Many of us start our days with some form of caffeine in our cups—or increasingly on our faces. These days it’s not uncommon to find caffeine strategically placed in your skin-care products, from lotions to eye creams. But…what is it even doing in there?
Since so many of us rely on a cup of coffee to get going in the morning, it makes sense to assume that a moisturizer or eye cream with caffeine will wake up your skin. But that’s not quite how it works.
Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which means that it constricts blood vessels. The idea is that applying a vasoconstrictor like caffeine on red, puffy, or otherwise slightly inflamed skin reduces blood flow to the area, thereby reducing the appearance of inflammation.
Some skin-care lines targeted at managing redness include caffeine as an ingredient, but it’s most frequently found in eye creams and so-called “slimming creams” for your body, which claim to reduce cellulite.
All of that sounds great, but do any of these products actually work?
Here’s what the research says about caffeine-spiked cosmetics.
“The studies that have been done on caffeine have been relatively mixed, [with] some showing an effect and some not,” John G. Zampella, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. In practice, caffeine-containing products have proven to be effective in some situations and ineffective or even detrimental in others.
For instance, if you’re dealing with dark eyes caused by puffiness, caffeine could be a good choice—but maybe not so much if they're caused by something else. “I wish there was a really great cure for under-eye circles, but not everybody's are caused by puffiness,” Suzan Obagi, M.D., UPMC dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology and plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, tells SELF. “[Caffeine’s] only gonna help if your issue is puffiness.” (And, tbh, even that data isn’t particularly convincing.)
So if your designer eye-bags were handed down to you from generations past like a family heirloom, caffeine won’t help. But if you’re feeling a little puffy and irritated from last night’s margaritas, it could make a difference. The same is true for redness: An over-the-counter caffeine cream might knock back a mild flush, but moderate to severe rosacea needs something stronger.
As for cellulite, caffeine might help a little. Maybe. In this case, the mechanism is slightly different: In addition to restricting blood vessels, some experts think that caffeine is capable of stimulating the enzymes that break down fat. It’s plausible that this could lead to a reduction in cellulite, and in fact a very small 2015 study in the Annals of Dermatology observed just that.
For the study, researchers had 15 participants apply a caffeine-containing cellulite cream to their thighs and inner upper arms twice a day for six weeks. After that time, 12 of the 15 participants reported that their cellulite had improved. On average, the circumference of their thighs decreased by 0.7 cm and their upper arms decreased by 0.8 cm over those six weeks. But there were some obvious limitations here, including the small sample size and lack of placebo control.
Is there anything risky about putting caffeine on your skin?
One thing to keep in mind is that caffeine products aimed at reducing redness can actually cause a temporary increase called rebound redness. Why? Blood vessels that are regularly constricted can go into hyperdrive without their usual dose of caffeine.
“Let's say you drink coffee every day…then one day you forget to drink your coffee or someone switches it for a decaf, and you get a raging headache,” Dr. Obagi says. “You're getting that throbbing in your head [because] those [blood] vessels have dilated even more.” We know prescription vasoconstrictors like brimonidine can cause rebound redness, so theoretically the same could be true for moisturizers with caffeine because they have a similar mechanism of action. (Brimonidine is also used to manage eye redness, in which a similar rebound effect has been observed.)
However, Dr. Zampella points out, caffeine is nowhere near as potent as prescription vasoconstrictors, which reduce the risk for rebound redness compared to those other treatments. He also says that his patients who have tried caffeine creams for rosacea tend to really like them. “If [you] have redness, [caffeine] is a very reasonable thing to try,” he says.
If that doesn’t work for you—or you experience any increase in redness—you should stop using it and try something else.
What else should I know before using caffeine skin care?
We know that caffeine is generally pretty good at penetrating the skin barrier and getting absorbed into the bloodstream. So theoretically too much topical caffeine could cause caffeine toxicity, which can be deadly and is mainly associated with powder and other highly concentrated caffeine products.
For the most part this probably isn’t a huge deal with eye creams and moisturizers because there’s so little caffeine in them and you’re using so little of them at a time anyway. But cellulite creams usually have higher concentrations of caffeine and are used on a much larger area of the skin. “We don't know if there's a limit as to how much you can put on your skin without actually having a more systemic effect,” Dr. Obagi says, “[so] you just want to be careful.” Be sure to apply the cream in the thinnest possible layer and just on the affected area.
Considering that pregnant people generally need to be aware of how much caffeine they’re putting in their bodies, do they need to be worried about these products too? Just to put things in perspective, it’s usually recommended that pregnant people consume less than 200 mg of caffeine per day (roughly what's in a 12-ounce cup of coffee). “There is nowhere near that amount in a topical formulation, but if someone is pregnant and is a coffee drinker,” Dr. Zampella says, it may be worth holding off on topical caffeine products while pregnant or at least consulting your doctor before applying them. However, "we don't have safety data on that," Dr. Obagi says.
So is caffeine a miracle worker in skin care? Well, like any cosmetic, probably not. If you’re dealing with an issue that doesn’t get better with over-the-counter skin-care products, it’s important to see a dermatologist who can assess your individual skin needs. But if it helps you feel better about your skin, that’s what matters most.
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