Medical News

Skin Care Is Coming for Your Brain

For just $65, the skin-care company Selfmade will sell you a kit that will purportedly help you feel more stable and confident in your relationships—and get better skin all the while. According to the kit’s marketing copy, it comes with a serum that enhances “safety and comfort with self,” a moisturizer that “promotes awareness that past negative experience and emotional states can carry throughout your life,” and the best-selling relationship-psychology book Attached. Together, the “Securely Attached Kit” is a “ritual” that promises to reframe your attitudes to both your skin and self. It’s cheaper and arguably less involved than therapy.

The Securely Attached Kit is part of a new generation of “neurocosmetics” that blur the rhetoric of beauty, brain science, and mental health. “It’s the era of the ‘neuro,’” says Amina Mire, a sociologist at Carleton University who studies cultural messaging surrounding women’s aging and wellness. Americans have long equated skin care with self-care, but the rise of neurocosmetics marks a new escalation in the industry’s messaging: Slather our product on your skin, and it will change your brain chemistry for the better. Or, as a recent blog post by the founder of Murad declared, “Skincare = brain care.”

Such messaging draws from the established principle that the well-being of the skin and brain are interlinked. Certain aspects of so-called psychodermatology are well supported by research. For example, some skin conditions have psychiatric components and vice versa, says Mohammad Jafferany, a psychiatry professor at Central Michigan University. Acne and psoriasis can flare with stress—and they can in turn exacerbate poor mental health by lowering self-esteem. Psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy may improve certain skin conditions, including atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.

But acknowledging the link between mental and dermatological health is an entirely different prospect from claiming (or implying) that the active ingredients in some skin-care products can act directly on the nervous system. A “serotoner” by CAP Beauty, for example, touts its inclusion of griffonia, a plant whose seeds contain the molecule 5-HTP, a chemical precursor to serotonin, to encourage “happier, healthier and more joyful looking skin.” Balms by NEUR|AÉ, a brand under the Sisley group that professes to be “elevated by neuroscience,” combine “neuro-ingredients, neuro-fragrances and neuro-textures” to glaze users with feelings like harmony and serenity. A brand called Justhuman says its ingredients are formulated to control inflammation in the skin by stimulating the production of neuropeptides, chemical messengers that neurons use to signal one another.

[Read: How skin care became an at-home science experiment]

Both Justhuman and Selfmade say their ingredients stimulate beta-endorphins, a type of neuropeptide, to counteract the stress hormone cortisol and relax or rebalance the skin. Beta-endorphins are natural painkillers, mood enhancers, and mood stabilizers. There’s some early evidence that ingesting certain plant extracts or smelling some essential oils stimulates the body to produce beta-endorphins, Angela Lamb, an associate dermatology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told me. Similarly, 5-HTP supplements taken orally can boost serotonin production. But to Lamb’s knowledge, no double-blind placebo studies have shown that any substance applied topically will boost beta-endorphin or serotonin production, either locally in people’s skin or throughout the nervous system broadly.

Instead, much of the research on these ingredients has been performed on animals or cell cultures. In an emailed statement, NEUR|AÉ’s director of research, Jose Ginestar, wrote that the company’s plant extracts are tested for efficacy on cell cultures to see how they modulate excess cortisol or boost endorphins. A representative for Selfmade said in a statement that the company drew on existing cell-culture studies when formulating its products, and has conducted studies via a third party on how its products affect users. (CAP declined to provide any information about its products.) Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist, told me that broad conclusions drawn from cell-culture studies can be misleading. For one thing, applying a substance directly to a cell is different from applying it to the skin, an organ that has evolved, in part, to resist penetration. Plus, Dobos said, researchers typically apply high concentrations of a single ingredient to cell cultures instead of testing a product in its complete formulation, or at realistic levels.

None of this is to say that skin-care products can’t affect the mental health of people who use them. But they’re almost certainly acting less directly than their labels might imply. If, say, the embarrassment of cystic acne weighs on your self-esteem, clearing your skin might have wonderful mood-boosting effects. Tara Well, a psychologist at Barnard College and the author of Mirror Meditation: The Power of Neuroscience and Self-Reflection to Overcome Self-Criticism, Gain Confidence, and See Yourself With Compassion, told me that applying products to your skin can also simply feel good. Some evidence suggests that soothing self-touch can lower physiological signs of stress. By repeating a morning or evening skin-care routine, enjoying the sensations and smells of various creams and getting your “me time,” you might also teach yourself to associate that routine and those products with an elevated mood, Well said.

[Read: The real reason eye cream is so expensive]

Psychologists even recommend lotion as a short-term coping mechanism for teens seeking mental-health treatment, Janet Lydecker, a psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine, told me. Certain smells, such as lavender and rosemary, can have a calming effect, and self-soothing by feeling the texture of the lotion can also be grounding, Lydecker said. “If patients are in their head, preoccupied, ruminating on something that’s causing distress, it’s such a tangible way to cope,” she told me. But such effects have little to do with the chemical makeup of the lotion, and are definitely not meant to act as stand-alone, long-term interventions for poor mental health.

Stephanie Lee, the CEO and founder of Selfmade, insisted in an interview that her products’ formulas are boons to mental health. She acknowledged that a moisturizer alone won’t result in big, lasting psychological changes, but she nevertheless argued that the company’s products could have a role in helping young buyers cope with issues of anxiety and low self-worth, especially in the midst of America’s teen-mental-health crisis. The mission of Selfmade, Lee told me, is to teach young folks how to “use skin as data for what might be happening in our minds”—in other words, to look to their skin as a sign of, and potential solution to, inner turmoil.

Some experts argue that conflating skin care and mental health will only further stigmatize wrinkles, pimples, and other perceived flaws. “Any time that we entangle appearance with morality, then people who don’t look as good are judged for that in ways that are fundamentally unfair and problematic,” Kjerstin Gruys, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco, told me. If having good skin and good mental health is a matter of buying a $65 skin-care kit, then not having both, or either, must be your own fault.

[Read: The best skin-care trick is being rich]

Several decades ago, when wellness movements began to enter the mainstream and serious academics were debunking ill-advised health fads, the beauty industry embraced the practice of marketing products as “cosmeceuticals,” a blend of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, to imply medicinal properties. Similar terms such as nutraceuticals and phytoceuticals followed. It’s all too fitting that “neuro” cosmetics have taken over at a time when having a therapist, setting boundaries, and being fluent in therapy-speak have become markers of good health and character. The beauty industry has always named its products to evoke aspirations that go beyond the cosmetic, Lee told me. And so far, it’s worked. After all, Lee said, “self-actualization sells.”