26 April 2011

Nutricosmetics & ageing: the truth

Nowadays, cosmetic labels read like menus, with skin creams containing anything from vitamin C to zinc to beta-carotene. But can these compounds really prevent skin ageing?


Last night Carte Blanche Medical highlighted anti-ageing foods. Watch the video here.

In the modern age, youth is everything. Most women and many men would sacrifice a great deal to sip from that elusive "Fountain of Youth".

Many new facets of healthcare are concentrating on anti-ageing therapies and treatments. Dermatology is probably one of the most active fields of medicine when it comes to trying new and innovative approaches to anti-ageing.

Because many foods are believed to have youth-promoting effects, it was inevitable that the possible link between diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, and maintaining a youthful, glowing skin devoid of lines and wrinkles, would be explored.

Nowadays, cosmetic labels read like menus, with skin cream A containing vitamin C, zinc and beta-carotene, while lotion B boasts extracts of soya and other powerful antioxidants.

The question that arises is if these oral and topical antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and plant extracts can actually improve the appearance of the skin and prevent signs of ageing like wrinkles, crow's feet and discolouration (age spots).

Beauty from within

A fascinating article by Dr Zoe Draelos (2009) addresses this question.

"The latest trend in skin care is the use of diet and oral supplements that will benefit the appearance of a person's skin," Dr Draelos points out. She goes on to say that this new movement in dermatology is called the "inside out" approach: food supplements are taken by mouth, and creams or lotions containing nutrients are applied to the skin, to provide a combined, enhanced effect to prevent ageing.

Dr Draelos emphasises that the idea of an "inside out" approach to beauty and anti-ageing is highly attractive to consumers because foods are regarded as safe, while the raw materials used to add nutrients to skin-care products are inexpensive.

This concept is so popular that a new product category, called "nutricosmetics", has been created.

No wonder the latest skin-care ads sound like gourmet menus. I'm never quite sure if these products should be applied to my face or served on a slice of low-GI bread!

Why antioxidants are so popular in skin care

Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, minerals like zinc and selenium, and phytonutrients such as beta-carotene and flavonoids, top the list when it comes to skin-cream formulations.

The reason for this is that the major cause of skin ageing is oxidation of the structures in the skin by so-called highly reactive oxygen molecules. As Dr Draelos says, "It's amazing to think that the life-giving oxygen required to survive is also the same oxygen responsible for ageing the human body."

It's therefore not surprising that antioxidants are increasingly being added to skin products, and prescribed as oral supplements, in an effort to halt the onslaught of oxygen and time.

Lack of concrete evidence

Despite the seductive promises that product Y with coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) will plump up your skin and make wrinkles disappear, not much well-controlled scientific evidence to show that any of these oral and/or topical nutricosmetics will actually make any real difference to your appearance, is available.

Dr Draelos has reviewed the evidence of research studies that investigated the use of such antioxidants and nutricosmetics. Her findings can be summarised as follows:

  • Oral supplementation with CoQ10 didn't have any anti-ageing effects in mice. However, topical applications of CoQ10 did reduce oxidation in the upper layers of the skin.
  • When human subjects were given 50mg each of vitamin C, CoQ10 and selenium for 15 and 30 days, an increase in the CoQ10 content in one of the layers of the skin called the stratum corneum was observed.
  • Soybean flavonoids (genistein and daidzein) act as phyto-oestrogens when we ingest them. Application of oestrogens to the skin increased skin thickness and improved collagen synthesis, but no clinical trials have been published that support the theory that soybean flavonoids with their oestrogen-like properties will give the same results as oestrogen creams.
  • Curcurmin, which is derived from the turmeric ("borrie") plant, has been used for thousands of years to flavour food and is popular in South African dishes such as curries and yellow rice ("geel rys"). As a powerful antioxidant and flavonoid, a derivative of curcurmin is also being added to cosmetics, but so far few studies have been conducted with this compound.
  • Silymarin, or extract of milk thistle, contains three flavonoids that have strong antioxidant properties. The antioxidant properties of silymarin have been demonstrated in experimental mice, where a 92% reduction in skin tumours was found after the mice had been exposed to UVB. Other studies with animals have also shown that milk-thistle extract can have healing properties.
  • Silymarin is a popular additive in moisturisers to prevent ageing due to sun exposure and to reduce redness of the facial skin. One study with 46 subjects suffering from a condition called rosacea, which is characterised by reddening of the skin (especially of the face), showed that products containing milk-thistle extract reduce skin redness, itching and skin colour.
  • Ginkgo biloba is a favourite antioxidant that is used both orally and topically, and which is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties. Some research indicates that extract of gingko may promote growth of skin fibroblasts and increased collagen in the skin. Consequently, many skin-care products use gingko extract for its purported antioxidant characteristics and to improve collagen synthesis.


At this point in time, not enough research has been done to warrant the wide-spread use of nutrients in oral supplements and cosmetics to prevent skin ageing. Experiments with animals can point the way towards possible uses, but until large, well-controlled and scientifically credible studies with human subjects over longer periods have produced more relevant results, the use of nutricosmetics both orally and topically is still inconclusive.

The basis of good health is a balanced diet rich in protective nutrients, including antioxidants. So, if you want a glowing skin without wrinkles, eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole, unprocessed or minimally processed grains and cereals, plenty of calcium-rich milk and dairy products, lean meat, fish, eggs and legumes, plus moderate quantities of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils.

A balanced diet will not only supply you with the nutrients singled out for addition to nutricosmetics, but will also provide you with still unknown compounds that may keep you looking young. Good genes, wearing a hat, using sun screen with a high protection factor, and avoiding excessive sun exposure will also make a difference.

(Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

(Draelos, Z.D. (2009) Beauty from Within. updates/beauty_from_within.html)

Read more:
Anti-ageing on a plate
Eating for beauty


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.