Looking Good -- From the Inside Out

The newest beauty buzz is vitamins for the skin, but do you really need them?

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Once upon a time there was your skin and cold cream. And that was pretty much it. Today, options are overwhelming -- with the number of available lotions, potions, and serums seeming to multiply almost daily.

But if, like many folks, you've still not found a dream cream to smooth that wrinkled brow or firm those jiggly jowls then you might be ready for the latest boom in beauty care -- treating your skin from the inside out. Experts call them "nutraceuticals," a rapidly expanding group of vitamins, minerals, and other natural ingredients that you take internally to change the way you look on the outside.

"In many ways, you can accomplish a lot more with supplements than you can with creams," says Zoe Diana Draelos, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Indeed, while topical products can help says Draelos, what you put on your face could never fully replace what is needed internally by your body to keep your skin healthy and looking great. And that's where supplements can play an important role.

"Creams cannot replace a faulty diet -- so if you are not consuming enough vitamin C, for example, there is no way you can achieve vitamin C levels systemically by putting creams on your skin," says Draelos.

While much of the buzz surrounding beauty nutrients was generated from the popularity of the skin care regimen of Nicholas Perricone, MD, who combines both topical and internal nutrients, it wasn't long before traditional skin care and cosmetic companies began to follow suit. This includes corporate beauty giants such as Olay, Avon, and L'Oreal -- all of whom now have a line of "boudoir packaged" supplements designed specifically to meet skin care needs. Traditional vitamin companies such as GNC are getting in on the trend as well, with many offering their own version of skin nutrients.

What Makes Beauty Vitamins Work

Common to many of these "beauty-vitamin" formulations is a powerful blend of antioxidants, including higher-than-average levels of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as other antioxidants such as lycopene -- the red plant pigment in tomatoes and other fruits, and pycnogenols. Not coincidentally, these are many of the same ingredients that have popped up in topical products during the last several years.

The most popular theory behind their use, say experts, involves the ability of antioxidants to beat down free radicals. These are unstable molecules that form from sun exposure, pollution, or sometimes even the foods we eat, and work to destroy collagen -- the fibers which form the basic support structure for our skin. When this breakdown does occur, the skin shows signs of premature aging -- including wrinkles, droops, and sags. Topical application of antioxidants is thought to block some of the free radical damage, and in this way preserve the integrity of our skin. But now experts say taking high levels internally can do even more.

"These formulations were developed to address specific skin problems -- and the effects go much deeper than just antioxidant protection," says Amy Newburger, MD, president of the Westchester Academy of Medicine in upstate New York and a spokeswoman for the Olay line of beauty nutrients.

As Newburger explains at least some of these nutrients are also directly involved with collagen production. So, she says, if a deficiency exists, taking daily supplements could keep collagen production going -- and our skin looking more youthful and ultimately, healthier.

At the same time, however, dermatologist Joyce Fox, MD, says it's highly unlikely that any Americans actually have a deficiency great enough to affect how their skin looks or acts. And that, says Fox, means that taking a beauty vitamin may be a waste of time and money.

"For example, keeping C levels adequate might ultimately kick back with effects on the skin -- but adding more C into the mix, over and above what you would take to correct a deficiency -- well the benefit of that has not yet been proven," says Fox, a dermatologist at the Cedar Sinai Medical Group and a clinical professor at the University of California.

In fact despite whatever claims the companies may make, they don't have to prove these supplements work, Fox says. "There really isn't any sound scientific evidence to show that they do work," she explains.

What Science Really Says About Beauty

While some anecdotal evidence has been accumulating to validate the effectiveness of beauty vitamins, to date most of the scientific research that manufacturers point to as proof is either laboratory or animal studies. Many studies involve diseases affecting other parts of the body and not the skin and almost none prove any direct effect of nutrients on skin, particularly if a deficiency is not documented.