I like to think of myself as a relatively positive and trusting person, but when it comes to beauty, I’ve become a bit of a cynic. I’m jaded by the idea of the “next big thing” and have become pretty good at spotting which ingredients are in a formula to really benefit your skin, and which are there because they create a nice marketing story. Caffeine skincare, I have a sneaky feeling, is sitting in the latter category.
The brilliant thing about using caffeine as a front-of-pack, let’s-shout-about-it ingredient is that everyone knows what it is, and therefore everyone has a preconceived idea of what it might do for our skin. When we think of caffeine, we think of coffee, right? We think of starting the day with a latte-shaped boost of energy, a cappuccino to get you over that post-lunch slump, or an espresso martini that means you leave the bar feeling wired and stops you from getting to sleep.
But do these wide-awake, get-up-and-go benefits translate if you apply caffeine to your skin instead of drinking it? I asked two leading dermatologists for their take to see if my cynicism is justified.
What Can Caffeine Do for the Skin?
“When applied topically, caffeine has a number of potential skin benefits which of course depend on the concentration of caffeine applied and the formulation,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Mary Sommerlad. In short, the formula needs to have the right amount of caffeine in it, and also contain the right supporting ingredients, to work. “To put it in the context of coffee, a mug that contains a tiny splash of coffee isn’t going to energise you like a triple shot – and if it’s not mixed with the right things (like gone-off milk versus a fresh dash) then any benefits will probably be outweighed by negatives.”
So what are those potential benefits? “One of the most understood benefits of caffeine include its ability to temporarily constrict blood vessels, which can improve the appearance of dark under-eye circles,” Dr Mary continues. “It also has antioxidant effects which means it can reduce damage from free radicals.” Free radicals come from things like UV rays, pollution, and cigarette smoke and rob our skin of radiance, trigger hyperpigmentation, and speed up the ageing process – so minimising their impact is always a smart move. “Finally, caffeine is also thought to act as an anti-inflammatory and can help soothe skin.”
These are all brilliant benefits, and the temporary tweaking of dark under eyes definitely ties in with the energy-boosting associations of caffeine. Shielding and soothing feel less obviously linked, but it makes sense that if your complexion is healthy and calm, then it’ll look more vibrant.
Will Drinking Coffee Give You the Same Results?
If caffeine is potentially good at reducing dark circles, protecting our skin from antioxidants and soothing inflammation, then drinking it is surely only going to supercharge these results, right? “The health benefits of caffeine are a hot area of research at the moment,” explains Dr Mary. “The direct benefits of taking caffeine on the skin are in need of further and more rigorous research.”
From what we do know so far, it’s not quite as simple as it might seem. “Caffeine is a diuretic, so too much without adequate hydration could leave skin dehydrated,” advises consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall. “I would definitely recommend balancing coffee with water. In some cases too much caffeine can trigger a stress reaction, and we are aware of the role that the stress hormone cortisol has in driving inflammation, and in some cases breakouts. If caffeine is consumed in excess or too late in the day it may disrupt sleep. Again, we are becoming so much more aware of the absolute importance of sleep for our health in general, and the repair benefits we see in the skin from sleep are considerable.”
“Caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety, and therefore potentially trigger unwanted skin effects such as sweating, blushing, or looking grey,” adds Dr Mary. “I think it’s fair to sum up that if consuming caffeine dehydrates our bodies, increases anxiety, and stops us from sleeping, then it’s definitely not minimising stress in the skin or soothing it. Plus, dehydration and a lack of shut-eye are two of the biggest causes of dark under-eye circles.” Sipping on an iced latte might look cute, but it’s not going to leave your skin full of beans.
Are There Other Ingredients That Give Similar Effects to Caffeine?
If you’re in the market for an ingredient that shields skin from free radicals and helps to calm inflammation, then caffeine isn’t the only option. “It is similar to applying other topical antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, resveratrol or green tea,” says Dr Justine. Niacinamide gives similar effects too, with the added benefit of helping to balance oil production. If dark circles are a particular bugbear of yours, then all of these ingredients (plus hero hydrator hyaluronic acid) will help to make tired rings less visible.
Look at the ingredients list of skincare products that contain caffeine and you’ll likely spot at least one or two of these better-known actives in the lineup – which makes it difficult to know exactly which ingredient is doing the heavy lifting in the formula.
“Caffeine works well with a number of ingredients,” advises Dr Justine. “It can be used to tackle specific skin concerns alongside other ingredients. For example, tired eyes can benefit from hyaluronic acid to temporarily plump the skin and caffeine to constrict, therefore reducing the appearance of darkness. When used with niacinamide and emollients, caffeine can work well for skin that needs soothing, and can have an increased effect when used alongside other antioxidants such as vitamin C.”
I’m all for teamwork, but if an ingredient only works particularly well when formulated with other actives, then it’s not really the star of the show. Caffeine sounds to me like the supporting act, rather than bringing any main character energy to your skincare.
Should You Add Caffeine to Your Skincare Routine?
I have to admit that my cynicism was swayed slightly by the science behind the benefits of applying caffeine to the skin, but I still don’t think it works as hard as other, more researched ingredients. The formula is king too, and caffeine will only work its magic if it’s in a product at a decent percentage and supported by other ingredients. “Concentrations between 1 and 2 percent are most commonly used, but concentrations of up to 5 percent may also be found,” says Dr Mary. Not all brands disclose the exact percentage of actives in their products, but you can do a little DIY detective work. Fragrance and the commonly used preservative phenoxyethanol can only be used at a maximum of 1 percent. So, if caffeine is appearing on the list after either of these, you’ll know the dosage is less than 1 percent. If that’s the case, it’s probably only there for marketing.
“Whether topical caffeine ‘wakes up skin’ and what that looks like definitely needs further investigation and discussion,” advises Dr Mary. Ultimately, I think it’s a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have, and certainly not an ingredient worth paying a premium for. If you’re on a budget, opt for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamins C and E instead, or just put just those extra skincare pennies towards your Pret subscription.