I’m perched on a stool in front of 10 jewel-toned bottles inside the warehouse-cool HQ of Deciem, a three-year-old Toronto-based beauty company that makes a line of drinkable skincare and wellness elixirs called Fountain. Teaspoon in hand, I’m about to have a Willy Wonka moment.
First up is something called the Glow Molecule, a concentrated form of the plant-derived antioxidant glutathione, which is said to help prevent cellular damage and create an overall incandescence by eliminating environmental toxins from the skin. Tag line: “Radiance is now available in just two teaspoons a day.” It tastes like purple candy and slides down like cough syrup. Next is the ginger-flavoured Hyaluronic Molecule, so dense with hyaluronic acid (HA) it chugs out of the bottle like Heinz. Unappetizingly thick as it is, HA is the gold-standard ingredient in high-end moisturizers because it holds 1,000 times its weight in water, and the body produces it as a natural anti-inflammatory and a joint lubricant. (Unfortunately, natural HA creation slows as we age.) Then, there’s the tawny, apple-flavoured Phyto-Collagen Molecule, which is as sweet-tart as a Jolly Rancher, leaves behind a pong reminiscent of burnt hair and purports to supplement—and spur the creation of—the plumping protein responsible for such youthful faces as J. Law and Selena Gomez. Given that collagen production diminishes by about one percent each year starting in your 20s, and that women collectively spend millions every year attempting to replenish it, this bottle of orange goo sounds too miraculous to be true.
By the time I’m done, I’ve also glugged Happy, Hair, Energy, Super Green and Beauty, each containing its own wonder ingredient (GABA and curcumin, biotin, B12, chlorophyll and resveratrol, respectively). I leave having thoroughly drunk the Kool-Aid.
A blend of collagen derived from wild phytoplankton, L-glutathione and hyaluronic acid, which aims to supplement your own collagen and coax production of more in just two teaspoons a day.
Fountain, which recently launched on Net-a-Porter and at Urban Outfitters and the Toronto boutique Gotstyle, is one of the latest in the growing industry of nutricosmetics. When we speak over the phone, Deciem’s founder, a speed-talking Torontonian named Brandon Truaxe—who, incidentally, was the first to market Botox-mimicking snake venom skin cream to Canadians back in 2010—tells me ingestible beauty products have been popular in Asia for years. As far back as the Tang dynasty, Chinese empresses swallowed finely ground pearls as a skin moisturizer (an L.A. company called Moon Juice now sells pearl powder as an all-over “beautifying cell builder”). Today, such collagen-rich foods as pig trotters are popular among Asian women, and cosmetics counters are lined with skincare drinkables from well-established brands like Shiseido. This past spring, the Japanese company Suntory even launched a collagen-infused beer for women, called Precious. Its slogan: “Guys can tell if a girl is taking collagen or not.”
In North America, beauty ingestibles have been an on-again, off-again trend, never quite gripping the imagination or opening the purses of consumers, despite frequent launches of everything from swillable sunscreen to supposedly acne-fighting chocolate bars and gummies that are said to make your hair grow faster. That’s changing in the midst of the great juice boom, which has made “inside-out” the mantra every other young actress utters when asked for her beauty secrets. Ingredients often used in skincare, such as clays, activated charcoal, sea buckthorn, and foods rich in vitamins A and C, are being blended into juices and billed as skin-enhancing add-ins.
Each bottle contains a cocktail of vitamins A, C, D, E, B12, B6 and B3, and biotin, plus minerals and electrolytes that promise to increase elasticity, replenish skin cells and fight premature wrinkling.
Belmonte Raw, a vegan juice delivery service in Toronto, for example, sells an $11.50 carrot-lemon-ginger concoction called Clarity that’s high in vitamin A, and, as the bottle explains, contains “nutrients to nourish the skin, prevent blemishes and slow down the negative effects associated with aging.” Meanwhile, Juice Generation, a New York City cold-press company beloved by celebs like Kristen Bell and Salma Hayek (the latter developed her own juice cleanse for the brand), recently launched a line of skin-detoxifying clay and charcoal shots called Beauty Bombs. Drinkable supplements like Fountain’s are the next step in this growing imbibe-till-you’re-beautiful philosophy.
The promise—drink a thing, glow from within—is an intoxicating one, akin to the results offered in pop-up ads that shout, “Cut belly fat with this one weird trick!!” Even the most skeptical of us are tempted to click. So, for eight consecutive weeks, I dutifully take my two teaspoons a day of Glow, HA and Phyto-Collagen. I also add the overall Beauty Molecule, a highly concentrated form of resveratrol, the potent disease- and age-fighting antioxidant typically found in red grape skins. (Remember a few years back, when red wine suddenly became a health food? That’s resveratrol.)
Does my complexion light up like I’ve always just had sex? Is it fetally dewy and supple? Do I have J. Law cheeks? I don’t know. I can’t discern any extra epidermal gorgeousity, but my skin doesn’t feel as dry as usual (weather change?), and I’m convinced it’s somehow thicker, which could be the collagen or a placebo effect messing with my perception. I do know that nobody has remarked upon my improved skin condition, including my facialist—who usually pats me on the head when I’m doing well.
Capsules of tomato-derived lycopene for redness reduction, borage seed oil for hydration and citrus bioflavonoids shown to inhibit the enzyme responsible for melanin (the substance that creates dark spots).
I call Jennifer Salsberg, a doctor at Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto, to talk about the efficacy of ingestible skincare. She explains that both collagen and HA molecules are too large to be absorbed when applied topically. Rather, they form a film on the skin, which can give you temporary radiance and moisture but won’t penetrate down to the dermis (the tissue below the epidermis), where you need them for lasting plumping and hydrating effects. That’s why companies like Fountain are seeking alternative modes of delivering the molecules from the inside out, instead of the outside in.
But, she continues, there are a few barriers to any digested ingredients having an impact on skin: “First, we don’t know if the molecules are even going to be absorbed by the GI tract and make their way into the body.” (Instead, they tend to break down in the stomach before they’re even circulated in the bloodstream.) “And even if they’re able to make their way into the body, we don’t know that they’ll end up in the skin, and we don’t know if they’re stable enough to do what we want, where we want. Will ingestible products have a role down the road as adjuncts to topical products? Potentially, but we can’t say for sure.”
During our conversation, Truaxe tells me Fountain has cracked the problem that Dr. Salsberg describes: “In the case of our HA molecule, we’ve chosen such big particles, your body won’t interact with them comfortably [i.e., they won’t be used like food before they enter the bloodstream], so they find their way under your skin and offer cushioning.” He sent me two recent studies done at European universities, one on HA and one on collagen ingestibles. Though the sample groups were modest—just 35 and 69 people, respectively—the research shows measurable (meaning not self-reported) improvements, particularly in the skin elasticity of women over 50 who drank collagen. And maybe researchers would have found technical differences in my skin. I just couldn’t see them myself, in front of the mirror.
Rooibos tea spiked with goji berries, a combo that, according to the label, “aggressively fights free radicals so complexions look younger longer.”
Despite this lack of certainty, demand for nutricosmetics is expected to grow by 11.5 percent to become a $7.16-billion industry by 2020, according to analysts at Transparency Market Research. And when Fountain’s Beauty and Hyaluronic Molecules launched in the U.K. last year, 200 stores picked them up, bringing in more than $1.8 million in just one month. As these products proliferate, regulation becomes an issue. Instead of classifying them as cosmetics, Health Canada deems ingestibles to be natural health products (NHPs), a category that became controversial in 2013 when a study out of the University of Guelph tested 44 herbal supplements and found that one-third contained no trace of the active ingredients listed on the bottle.
I contact the author of that study, Steven G. Newmaster, a biology professor and botanical director at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, who explains that the NHP industry is essentially self-regulated, meaning that, yes, Health Canada sets out guidelines and standards, but it’s up to the brands to ensure they’re in compliance. Plus, there’s no standardized DNA testing system in place to guarantee that what’s on the label is actually inside the bottle. Truaxe himself tells me it was very easy to get his products approved in Canada, but he assures me regulations are much stricter in the U.K., where Fountain was first approved for sale (despite its Canadian origin), so they’re of the highest quality and authenticity.
Five squirts in the mouth of so-called harmonized water (H20 treated with electromagnetic waves) purport to neutralize UV rays so you can stay in the sun without burning for up to 30 times longer than without the potion.
Still, the more I dig, the more inclined I am to stick with my old-school slather-on serums and lotions, even if their effects are only temporary—because at least I can see and feel the results (blame my thirst for instant gratification). Ingestible potions might be working on me ever so subtly now, or perhaps the benefits will be discernible decades down the road, when I’m the most radiant octogenarian in my senior’s home. If you have an extra $200 to burn (the total for my two-month supply), the leap of faith may be worth it. But, at this stage, that’s still largely what it is.