Ingredient Intel: The Skin Benefits of Caffeine
For many of us, it’s not our alarm that wakes us up in the morning—it’s that first cup of coffee. Drinking caffeine perks us up and makes us feel alert and bright-eyed, so when it’s infused into eye creams, serums, and moisturizers, we figure it must have the same invigorating effect on our skin. But topical caffeine works a bit differently, offering your complexion more than just a jolt of energy. It helps fight inflammation and protect skin against damage, and it can even make other skincare ingredients perform better. Which might explain why this classic ingredient that’s been in facial and body products for ages is suddenly getting a lot of airtime on social media, as both dermatologists and skincare fans rediscover its complexion-enhancing powers. Let’s bring you up to speed on caffeine’s buzziest benefits.
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural chemical found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao plants, and other species of plants. There’s also synthetic caffeine which is often used in energy drinks and certain medications.
When ingested, caffeine acts as a mild stimulant on the brain and central nervous system to make us feel awake and energized for a short period of time. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it can temporarily tighten blood vessels to help reduce inflammation, including when it’s absorbed through the skin. Caffeine is also a potent antioxidant that helps protect the cells in our body, including skin cells, against free radical damage from environmental stressors like the sun and pollution, which is why drinking caffeinated coffee is linked to a number of health benefits and lower cancer risks.
While there have been plenty of studies on the health impacts of drinking coffee, there are fewer studies examining the effects of caffeine in skincare. The data we do have is somewhat mixed, but it’s clear that caffeine penetrates the skin barrier well and reaches blood vessels, which is why many dermatologists stand behind caffeine as an excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. It’s also been an established skincare ingredient for decades that nearly everyone’s skin tolerates well. Here are the main skin perks (pardon the pun) of caffeinated skincare.
Keep in mind, though: while caffeine eye products are useful when you’re a little puffy the day after a salty steak frites dinner or too many cocktails, they won’t improve permanent under-eye bags that are genetic or caused by fat pads under the skin slipping downward, which can happen with age. In either case, consult with a dermatologist to discuss treatment options.
Caffeine can reduce redness and dark circles
For those tired mornings when your face is a bit blotchy and under-eye circles are glaring, dabbing on a caffeine-infused serum or moisturizer can help calm redness, while a caffeine-spiked eye cream may help diminish the look of dark circles.
Here’s why: as an anti-inflammatory ingredient that boosts microcirculation (blood circulation in capillaries and other very small vessels), caffeine can decrease occasional redness and help decongest the blood vessels around eyes that contribute to dark circles, helping your overall complexion appear more radiant. One study found that applying topical caffeine daily in combination with other antioxidants such as resveratrol and green tea polyphenols helped diminish facial redness after six weeks. While this suggests that caffeine skincare may help reduce symptoms of rosacea, anyone with a chronic redness condition should consult with a dermatologist before starting a new skincare product.
Once your skin gets used to a daily regimen that includes caffeine, it may experience what’s known as temporary rebound redness if you suddenly stop using the caffeine formulas, according to a Self.com report. The theory being, when blood vessels accustomed to being tightened by caffeine don’t get their daily fix, they may overcompensate by dilating too much, leading to flushed skin. But this effect is more of a maybe than a definite, and any rebound redness would likely be short lived.
And if you’re a coffee drinker, consuming four or more cups of caffeinated coffee every day may lower your risk of skin cancer by 20% according to two studies, one published in 2015 and the other in 2016—the latter of which showed it lessens the risk of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Caffeine might minimize the look of cellulite—a little
Let’s be clear: no skincare product can make any permanent change to cellulite. But there’s a reason why nearly every cellulite cream out there contains caffeine. Some research indicates that caffeine could potentially stimulate the enzymes that break down fat cells, which in turn could help reduce the look of cellulite.
One small 2015 study with only 15 participants found that most of them experienced an improvement in the look of their cellulite after applying a caffeine-infused cream to their thighs and inner upper arms twice a day for six weeks. But skin pros stress that a lot more testing needs to be done before any definitive claims about caffeine and cellulite could be made. And some say that it’s caffeine’s ability to increase microcirculation to the area that creates a temporary, minor skin-tightening effect that makes the cellulite appear slightly smoother.
Of course, there’s no harm in trying a cellulite cream, so long as you remember that any improvement will likely be minor and short-term—as in, a few hours max. While caffeine in a cream or serum may not deliver the same jolt as a hot cup of joe, its smoothing, brightening, and protective benefits will help you wake up to beautiful, healthy-looking skin for years to come.