Can we really supplement our way to better skin?

The way we look after our complexion is changing. Kelsey Ferencak explores why we’re no longer just relying on topical products like serums, lotions or creams but looking at what’s feeding us from the inside. 

The ingestible-beauty category got off to a slow start when The Beauty Chef founder Carla Oates put her bio-fermented powder out to market, with the philosophy that “beauty begins in the belly”. It seemed that consumers were unsure of how the purple powder could do anything for the appearance of their skin.

Fast forward just over 10 years and today you’d be hard pressed to find a skincare or wellness routine that doesn’t include some kind of supplemental booster in the form of nutraceuticals like functional foods, pills, powders, gummies and liquids.

From collagen to fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, adaptogens and probiotics, the list of complexion-enhancing elixirs are endless – and business is booming, with the global beauty-supplements market expected to be worth more than $9.7 billion by 2024.

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But the question remains: do they work?

Anecdotally yes, and the results speak for themselves. But some skin experts aren’t sold, arguing that there’s no need for any supplements if you’re eating a healthy, well-rounded diet.

“The evidence for helping your skin age well is mostly based around sun protection and having a nutritious diet,” says dermatologist Dr Rosemary Nixon, from the Skin Health Institute. “We have known since 2001 that vegetables, legumes and olive oil are protective against [sun] damage. She adds, “Antioxidants, vitamins, flavonoids and trace elements have all been reported to help skin appearance, but we still need more evidence and it’s a really difficult area to study.”

Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, of Clifton Hill Dermatology, agrees, “Humans have always regarded food as medicine. We know that consuming a well-balanced, wholesome diet works to promote health and prevent diseases. The bioavailability of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids is best utilised from whole foods. I certainly believe a healthy diet, with periods of intermittent fasting, adequate sleep, moderate exercise and not smoking has far-reaching benefits for skin health and anti-ageing,” she explains.

New research could change their minds

However, could promising research around the skin-gut connection, make them change their minds? “Research shows* that up to 34 per cent of people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] exhibit skin manifestations. It also shows that our gut health, as well as stress, can negatively impact the skin’s protective antimicrobial barrier and make skin conditions worse,” says Oates.

“In the same way our gut is in constant conversation with our brain, it has an intimate dialogue with our skin via the gut-skin axis,” she explains. “This pathway allows the gut and skin to interact with each other, mainly via the microbiome. Many skin conditions have similar symptoms to gut conditions, and the two are often closely linked and influenced by each other, so if our gut is out of balance, irritated or inflamed, our skin is one of the first places to exhibit symptoms.”

A note on probiotics and fermentation

The Beauty Chef products aim to nourish your body and microbiome with a range of skin-boosting ingredients from bioavailable and lacto-fermented foods. Oates explains that she works with microbiologists, and relies on science and research, to create and cultivate the brand’s own bacterial-fermentation processes. The goal is not only to have more control over probiotic outcomes, but also to put the company at the forefront of innovation. “We draw on the latest research into the bioactivity of fermented foods, prebiotics, probiotics, post-biotics and the microbiome.

We’re able to ferment probiotic bacteria to their peak concentrations, retain the bacterial metabolites [post-biotics] and use the enzymes produced by the bacteria to improve the digestibility and available nutrition of the wholefoods being fermented,” she explains.

But there’s vitamins and minerals, too

There’s also a growing body of research around in ingesting antioxidants, vitamins, hyaluronic acid and collagen to help improve skin, including signs of ageing. “We do have substantial evidence that the ingestion of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium, isoflavones, polyphenols, curcumin, lycopene, grape-seed extract and ellagic acid have been shown to protect skin against UV damage and consequent photo-ageing, by mopping up free radicals that degrade collagen,” says Dr Gunatheesan.

“Vitamin B3 has been clinically proven to reduce the immunosuppressive effects of UV radiation, boosting cellular energy and enhancing DNA repair,” she adds.

How to tell if they’re actually doing something:

As far as figuring out whether they’re working, if you can’t physically see the changes, Oates recommends doing some research. “Understanding ingredients, and what mix of medicinal herbs and superfoods are contained in each formulation, is a great indicator to correlate to efficacy. Keep a journal of your symptoms and results over the course of a few months to really assess the efficacy of the supplement, too,” she says.

Felicity Evans, the founder of Byron Bay-based ingestible-beauty brand Imbibe, also links back to gut health as an indicator of results. “Timeframes can vary and it’s impossible to put down an exact timeframe on health. If you have a highly damaged gut wall or severely pigmented skin, and there are years of neglect to mop up, you may only see physical changes after the internal repair has been done. I always say to go with your gut – if a product is working well for you and you can feel a difference that is your result.”

Adaptogens

Unique plants and herbs used in ancient healing remedies that work to help your body adapt to a variety of stressors. They’re said to have nourishing and calming effects on all aspects of the body – including hormones, immunity and adrenals, which in turn affect your skin.

Superfeast Beauty Blend ($61, at Nourished Life) and Orchard St Adapto Drops ($39, at Orchard Street)

Fatty acids

Omega-3, -6, -7 and -9 fatty acids work to help reduce and fight inflammation, so can be especially helpful for skin conditions. They’re also beneficial for skin hydration and nourishing the lipid barrier to protect skin from moisture loss and irritation.

Bear Repair ($60, at Bear) and Tonik Hemp Seed Oil Capsules, ($44.99 at Myer) or ($49, at Sephora)

Pre- and probiotics

Following research and the philosophy of the skin-gut connection, pre- and probiotics work to create the ideal environment for a healthy gut and digestion. “To heal the skin, it’s essential that you first heal the gut, fertilising it as you would a garden with essential nutrients and beneficial bacteria. More and more research supports the use of probiotics in the treatment of skin conditions, and these include species and strains from the genera of bifidobacterium, lactobacillus and streptococcus,” Oates explains.

Imbibe Beauty Renewal ($44, at Clean Beauty Market) and The Beauty Chef Glow Inner Beauty Essential ($65, at The Beauty Chef or Adore Beauty)

Collagen

The jury is still out, but the driving factor remains the same: collagen decreases as we age, which can lead to sagging skin, wrinkles, weak nails and dry, lacklustre hair. Collagen powders (most commonly made from hydrolysed animal proteins or fish scales) aim to support collagen production to improve firmness and elasticity.

Mukti Organics Bioactive Collagen Booster ($104.95, at Mukti Organics) and Toka Lab Superfood Collagen Elixir ($79.95, at Toka Lab)

Functional foods

Snacks, bars and protein powders are considered ‘functional foods’, as they’re categorised as foods that extend beyond their nutritional value. The latest batch of beauty boosters come in the form of bars, snack bites and even creamer, and are packed with ingredients like collagen, probiotics and adaptogens.

Dose & Co Collagen Creamer ($32, at Coles) and Krumbled Lemon Coconut Beauty Bites ($49 for 14 at Nourished Life)

*Al Roujayee A ‘Cutaneous Manifestations of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.’ Saudi Journal of Gastroenterology, (2007) 13:159-62.