Coffee and tea has become the key to a great day. Majority of us start our day with either a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Recently there has been a surge in the availability of caffeine based skin and hair care products. There are caffeine based eye creams, coffee scrubs, serums and the lists goes on.
So is there a logical scientific explanation to this trend or is it just false advertising exploiting consumers using the magic term “natural ingredient” for your skin and hair?
I have just completed a three year course in dermatology and I never read or studied these active ingredients during my tenure as a junior resident. This is because we have a huge syllabus to cover most of which are related to medical conditions and we are less focussed on less studied ingredients used in skin care. So when patients asks me their opinion on these caffeine or tea based products, I was not 100% sure if there is actual scientific evidence to back up the claims of these products.
What I found from digging around for studies on caffeine and its role in our skin
Lets take a look at the science behind caffeine based skin care products
Animal studies has shown that caffeine (coffee) consumption was associated with decrease risk of skin cancers (melanomas, basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas). Human studies have also confirmed this negative association. People who consume >3 cups of coffee/ day have decrease risk of skin cancers. Caffeine present in tea, chocolates also reduced the risk of skin cancers. Decaffeinated coffee was not found to have similar negative association which means caffeine in coffee is the important active ingredient that could prevent skin malignancies.
As great as the the results look, merely increasing coffee consumption does not guarantee an absolute protection from skin cancers. Sun protection is still the first line defence against any skin malignancies.
Are topical applications of caffeine based products beneficial to our skin?
For any active ingredient to work when applied topically, the agent has to be able to penetrate the skin barrier. Laboratory studies both in mice and human skin have show that caffeine can effectively penetrate the skin if formulated in an aqueous base or as microspheres. So, if the caffeine based creams, scrubs etc are well formulated, topical application of about 3-5% caffeine can be beneficial to our skin.
Cellulite also referred to the “orange peel” appearance of the skin which is due to abnormal localised deposition of fat cells which bulge into the dermis (middle layer of skin) and is seen in the buttocks and thighs of mostly females.
Few studies using animal model to study the effectiveness of caffeine for cellulite, showed that daily caffeine gel application combined with ultrasound improved the appearance of the orange peel skin.
Caffeine gels, creams, scrubs can temporarily help improve the appearance of cellulite by increasing fat breakdown (lipolysis) and improves blood circulation in the skin.
Caffeine acts as a stimulant, thats why most of us (including me) need a cup of coffee to start the day. Caffeine improves microcirculation (blood flow) in the skin. As the main reason for dark circles is due to increase fragility of the blood vessels in the skin below the eyes which when they break cause haemoglobin to leak into the skin and breaks down forming a pigment. Another important reason for dark circles is poor circulation (blood flow) which results in pooling of deoxygenated blood under the skin giving the area a bluish purplish appearance (note- oxygenated blood is red while deoxygenated blood is bluish in colour). Topical application of caffeine to the under eyes can improve blood flow and help deliver oxygenated blood to the area which makes the skin look more fresh, hydrated, more elastic with less dark circles.
Caffeine also help in the proper lymph drainage in the skin, therefore can reduce collection of tissue fluid in the area as well, thereby helps reduce puffy eyes.
So theoretically caffeine is a great ingredient for tackling dark circle and puffy eyes. But in reality, this is far from true. Studies using human patients did not show significant improvement in the appearance of dark circles. This could be explained by understanding that the reasons behind dark circles are multifactorial, with genetics,stress and facial bone structure also attributing to the cause and caffeine by itself cannot completely reverse the condition.
With that said, caffeine based skin products can help improve the appearance of dark circles and puffy eyes in certain individuals and its important to remember that the results are not permanent.
Multiple laboratory studies on mice skin have shown that both oral intake and topical application of coffee enhances the apoptosis (death) of UV induced mutated cells which would otherwise divide and cause skin cancers. Therefore if caffeine is incorporated in sunscreens it can provide additional sun protection benefits. Thus stemmed the marketing strategies of “caffeinated sunscreens”.
However detailed well controlled human studies to test this theory is not available yet. A study using 12 human volunteers to test the benefits of addition of caffeine to sunscreens showed that 2.5% caffeinated sunscreens provided a higher spf value than a non caffeinated sunscreens.
Few sunscreens which also contain caffeine as one of the ingredients
Angrogenic alopecia (AGA) is a common cause of baldness especially in males. AGA is due to the increase sensitivity of the hair follicles in the scalp to a hormone called dihydrotestosterone-DHT (an active form of testosterone). DHT causes the hair to enter the telogen phase (resting phase) of the hair cycle which eventually causes the hair to become thin and fine and ultimately falls off.
How caffeine helps combat this hair loss?
- In vitro studies, have shown that caffeine inhibits the enzyme 5 alpha reductase which is responsible for converting the inactive testosterone to its active form DTH.
- As mentioned earlier, caffeine helps improve microcirculation in the skin. This means caffeine application can increase blood flow to the hair follicles which can then receive more nutrients required for hair growth.
Caffeine based hair products in today’s market
A study comparing the effectiveness of 0.2% caffeine liquid lotion to the standard FDA approved antihypertensive drug (drug for lowering blood pressure) – 5% Minoxidil solution in the treatment of androgenic alopecia showed that both were equally effective at the end of a 6 month observation period. This study highlighted the potential of caffeine for treating hair loss.
So would I personally recommend treating your hair loss with some coffee?
I would have to answer NO. I would not recommend caffeine as mono therapy for hair loss.
There are various types of hair loss, and the science behind caffeine for hair loss is stressed on a specific type of hair loss call Androgenetic alopecia (see the pictures above) and even for this condition, not many well controlled human studies are available yet to support the use of caffeine for hair loss. Though dermatologist also see and treat many hair issues, hair loss is one of the commonest reason why patients seek dermatologists consultations. Hair loss could be of various causes, and a proper evaluation about the potential etiology is necessary prior to the start of any treatment.
Many other well documented treatment options are available now for the treatment of hair loss such as Minoxidil lotions, Finasteride, Platelet rich plasma etc. Incorporating caffeine based shampoos could add as an adjunctive therapy to the above.
Take home message
Some of these studies make caffeine look like a star ingredient for your skin and hair. These hair and skin products are based on in vitro (laboratory tests done in well controlled environment which is far from the reality), and few animal studies and well designed human studies are still lacking. So keep this in mind when you buy these products in the market with these huge claims and promises such as “cure for your hair loss” etc.
Note that a certain % of caffeine is necessary to achieve the desired results mentioned above and this has to be formulated in a bases that enables the caffeine to penetrate into the skin. Therefore DIY coffee scrubs, creams may not beneficial to your skin or hair at all as the % of caffeine maybe too less or worst if its too much, unwanted side effects may occur.
In fact, scrubbing your skin with coffee may be too harsh on your skin especially if you have sensitive skin or are using various other active ingredients such as retinoids, glycolic or salicyclic acid etc.