Why Is There Caffeine in My Skin Care Products?
The truth about why there's caffeine in your beauty products, and whether it provides long-lasting effects for your skin health
You’re probably heard that caffeine-containing drinks like coffee and tea may be good for your health. Although too much caffeine is dangerous—energy drinks and supplements in particular—in moderation it’s thought to be just fine.
Coffee, in particular, has been well studied and associated with all kinds of good things, including a reduction in the risk of heart trouble and even some neurological conditions. (Although both coffee and tea are thought to have other potentially beneficial ingredients besides caffeine.) That’s what happens if you put the stuff in your body, but what about on your body?
Caffeine has certain properties that might also be good for your skin—and cosmetic companies have introduced caffeine-containing products like eye creams, anti-cellulite lotions, tinted moisturizers, and cleansers that deliver it. But, will a caffeine-containing product actually make your skin look better than a caffeine-free product? When it comes to skin health, here’s what the experts say.
Manufacturers say caffeine delivers results
There are several reasons skincare companies include caffeine in their products, they say. “Caffeine, derived from coffee beans, helps to visibly refresh and recharge the skin,” says Lizz Starr, executive director of product development for Origins, which features a line of caffeine-infused products called Ginzing.
Susie Wang, founder and skincare chemist at 100% PURE, which also features products containing caffeine, says the ingredient has many benefits, such as “around the eyes, it brightens dark circles and de-puffs the area; on the body, it helps detoxify and minimize cellulite; on the skin, it accelerates the healing of sun-damaged skin; and in the bath, it increases circulation and assists with lymphatic drainage.”
How does caffeine accomplish all these benefits in skincare products? “When caffeine is used topically in a cream or serum, a chemical present in it called chlorogenic acid (CGA) can soothe sunburned skin and help heal acne-prone skin with its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties,” Wang says. “Antioxidants in caffeine can also help reduce signs of hyperpigmentation in the skin, including dark circles, sun spots, redness, and fine lines.”
“Lastly, when coffee is used in a scrub, it can help improve the body’s circulation by dilating the blood vessels,” Wang says. This process is known as microcirculation, says Wang, which helps to reduce the appearance of cellulite on the skin.
What caffeine does, according to dermatologists
Although there is some evidence that drinking coffee may have some of these benefits for the skin, there is less proof of the effects of topical treatments.
“The research we have on these products is not that substantial, and what we have is not entirely convincing,” says dermatologist Rajani Katta, MD, volunteer clinical faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and McGovern Medical School at UT Health in Houston. “There are limitations to the research. For example, several of the cellulite cream studies have been performed in animals, not humans. Some limited studies of cellulite creams in humans—in one study only 15 people—saw a benefit, but since they didn’t have a placebo group, it can be hard to really evaluate the study results.”
In another study Dr. Katta mentions, researchers looked at a caffeine gel to see if it reduced under-eye puffiness. “The researchers compared the caffeine gel to a similar gel formulation that contained no caffeine, and the results were actually similar in both groups,” she says. “This study demonstrates how important it is to have a placebo group when you’re trying to study the effects of skin care ingredients.”
The researchers theorized that the reduction in puffiness wasn’t actually due to the caffeine itself, she says, but rather the cooling effect of the gel formulation that led to the constriction of the blood vessels and less fluid in the skin.
In addition, as a 2020 paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology on oral consumption points out, although we often think of “coffee” and “caffeine” interchangeably, there could be another property of coffee in particular that may affect the skin.
Caffeine could be beneficial for skin, in theory
Despite the lack of studies proving its effectiveness, in theory, caffeine, could be beneficial for the skin. “The ingredient caffeine is an antioxidant, so it certainly could be helpful for rejuvenating aging skin and treating wrinkles,” says dermatologist Patricia Farris, MD, in Metairie, Louisana. “Caffeine also constricts blood vessels which is why it is found in many anti-redness skincare products and for reducing under-eye puffiness. [But] there are very few studies on this ingredient alone.” She points to the same small study of only 15 patients that showed some improvement in cellulite.
“Here’s what I tell patients about caffeine: When coupled with other ingredients, caffeine does provide skin benefits,” she says. “While there aren’t a lot of studies on this ingredient alone, cosmetic chemists have used caffeine in combination with other ingredients because it has unique benefits on the skin, like constricting blood vessels.”
Can caffeine in makeup give you a ‘coffee buzz’?
If you worry that using these products will turn you into a jittery mess, Dr. Katta and Dr. Farris say that’s unlikely. “You aren’t going to absorb enough caffeine from a skincare product to give you a coffee buzz,” Dr. Farris says.
But again, there’s not much research on the topic. “We don’t have enough research studies to answer this question well—ideally, you would want to have volunteers apply caffeine-containing creams to their skin and then measure the level of caffeine in their bloodstream,” Dr. Katta says. “With the research we have today, we know that caffeine does have the ability to penetrate through the skin barrier, so theoretically it could have a stimulant effect, if you applied enough of a caffeine cream to a large enough surface area of your body. This shouldn’t be an issue with the small amount used in an under-eye cream, but it theoretically may be an issue if you were using an anti-cellulite cream all over your legs, for example.”
People who are extra-sensitive to the effects of caffeine may want to avoid using the products over large body surface areas, Dr. Katta says. “But in general, if you’re using them over a smaller area of the body such as the eyes, we wouldn’t be worried about systemic risks.”
For this reason, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, Dr. Farris says you may want to avoid caffeine-containing beauty products. However, it’s unlikely you’ll go over the 200 mg recommended caffeine limit by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) for pregnant women.
People who have a specific allergy to a particular ingredient should exercise caution and read ingredient lists. As always, consult your doctor about any individual medical conditions or concerns you might have before starting a new skincare regimen. (And be sure to check out these new game-changing anti-agers, according to dermatologists.)
- Lizz Starr, executive director of product development for Origins
- Susie Wang, founder and skincare chemist at 100% PURE
- Skin Pharmacology and Physiology: "Caffeine's Mechanisms of Action and Its Cosmetic Use"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "A Phase 3 Randomized Trial of Nicotinamide for Skin-Cancer Chemoprevention"
- International Journal of Dermatology: "Skin photoprotection and consumption of coffee and polyphenols in healthy middle-aged Japanese females"
- Rajani Katta, MD, volunteer clinical faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and McGovern Medical School at UT Health
- Annals of Dermatology: "Efficacy of Slimming Cream Containing 3.5% Water-Soluble Caffeine and Xanthenes for the Treatment of Cellulite: Clinical Study and Literature Review"
- Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science: "Evaluation of Caffeine Gels on Physicochemical Characteristics and In Vivo Efficacy in Reducing Puffy Eyes"
- Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: "Coffee and skin—Considerations beyond the caffeine perspective"
- Patricia Farris, MD, dermatologist based in Metairie, Louisiana
- ACOG: "Committee Opinion: Moderate Caffeine Consumptions During Pregnancy"