You'd be hard-pressed to find a spa intake form that doesn't inquire about diet and nutritional supplements. But until recently, many spa brands have shied away from expanding their product lines with supplement formulations of their own. Instead, they sent their guests to vitamin and health food stores, says esthetician Sonya Dakar, who was doing just that until she launched her Beauty Boot Camp Collection of supplements this past spring.
The thinking now is that a two-pronged beauty approach of topicals and ingestibles is necessary for great skin, and Dakar is just one of a handful of spa brands creating their own line of skincare supplements that support the results of facial treatments and at-home regimens.
Call it a case of consumer demand meets quality control. "Drugstore and supermarket brands contain a wildly varying quality of ingredients, and there's often very little guidance if customers have questions," says registered nutritionist Simone Gloger, who helps personalize supplement regimens for Functionalab, a nutraceutical company. Spas are poised to do the same, pairing supplements to suit skincare concerns and answering spa-goers' questions. Of course, supplements sold in spas shouldn't only provide a holistic skincare solution but also have great ingredients, follow FDA standards, and carry the Good Manufacturing Product seal.
There's a new awareness that we're missing vital nutrients from our food, explains Howard Murad, M.D., the pharmacist-turned-dermatologist who was one of the first on the market with skin supplements in the mid '90s. "Spa-goers are coming to understand that supplements add to our diet, which in turn helps support skin health. In fact, if our food was clean, and we ate really well, we could probably do without skin supplements," says Murad. "The reality is we often don't get enough omegas or fish oils, calcium, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, enzymes, and micronutrients in our food that are good for healthy skin."
Another reason to swallow skincare ingredients, says Murad, is that topical skincare products can only go so deep into the epidermis. Even with today's great skin-penetrating ingredients, "I'd say that we can get topical ingredients into just about 20 percent of the skin," says Murad. "So that leaves 80 percent of the dermis, which we have to feed from the inside. We really shouldn't ignore such a big percentage." Indeed, by offering supplements with vitamins and minerals that support healthy skin, what we're seeing now are beauty brands making the whole skin-body system their concern.
The same spa-goer who books acupuncture, stress-reducing massages, and regular skincare treatments is looking for supplements right now, says Christian Jurist, M.D., the medical director of global education for Pevonia Botanica, which launched a line of skincare supplements about three years ago for mostly holistic reasons. "These individuals aren't interested in drugs and side-effect laden prescriptions for their skincare concerns," says Jurist. "They want safe and natural solutions, particularly for concerns like acne." So instead of stripping the skin with harsh cleansers, the Pevonia Clariplex supplements aim to support the skin's immune system and help keep bacteria and inflammation at bay with methyl sulfonylmethane (MSM), a plant-based sulfur that works like an internal anti-blemish agent, and Praventin, which has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects. Used this way, skincare supplements underscore a holistic spa lifestyle philosophy and treatment approach.
In addition to building on the holistic inner beauty concept, Pevonia discovered its skincare supplements had the effect of accelerating the results of spa treatments. "Because the necessary nutrients are reaching the skin from within, an expedited outcome of benefits can be observed," says Jurist. While not a magic bullet, good skincare supplements, taken as directed, should boost the skin's health and the results of monthly facials.
Using topicals to transform skin is the forté of facialists, but it's become a reductive way of seeing their work. Many are increasingly inquiring about their clients' eating habits. Witness the work of Dakar. For 30 years, the esthetician with her own skincare line has factored in foods as part of her skin-fitness consultation, often preaching the benefits of ditching dairy and coffee, for example, as a way to clear up acne and get healthy skin. "My clients never understood why I inquired about their diet, stress, and more," says Dakar. "They just didn't make the connection between what they ate and how they looked or felt."
That didn't stop Dakar. "After an in-depth consultation, I'd prescribe a regimen of skincare products, services, and supplements," says Dakar, who sent her clients off to Whole Foods with a shopping list. She has since created her own quality-controlled line, consisting of multi-supplement packs with pre-sorted daily morning and evening doses, an "amazing acidophilus" for a healthy GI tract, "which is where 70 percent of your immune system exists," says Dakar, and Ultima Power Shakes, served at her flagship Beverly Hills, CA, clinic. "Having my own line means I can be sure that clients get what they really need," says Dakar.
Consumers are rightly concerned about the supposed health claims made by a few rogue supplement companies. "We can't claim a health-giving benefit or say supplements affect the structure or function of the skin, even if they do," says Jonathan Selzer, Ph.D., technical director at HerbaSway Spa & Beauty, which makes concentrated liquid spa supplements that are added to water. Supplement companies are permitted to say they "support health," but they may not claim to change it, which is a right reserved for drugs only. The FDA sends warning letters to companies engaged in marketing mischief and miracles, but it's important to know that it's not otherwise a regulating body, says Selzer. Transparency of supplement companies is a consumer's best friend. And those that stay on the right side of the law won't make the kind of wrinkle-cure resveratrol promises you get in your spam folder. "If it sounds too good to be true," says Selzer. "It probably is."
Explaining to clients why a one-a-day-type vitamin isn't enough is something all spa supplement brands have in common. "In order to get the quantity and quality their skin and body needs, it's impossible to squeeze all of it into one pill," says Dakar. Murad concurs that just taking a one-a-day is like saying, "I wash my face with soap. Why do I need a moisturizer or anything else for my skin?" While it's true that multi-ingredient formulations may yield benefits in combination—Selzer reports that "years of R&D went into discovering the synergistic wow factor of adding kudzu and isoflavonoids to green tea"—the myth of a magic bullet is still out there.
When is it appropriate to reach for a single-ingredient supplement? When the body can't make it, convert it, or get it any way but through diet. An example: Nordic Naturals Spa Omega Therapi, which is based on skin-cell–benefiting omega 3 and 6. (The fish oils help skin make and hold onto it's own moisture.) Acidophilus is packaged on its own because mixing it affects the good live bacteria. Probiotics and omega oils really make a difference in diet and digestion, which shows in the skin, confirms New York City holistic facialist Julia March. "But I don't think anyone in our business would say they're all you need," says March.
You know a product has consumer pull when vitamin-laced beverages or gummy bears have mass appeal in your grocery store or Sephora. But, of course, these are more of a shortcut than a solution to the health benefits spa-goers are looking for. "People hear about açai but the actual amount of the ingredient is not traceable in those drinks," says Selzer. "Any supplement company worth its salt is sourcing standardized ingredients with a high level of antioxidant acid activity and testing them to make sure they correspond at least to ORAC standards," says Selzer. "These can't be sold for $2."
There's another boon to beverages. Selzer likes the way that liquid supplements start being absorbed the second you sip them. "Some people might find that supplements in pill form are hard to digest, as they hit the system with the nutritional load all at once," he says. "Sipping a supplement is a relaxing activity." Which is why you might be seeing it in a spa lounge or relaxation room near you soon.