” but we begin to lose it at the age of 27.

Most nutricosmetics list hydrolysed collagen or marine proteins as one of the big players in altering our skin internally at a cellular level.

The marketing argument is that by digesting collagen we deliver extra supplies via the bloodstream to our underlying skin structure, where fibroblasts, our collagen-making cells (which work less effectively as we age) get that extra boost.

With many years background in the food science and pharmaceutical industry behind her and currently doing a PhD in collagen, Martin says many consumers falsely believe that if they swallow collagen it will transform the structure of their skin from within.

First of all, she argues, it’s not collagen — it’s gelatine, the leftover substance that flows to the top from boiled animal and fish body parts.

“Gelatine is used a lot in the food industry because it’s the best emulsifier — it binds fats and water. The beauty industry got hold of it and called it collagen — and that’s the marketing myth unfortunately. Collagen is your tissue — you can’t drink someone’s tissue.

“If you take collagen through drinking, eating, pill or powder form, it goes into the stomach and it’s used as a protein just like meat or fish, and the stomach will release enzymes in the juices to break down that protein and excrete it.

“Your body will only absorb what it needs. This is a known fact. The rest is peed off because it is surplus to requirement.”

Martin says she has distanced her product from those claims, by having a collagen-free supplement.

Instead her unique selling point is that MedColl has collagen “precursors” in its ingredients list.

“There is only one way collagen can be made —when it is secreted through those fibroblasts. In basic terms we don’t put collagen into your body; we help your body make its own, by giving those fibroblasts the building blocks to secrete more collagen.”

Paula Mee agrees the benefits of collagen-digesting is a myth: “To be honest, just because you can digest something doesn’t automatically mean your body will be incentivised to produce more collagen. Why or how, would it kickstart more production? Personally I think it’s unlikely to be effective.”

Those doubts are unlikely to stop the market for nutricosmetics from soaring, however.

If there’s just a tiny chance that a harmless capsule or drink might keep you looking more youthful and radiant, then what’s to lose? Nothing, it would seem, except your hard-earned cash.

Feed your face

Aside from living an overall healthy lifestyle, you can learn how the nutrients in the foods you eat affect your skin, hair and nails by following the tips given here by dietitian Paula Mee:


Contributes to maintenance of normal hair and normal skin.

Found in: liver; yeast extract; nuts; brown rice; eggs; dairy produce; dried fruit; avocado; bananas.


Contributes to normal hair and skin pigmentation.

Found in: shellfish; wholegrains; beans; peas; nuts; organ meats; cocoa; yeast; potatoes; dried fruits; mushrooms.


Contributes to the maintenance of normal skin.

Found in: mushrooms; onions; tomatoes; strawberries; bananas; dairy produce.


Contributes to the maintenance of normal skin.

Found in: wholegrains; dairy; eggs; lean meat; pulses; nuts; green veg; potatoes; dried fruit.


Contributes to the maintenance of normal hair and nails.

Found in: Brazil nuts; seafood; sunflower seeds; dried fruit; mushrooms; onions.


Contributes to the maintenance of normal skin.

Found in: carrots; sweet potato; red peppers; spinach; butternut squash; watercress; apricots;

mangoes; cantaloupe melon.


Contributes to normal collagen formation for normal function of gums, teeth and skin.

Found in: red peppers; strawberries; papaya; kiwi; oranges; blackcurrants; curly kale; Brussels sprouts; broccoli.


Contributes to protection of cells from oxidative stress.

Found in: avocado; blackberries; sweet potato; tomatoes; rapeseed and olive oil; nuts and seeds.


Contributes to maintenance of normal hair.

Contributes to maintenance of normal nails and skin.

Found in: seafood; lean red meat; chicken; eggs; nuts; dried fruit.

Paula Mee has co-authored two books, Your Middle Years: A book for the Menopause Years and Beyond, which was published last year and Gut Feeling, which is published today.

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