If you regularly start your morning with caffeine, you might want to start slathering it on your face as well as sipping it.
With everyone’s favorite pick-me-up growing in popularity as a skin care ingredient, we checked in with medical experts to see what really works — and what has not yet been scientifically proven.
How It Works
“Caffeine is being increasingly used in cosmetics, thanks to potent antioxidant properties and protection of cells against UV radiation,” dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, founder of Dr. Loretta skin care, told HuffPost. “That protection slows down photoaging, including improving wrinkles and age spots.”
“It’s strategically placed in certain skin care products, from eye creams to cellulite creams, for what people view as a ‘pick me up’ effect,” said dermatologist A. Shadi Kourosh, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.
One of the reasons it’s so popular is that it’s so good at penetrating the skin, the experts said. “It’s able to get where it needs to go,” said dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, the founder of Maei MD Skincare. “By constricting blood vessels, caffeine helps boost microcirculation, and it can reduce puffiness.”
Dark Circles And Wrinkles? Caffeine To The Rescue
One area where caffeine is likely to be most effective is in the under-eye area, “Because the skin in the under-eye area is thin, ingredients are able to penetrate and have a stronger impact,” dermatologist Marisa Garshick explained. Caffeine is what’s known as a vasoconstrictor.
“Since it constricts or shrinks blood vessels, it reduces blood flow, which decreases inflammation and redness and ‘depuffs’ swollen areas of skin,” Kourosh said. “It’s helpful for swollen puffy eyes or flushing or redness of the skin, due to allergies, rosacea or alcohol — which we know in the business as ‘the skin hangover.’ Caffeine-containing products can help, because caffeine does the opposite of alcohol. Whereas alcohol dilates blood vessels in the skin, causing or worsening redness and swelling, caffeine can help neutralize them.”
However, how effective it can be depends on what’s causing the issue in the first place. “Dark under-eye circles can run in a person’s family, for example,” Kourosh said. “Health factors can cause them, and certain skin types are prone to them. So if there is more going on than just puffiness that doesn’t resolve with a chilled compresses or caffeine-based cream, it’s time to consult a dermatologist.”
Does Caffeine Work On Cellulite?
There are lots of products that claim to reduce cellulite, and many of them contain caffeine. Why? “Caffeine is a compound within the family of methylxanthines, commonly found in coffee and tea,” said dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Department of Dermatology. “It may also directly enhance breakdown of excess fat, since methylxanthines have been demonstrated to increase metabolism and fat breakdown.”
Good news, right? Well, maybe. According to Zeichner, “the effects on skin conditions like cellulite are modest, because in order for the caffeine in a product to exert its effects, it actually needs to get to the fat itself, which means it needs to penetrate through the full layer of skin into the subcutaneous tissue. That’s a challenge for any topically applied ingredient.”
Garshick added, “It may be able to dehydrate tissue locally, which can make the skin appear tighter and firmer, break down fat by blocking phosphodiesterase activity and by vasoconstricting the blood vessels. But with that said, more studies are needed.”
It’s Best Paired With Other Powerful Ingredients
Aesthetic plastic surgeon Michele Koo told HuffPost, “Caffeine is not a cure-all, but, when paired with certain ingredients, it can brighten skin, lessen swelling and act to guide certain ingredients into cells for results.”
What does it work best with? “It’s great to blend with other antioxidants as part of a cocktail to defend against daily assaults from free radicals due to UV radiation, environmental toxins and pollution,” Marcus said. “It can be combined with other ingredients that have antioxidants, like vitamin C, which can be helpful for brightening,” Garshick suggested.
But be sure to keep applying it consistently. Just as the energy you get from a cup of coffee wears off eventually, so do the effects of caffeine in skin care products. “You need to use the product daily to see the effects,” dermatologist Nicole Negbenebor said. “Once you stop using it, your skin will return to its usual state.”
If you’re wondering whether this ingredient is right for you, Negbenebor offered this thought: “Topical caffeine is not a permanent solution, and people looking for more long-term tightening or wrinkle reduction should look into retinoids instead.”
What To Look For When You’re Shopping
“Most topical formulations contain 3% caffeine,” Negbenebor said. “If a product has a lower percentage, it may not be as effective. And if the concentration is too high, it may cause irritation or burning. You may also notice increased redness on the skin, given its ability to increase blood flow locally.”
“As with any ingredient, when you’re trying a new product, it’s wise to apply it to a small test spot to make sure your skin isn’t sensitive to it,” Marcus advised.
Ready to check out some products that rate highly with the experts? Here are their top caffeinated picks.
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Andalou brightening luminous eye serum
“This product has caffeine to help shrink blood vessels in the under-eye area and reduce puffiness,” Garshick said. “It also has antioxidants, including fruit stem cell complex and vitamin C, to help brighten the skin and help to protect against free radical damage. The goji glycoproteins help to firm and lift the skin, making it a great all-around treatment for the under-eye area.”