If you were a teenager in the 1990s, you would remember a scene from Death Becomes Her, where Isabella Rossellini’s Lisle gives Meryl Streep’s Madeline the elixir of youth. After Madeline downs the elixir, her hair become full and shiny and complexion smoothens, in an instant. I thought of that scene a few years ago when an integrative medicine doctor asked me to take high-dose vitamin D to control grade IV endometriosis. Though it didn’t have much effect on the endometriosis, my skin and hair transformed just like Madeline’s had, though over several weeks.
Vitamin D is popular as a bone and joint supplement, but it’s also known to make skin more supple (a word of caution, though: too much vitamin D leads to calcium buildup).
This is just one example of how the right nutrient can show results from the inside out.
The global market for nutricosmetics—products and ingredients that act as nutritional supplements to help improve skin, hair and nails—is booming. With a growth rate of 9% CAGR (compound annual growth rate), the industry is projected to skyrocket from $7,343 million (around ₹60,212 crore) in 2021 to $15,816 million by 2030, according to a 2020 report by the market research organisation Straits Research. Within this, Asia-Pacific will see the most growth, from $3,606 million in 2021 to $7,767 million by 2030. Between January 2017 and December 2021, global food, drink and supplement launches with functional beauty claims increased by 78%, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database from the London-based market research firm. This makes the convergence of food and beauty one of the biggest beauty trends of the decade.
The concept isn’t exactly novel, though, especially in the Far East, where women used to ingest pearl powder for skin clarity and he shou wu (a herb native to China) to darken hair. It was decades ago that Howard Murad, a dermatologist with his own range of cosmeceuticals who is considered to be the father of modern wellness, said 20% of your skin is on the surface and 80% underneath. Therefore, what you eat and drink is infinitely more important than what is applied topically. Still, it has taken years (if not decades) for the nutricosmetics market to expand at such a dizzying scale.
Within this trend there are many offshoots, such as collagen, probiotics, ingestible moisturisers (hyaluronic acid, ceramide) and—believe it or not—ingestible sunscreen made with polypodium leucotomos extract derived from a tropical fern. Collagen is estimated to have a global market size of $19.9 billion by 2030, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc.
We know that there isn’t just a gut-brain but also a gut-skin axis. Scientific papers show the gut and skin barrier share many similarities—both support diverse microbiota, are composed of epithelial cells, and, when there is inflammation of the gut, the skin will be inflamed too. This is why we are looking at probiotics being used for beauty purposes. The global probiotic market share was valued at $58.17 billion in 2021 and is estimated to grow at a rate of 7.5% CAGR, shows the Grand View Research report. “There has been a visible and conscious shift in consumer mindsets, with wellness taking centre stage, especially post-pandemic, towards health solutions that offer long-term payoffs,” says a spokesperson from Nykaa, one of India’s biggest beauty retailers. “Consumers today are getting conscious about the quality of ingredients in their beauty products and their efficacy in building ‘beauty from within’.”
Nykaa has now partnered with Onesto Labs to create a new category of wellness products under the brand Nudge. The growing interest in nutricosmetics among Indian consumers is apparent on this platform, with the adoption rate growing from one in 100 to five in 100 customers in the past five years.
The other side
When any category in the market starts trending, it brings with it a set of problems. The boom in the green beauty market led to greenwashing. The increased popularity and accessibility of actives has led to the destruction of skin barriers. Similarly, the uptick in nutricosmetics has its own set of complications, especially in the Indian market, where, reports indicate, 60% of supplements are fake, counterfeit, unregistered and unapproved. “It’s very difficult to say what works because supplements fall under food licensing, not drug licensing, so the stringency isn’t as much as it should be,” says Rashmi Shetty, a dermatology expert and founder of RA Skin & Aesthetics, which has clinics in Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Shetty launched her own range of supplements a couple of years ago. “I am sceptical of the filament-type supplement strips in the market,” she says. “Because when I ask formulators to make my supplements small in size, formulators tell me they cannot make them smaller because I need them to be packed with nutrients, so it makes me wonder how much nutrients can a thin strip pack within itself?”
This trend also begets the question of whether we even need nutricosmetics. Especially since there is no conclusive proof that supplementation can help you live longer, prevent cognitive decline or cancer, as is usually claimed by companies. Several supplements can also interfere with your medication, which makes it prudent to consult an expert before popping pills.
“As a dermatologist, I realised the importance of supplements for three reasons: One, the food isn’t the same, the plants aren’t the same as they grow on soil that is depleted, and animals aren’t fed the same way any more. Therefore, nutrition through food is heavily compromised,” says Shetty. However, she adds, the best results from supplementation happen when a doctor prescribes the mix after seeing your blood report.
As with everything else, the answer lies in moderation and balance. I asked Rashmi Taneja, director (plastic, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery), Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, Delhi, whether she could tell from faces which of her patients nourished themselves internally. “It’s a very vast question,” she says. “But diet does play a role in how you age. If you have a healthy lifestyle, then your face definitely reflects the results.” But Dr Taneja adds that these results are hard to quantify. “Because people who take supplements are also people who take care of their health.”
Actor Deepika Padukone, who recently launched a face oil as part of her own line of skincare as self-care, 82°E, says, “I do not believe that one product can change your life.” Good health (read skin), she adds, is a “combination of multiple factors, hydration, food, meditation and sleep, which is one of the most underrated medicines, especially in our country”.
Perhaps the boom in nutricosmetics is borne out of our pursuit of that elusive magic bean that will erase lines, plump lips, clear the complexion and firm up the skin. But at the heart of it, genetics, lifestyle, cosmetics, and, most importantly, consistency, determine how we age. As Coco Chanel famously said: “Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30. But at 50 you get the face you deserve.”
Vasudha Rai is a beauty journalist and author of Glow: Indian Foods, Recipes And Rituals For Beauty, Inside & Out and Ritual: Daily Practices for Wellness, Beauty & Bliss.