Nutricosmetics, Part I

Tastes like berries! May or may not do jack shit for your skin, but efficacy is hardly the point.

I was 15 the first time I tried what’s now known as nutricosmetics. I read in some magazine that it was prenatal vitamins, not being great with child, that gave pregnant women their famous “glow,” and that the glow was easily obtained by taking prenatal supplements. I bought a bottle, and despite taking the pills faithfully, my hair didn’t suddenly start growing in glossy and lustrous, my nails didn’t sprout more quickly, and while I probably was aglow, what 15-year-old girl in reasonably good health isn’t? Just about the only change I noticed was the classic B-vitamin effect (i.e. neon pee).

I could tell the vitamins hadn’t really done much, so I didn’t buy them again--until college, and then again in my early 20s. It’s the same reason I sometimes buy boxes of “Skin Detox” from Yogi Tea, and used to apply a vitamin C cream under my eyes until I finally admitted it really wasn’t doing anything: I wanted them to work. And hey, if the whole idea is that it’s hope in a jar anyway, then maybe my wanting them to work would be enough. It’s like my beauty editor pal said: “It’s like the confirmation bias in psychology… If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant.” I can get all huffy about some anti-aging snake oils, but vitamins and teas? Yeah, I’ll play.

For once, I was ahead of the curve. Once relegated to “the dusty aisles of health food stores” (the kind that smelled like carob nut clusters, not the kind that smelled like, say, lemongrass-freesia candles and California Baby Wash), nutricosmetics, or nutriceuticals, are expected to grow 6% a year to reach $8.5 billion by 2015, the New York Times reports. Nutricosmetics are foods, drinks, or supplements meant to enhance beauty, usually the skin. (Some consider skin creams containing nutrients purported to aid beauty, like vitamin C cream, to be a nutricosmetic; others loosely apply it to novelty cosmetics meant to be eaten with no ill effects, like a godawful brown sugar-honey lip scrub I got at a beauty sale. I’m using it here to mean ingestibles meant to enhance beauty.) You can find Borba “Skin Balance Waters” in delis; dermatologist Dr. Perricone peddles his “Skin Clear” supplements at Sephora; Balance’s Nimble bar, designed “specifically for women” (because our skin is different?), was at the checkout the last time I went to Duane Reade.

I’m curious about nutricosmetics, and suspicious of them too. In the coming days I’ll be talking more about my larger hesitations about them, but for now I’d just like to look at how we created a market for them, and why it happened now instead of during the 1970s vitamin boom. Nutricosmetics have been around in other countries for a while now; the Times article touches upon their role in China, where supplemention has long been a part of regular health care. (And the first time I saw a drink purported to aid with beauty, it was in the Czech Republic. The drink was sugary, which seemed to defeat the purpose, but perhaps it was easier for me to dismiss its claims because I couldn’t make out much of the labeling on the bottle. Funnily enough, “Beauty Water” was in English.) I think there’s a market for them now because of the ways we segment information, particularly health information, and particularly health information for women.

Pretty much any women’s magazine will repeatedly and explicitly state that simply eating right and exercising is good for you and that the particulars of it are up to you, and they’re absolutely correct. But that larger message gets lost in the drive for microinformation that fills every inch of space in ladymags: runners at the bottom of the page about what this vitamin can do, starbusts of information on health pages about the benefits of everything from beet juice to gingko biloba. Microinformation has gotten more plentiful due to the web (duh) but also publishing advances that make it easier to make information more graphic--easier to digest, but also with less room for exploring complexities.

Here’s how microinformation gets onto the page: Let’s say a journal publishes a piece about the effect of lutein on skin elasticity. An editor would find the study and pitch it to her boss to be included in an upcoming issue as one of the short information busts (like those one-sentence “didja know?!” brightly colored circles you see all over ladymags). They decide to run it, and the magazine’s research team verifies the information for factual accuracy, usually just reading the study but possibly talking to the people who conducted the study. It’s factually correct, and the information burst runs as, say, “Lutein increases skin elasticity! Be sure to eat your turnip greens.” It’s correct--lutein does increase skin elasticity, and turnip greens contain a lot of lutein--so the magazine has done its job.

It’s not really that simple, though. Consumer magazines are meticulous about fact-checking, and most fact-checkers I know are good at their work and care about making sure they don’t let bad facts slip through. So it’s not that anyone’s negligent; it’s more that fact-checking too often serves the purpose of making sure things aren’t wrong, not making sure they’re right. A study might say that lutein is good for skin elasticity but also note that most adults get plenty of lutein with relatively little effort through their diet, or note that the study was done on people who were lutein-deficient and that the effects don’t increase once you’ve met the relatively low recommended daily allowance. Or maybe it increased skin elasticity by 2%, or maybe the study involved 12 people, all of whom were white women over 50. Or maybe the study was just a bad study, in a way that wouldn’t be clear to a diligent but overworked fact-checker with an English degree, not a medical one. Or, more likely, the fact-checker points out all of the above, but there’s only room for 15 words in 18-point font with the wraparound on the graphic element, and art can’t give us more room on the page, and you’re running at deadline and the information isn’t wrong, it’s just not as holistically accurate as it could be, so let’s just take one for lutein, okay? What’s the harm?

And there isn’t any major harm, of course. But our hoarding of nutrition microinformation takes away from the larger point, which is that if you have a balanced diet you won’t have to be chowing down turnip greens because you’ll organically be getting your RDA of lutein, and you won’t have to worry about what nutrients will make your skin elastic because you’re getting what your body needs just by being sensible. More to the point here, it creates a market for things like the Nimble bar, because oh hey it’s got lutein and didn’t I read somewhere that would make my skin more elastic?

The more we segment information, the more we segment ourselves and our buying choices. Now, I don’t think nutricosmetics are abhorrent (probably the worst thing about the Nimble bar is that it tastes like chalk). But when I stop and think about how we’ve dug our own hole here through our constant intake of microinformation, I get uneasy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that nutricosmetics have only really caught fire in the States in the past couple of years, despite Americans’ love affair with pills, which is nearly matched by our love affair with easily digested health informationCouple our love of health information with the quest for beauty, and you’ve got a market waiting to happen. There is no new way to become more beautiful; it’s all variations of the stuff that’s been around forever, e.g. painting your face, getting a little exercise, styling your hair, and trying to make the most of what you have. Creating niches of service-oriented information can be helpful, but it also leads the march toward creating niche markets. Lutein, iron, and beta carotene aren’t new; they’re just being packaged as new and branded with a hyperinformed consumer in mind. Without niche information as provided in mainstream women’s media, the Nimble bar wouldn’t exist.

“Slow living” might be a fad, but we’re still American, forever looking for shortcuts to something that takes real time, real effort, or real skill. Nutricosmetics don’t give us anything we don’t get in a well-balanced diet, and that’s one reason to question the sudden market for them--but it’s not the most important one. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at some of the larger ideas behind nutricosmetics, as well as nutrition-based beauty regimes that might fall into the “slow living” category. In the meantime, tell me: Have you bought nutricosmetics? Do you take any supplements with your looks in mind? I’ve already copped to my “Skin Detox” tea, and I’ll also admit that a major motivation for taking my omega-3 oil and eating lots of salmon is because I notice a difference in my skin when I’m diligent about it. What about you?