27 February 2021
If you need your morning coffee for your caffeine fix; can caffeine in skincare prep your skin the same way? From eye serums to cellulite creams, caffeine has infiltrated the world of skincare and made its name as anti-aging, cellulite busting and anti-inflammatory ingredient. This review will look at science behind caffeinated skincare products, whether they work and how to use them.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant that is commonly found in coffee, tea and chocolates. The effects of consuming caffeine are well known- improved mood and concentration and elimination of physical fatigue1,2. Anyone need a flat white right now?
In cosmetics and skincare, caffeine has far more interesting and controversial properties. Although it doesn’t perk the skin up, caffeine has been used in skincare mostly for its antioxidant, anti-cellulite and anti-inflammatory effects.
Some of the reported dermatological benefits of caffeine:
• Reduced dark eye circles and puffy eyes- Caffeine is commonly found in eye creams and serums. It is a vasoconstrictor3 (an ingredient that shrinks blood vessels); so it may reduce swelling and the appearance of eye bags. Caffeine also has the effect of improving microcirculation4 to improve the appearance of dark eye circles.
• Anti-cellulite– Caffeine stimulates lipolysis (breakdown of fats) through several intracellular mechanisms5-7. The drainage of the lymphatics and fats is also enhanced with caffeine8.
• Reduces flushing in rosacea– Caffeinated coffee intake has been associated with reduced incidence of rosacea9, likely due to its vasoconstrictive properties.
• Contains antioxidants– Caffeine is an antioxidant for some types of free radicals10. When used together with sunscreen, caffeine also provides additional UV protection against premature skin aging and some types of skin cancer11,12.
The results of studies on caffeine in skincare are mixed-while some studies show that caffeine in skincare benefits the skin; there are studies that don’t show that caffeine is useful at all.
For eyebags and dark eye circles; caffeine eye creams and eye serums may be nothing more than hope in a jar. Although the premise for using caffeine in eye creams sound promising, data has shown otherwise. In a study that compared 3% caffeine gel versus a control in subjects with puffy eyes, the difference in efficacies between both groups was insignificant13. This is not surprising at all from a medical perspective. Eye bags and dark eye circles are due to structural deficits which cannot be fixed by vasoconstriction alone.
The anti-cellulite effects of topical caffeine are slightly more promising. A few small studies in animals14,15 and humans show that caffeine improves the appearance of cellulite and reduces the number of fat cells in tissues16,17. Another limitation of these human studies was that caffeine was used in combination with other active ingredients which may confound the results like retinol16,17. Larger and more robust studies are needed to ascertain caffeine’s role in treating cellulite before recommending its use. For now, mainstays for cellulite treatments like retinoids and fractional CO2 lasers remain the standard of treatment.
Similarly, the data on caffeine’s antioxidant benefits are promising but limited. Caffeine seems to provide protection against some, but not all types of free radicals10. Although topical caffeine may offer some protective benefits against skin cancer; most of these studies were conducted in animals18-20. Additional research is still needed to ascertain whether these benefits can be replicated in humans.
Coffee and tea lovers- this one’s for you! As two of the most widely consumed beverages in the world; here’s the skinny on drinking caffeinated drinks. Feel free to grab a latte before you continue reading.
One good news for coffee drinkers: consuming caffeine has been linked to lower risks of skin cancer in human studies21-23! A specific DNA repair gene called NEIL3 seems to be the link to caffeine’s role in inhibiting the growth of tumors24. A study in Singapore also supported this relationship. In the Singapore Chinese Health Study, participants who consumed 400mg/day of caffeine (approximately 4 cups of coffee) had significantly lower risks of non-melanoma skin cancer23. Interestingly, this risk reduction was seen only in participants who consumed coffee or black tea in this study23. Participants who consumed green tea or soda, which also contain caffeine. The authors of this study concluded that consumption of coffee or black tea may reduce the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer in Chinese subjects23.
The effect of caffeine on rosacea is however, more contradictory. Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory skin disorder affected by multiple triggers such as heat, drinks and foods. Hot, caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea are long regarded to be triggers for rosacea flares, however there are studies that suggest otherwise9,25. This might be due to caffeine’s vasoconstrictive properties that mitigate vasodilation causing rosacea flares.
One question that remains unanswered despite the numerous studies on coffee consumption and rosacea is whether these outcomes are related to caffeine itself; coffee (which contains other bioactive molecules besides caffeine); or the temperature of the drink. In one study of 5000 participants with rosacea, caffeine seemed to accord a protective effect when consumed as coffee22. However, this protective effect was not seen in decaffeinated coffee other caffeinated drinks such as tea and soda22. Taken together, these findings suggest that regular coffee may contain caffeine and other bioactive molecules (that we might not know about yet) that have a positive effect on rosacea. While more studies are still needed to ascertain these findings; at least for patients with rosacea; coffee avoidance is not necessary. Let’s raise a cappuccino to that!
For most of the studies on topical caffeine; a concentration of 1-5% topical caffeine is largely safe for use with very low risks of side effects3, 5-7, 8, 13. However, topical caffeine seems to delay wound healing, based on ex vivo studies26– something minor to be aware about. After all, caffeine should not be used on wounds anyway!
For some of us caffeine addicts (guilty!)- excessive consumption can cause adverse cardiovascular events and death. Although frankly, death by caffeine overdose is extremely rare. In a study of caffeine related deaths, the caffeine concentration in the blood of the deceased ranged from 79-344mg/L27. To put things in perspective, the average caffeine concentration in the blood after consuming a 130mg oral dose of caffeine (approximately 10oz of caffeinated coffee) is 4mg/L28. So don’t worry, upsize your latte if you want to.
If you’re thinking of drinking four cups of coffee a day to protect your skin- rest assured that this is also a safe dose based on a systematic review of 381 studies29. However, there are simpler ways that you can protect your skin- sunscreen and antioxidants in skincare!
My fellow coffee lovers- we can rejoice! Drinking coffee seems to have dermatological benefits such as reduced risk of skin cancer and flushing in rosacea. Consuming other caffeinated beverages such as green tea and soda does not seem to confer these same advantages. Perhaps there’s more to caffeine in coffee-the presence of other bioactive molecules in coffee may also play a role. Whatever it is, I’m raising my coffee mug to that.
The benefits of using caffeine in skincare are promising but still need larger studies to validate these claims for dark eye circles, eye bags and cellulite. I might need to start my day with a cup of coffee; but I’m going to have to pass on caffeinated skincare.
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoying the following skincare posts:
1. A benefit-risk assessment of caffeine as an analgesic adjuvant. Zhang. Drug Saf. 2001;24(15):1127-42.
2. Effects of caffeine on human behavior. Smith. Food Chem Toxicol. 2002 Sep;40(9):1243-55.
3. Caffeine’s Vascular Mechanisms of Action. Echeverri et al. Int J Vasc Med. 2010; 2010: 834060.
4. Effects of caffeine on microcirculation of the human ocular fundus. Okuno et al. Jpn J Ophthalmol. Mar-Apr 2002;46(2):170-6.
5. Obesity and thermogenesis related to the consumption of caffeine, ephedrine, capsaicin, and green tea. Diepvens et al. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2007 Jan;292(1):R77-85.
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10. Is caffeine a good scavenger of oxygenated free radicals? Carmona and Galano. J Phys Chem B. 2011 Apr 21;115(15):4538-46.
11. Protection from photodamage by topical application of caffeine after ultraviolet irradiation. Koo et al. Br J Dermatol. 2007 May;156(5):957-64.
12. Protection from UV-induced skin carcinogenesis by genetic inhibition of the ataxia telangi-ectasia and Rad3-related (ATR) kinase. Kawasumi et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011 Aug 16;108(33):13716-21.
13. Evaluation of caffeine gels on physicochemical characteristics and in vivo efficacy in reducing puffy eyes. Amunuaikit et al. J Appl Pharmac Sci. 2011; 1: 56–59.
14. The effect of topical caffeine on the morphology of swine hypodermis as measured by ultrasound. Pires-de-Campos et al. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2008 Sep;7(3):232-7.
15. Effects of caffeine and siloxanetriol alginate caffeine, as anticellulite agents, on fatty tissue: histological evaluation. Velasco et al. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2008 Mar;7(1):23-9.
16. Efficacy of Slimming Cream Containing 3.5% Water-Soluble Caffeine and Xanthenes for the Treatment of Cellulite: Clinical Study and Literature Review. Byun et al. Ann Dermatol. 2015 Jun; 27(3): 243–249.
17. A double-blind evaluation of the activity of an anti-cellulite product containing retinol, caffeine, and ruscogenine by a combination of several non-invasive methods. Bertin et al. J Cosmet Sci. Jul-Aug 2001;52(4):199-210.
18. Effect of caffeine on UVB-induced carcinogenesis, apoptosis, and the elimination of UVB-induced patches of p53 mutant epidermal cells in SKH-1 mice. Conney et al. Photochem Photobiol. Mar-Apr 2008;84(2):330-8.
19. Effects of tea, decaffeinated tea, and caffeine on UVB light-induced complete carcinogenesis in SKH-1 mice: demonstration of caffeine as a biologically important constituent of tea. Huang et al. Cancer Res. 1997 Jul 1;57(13):2623-9.
20. Topical applications of caffeine or (-)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) inhibit carcinogenesis and selectively increase apoptosis in UVB-induced skin tumors in mice. Lu et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2002 Sep 17;99(19):12455-60.
21. Coffee, tea and caffeine intake and the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer: a review of the literature and meta-analysis. Caini et al. Eur J Nutr. 2017 Feb;56(1):1-12.
22. Coffee consumption and risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis. Vaseghi et al. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2018 Mar;27(2):164-170.
23. Coffee, tea, caffeine, and risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer in a Chinese population: The Singapore Chinese Health Study. Oh et al. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019 Aug;81(2):395-402.
24. A genome-wide analysis of gene–caffeine consumption interaction on basal cell carcinoma. Neil et al. Carcinogenesis. 2016 Dec; 37(12): 1138–1143.
25. Oral thermal-induced flushing in erythematotelangiectatic rosacea. Wilkin. J Invest Dermatol. 1981 Jan;76(1):15-8.
26. The effects of caffeine on wound healing. Ojeh et al. Int Wound J. 2016 Oct;13(5):605-13.
27. Review of Caffeine-Related Fatalities along with Postmortem Blood Concentrations in 51 Poisoning Deaths. Jones. J Anal Toxicol. 2017 Apr 1;41(3):167-172.
28. Caffeine Toxicity. Murray and Traylor. 2020 Jun 27. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–.
29. Systematic review of the potential adverse effects of caffeine consumption in healthy adults, pregnant women, adolescents, and children. Wikoff et al. Food Chem Toxicol. 2017 Nov;109(Pt 1):585-648.