After years of telling us to eat our fruits and vegetables, companies are increasingly suggesting that we also put produce on our faces. From apple eye cream to raspberry serum, skin-care products contain whole-food ingredients — along with claims that they reduce puffiness, erase redness or smooth wrinkles.
In theory, adding plant ingredients to creams and moisturizers makes sense, experts say. Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidant compounds that afford them natural protection from sun, pollution, smoking, insects and other damage — and if they work for plants, why not for us? But be warned: Products need to be formulated carefully to ensure that ingredients remain active and penetrate the skin. Often, a food item that seems promising in a test tube breaks apart when it hits the air or loses its benefits when mixed with other ingredients.
“The big issue is that a food may be great when taken by mouth,” says Leslie Baumann, a dermatologist, author and researcher in Miami, “but there are all sorts of reasons why that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great when you put it on topically.”
People have long placed cucumber slices on their eyes for relief or blended honey and eggs for homemade face masks. But companies have gone to another level. Here are a few ingredients worth seeking out and some you might want to stay away from. (Prices vary, depending on the source of the products.)
[Good product: Replenix Power of Three Serum, 1 ounce, $68]
Aging batters our skin with inflammation and damage to cells that occur as a result of natural bodily processes. Antioxidants can block some of those cell-damaging pathways and even repair damage, also known as oxidative stress. Green tea has emerged as one possible anti-aging weapon for the skin.
In mouse studies, green-tea derived antioxidants, known as phenols, inhibit tumor formation. On human skin, studies have shown that a green tea phenol called EGCG can fight the cancer-inducing stress of exposure to UV rays.
“Green tea extract can block collagen cross-linking and other negative things that happen to collagen once it is exposed to sunlight,” says Patricia Farris, a dermatologist at Tulane University in New Orleans. “These are all mediated through antioxidants, which up-regulate and down-regulate processes within the cell.”
EGCG is expensive, Baumann says, and it can make creams look brown, so many formulations contain too little of it. A high price tag might be necessary to get enough of the good stuff. Labels don’t generally say how much is in the product, so Baumann suggests looking for a brown color and EGCG on the label rather than “green tea.”
[Possible product: Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Face Mask, 3.4 ounces, $36]
In curry dishes, turmeric provides yellow colors and earthy mustard aromas. On skin, the spice’s main component, called curcumin, has been shown in various formulations to help wounds heal, to reduce inflammation and even to inhibit the growth of tumors.
For skin care, the major downsides are what make it appealing in food: color and smell. But recent formulations claim to get around that problem. For turmeric to act on skin, a strong-enough extract needs to be dissolved in a fat-containing ingredient, says Cindy Angerhofer, executive director of botanical research at Aveda in Minneapolis. “You have to have enough of what it is that’s the active ingredient in the plant,” she says. “If you have a weak water extract of turmeric root, you’re not going to get much out of it.”
[Product possibilities: Eucerin Redness Relief Soothing Cleanser, 6.8 ounces, $8.79, and Soothing Night Cream, 1.7 ounces, $14.99]
Licorice has been used medicinally for thousands of years, beginning in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In modern times, research has put the root on ingredient lists of cosmetic products that treat acne, sunburn and other skin issues.
Some studies show that licorice can fight inflammation, like a mild version of cortisone cream. The root might also help lighten dark skin patches that sometimes form after sun exposure or other causes.
As with other ingredients, experts say, research may look promising on individual components, but companies don’t always test the final product to see whether it lives up to health claims. Reading labels can offer clues about whether products attribute benefits to an ingredient or to a whole cream: The latter is more likely to help you.
But labels don’t explain where companies get their ingredients or how those ingredients are treated during processing, which can make a huge difference in whether the final formulation does anything or not. “Most of the claims on the label of a product are absolutely meaningless,” Baumann says. “The labels don’t tell you what you need to know.”
She suggests asking for dermatologist recommendations or looking for words like “clinically proven” on the packaging that refers to the entire formula, not just the ingredient.
Apples and other busts
[A vitamin C-containing product that actually has data to back it up: Skinceuticals Phloretin, 1 ounce, $152]
Pomegranate, açaí, goji berry: Every time a new fruit gains “superfood” status, it starts appearing in cosmetics under the theory that its antioxidant content will translate to fewer wrinkles and smoother skin. The problem is that foods that provide health benefits through the stomach or on skill cells in a petri dish often fizzle when applied topically.
Ingredients that tout their vitamin C content are particularly problematic, Baumann says, because only one form of the vitamin, L-ascorbic acid, actually works on skin, and it needs to be kept at a highly acidic pH of 2, which can sting. That nixes many products that contain lemon, lime, melon extracts or goji berries.
Even though carrots contain a type of vitamin A called retinol, which has clear skin benefits, carrot creams are also generally worthless. Another bust: apple extract, which often comes with claims of “apple stem cells” that are supposed to make skin appear more youthful. These apple cells do not live inside products, Baumann says, nor do they offer any benefits to skin.