Caffeine in Skin Care: Does It Actually Work?
Perk up your skin-care routine with this trendy ingredient — dermatologists say there’s real science behind it.
Caffeine is not just for mornings anymore.
This simple, effective ingredient is gaining traction in the beauty world, thanks to its popularity on TikTok and to celebrity endorsers who say caffeine-infused skin-care products are a quick, affordable way to give your face a little pick-me-up.
Why Caffeine Is Added to Skin-Care Products
While it may sound too good to be true, those caffeine skin-care devotees may be onto something.
Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it makes your blood vessels smaller and tighter, says Jeffrey Hsu, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the codirector of Oak Dermatology in Chicago.
“When used in skin care, caffeine reduces blood flow to the skin and makes it look brighter and tighter,” Dr. Hsu says. “It’s often seen as an anti-aging or wrinkle-smoothing ingredient in face care, eye care, and even body care.”
The key to making skin-care products work is proper formulation. In particular, when the right amount of caffeine is used, it can be an effective ingredient to freshen up your skin, eliminate dark under-eye circles, and reduce puffiness in your face.
Several studies, like one published in August 2020 in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, show that caffeine molecules are small enough to pass through the top layers of your skin, so they can really dig in and do their job intradermally, explains Hsu.
It’s worth noting that just because a product claims it contains caffeine, that doesn’t mean it will give you the benefits you’re looking for, he says.
“In order for caffeine to be effective as mentioned, it must be applied in highly concentrated doses,” says Hsu. “I always recommend that patients go with medical-grade skin-care products, as they are backed by controlled studies that prove the products' formulations, ingredient transparency, and efficacy.”
When evaluating skin-care labels, marketing jargon like “clinically proven” and “pro grade” are not necessarily synonymous with “medical grade,” adds Hsu. “Medical-grade products are dispensed at a physician’s office or a med spa that has a medical director overseeing their operations.”
Potential Benefits of Caffeine Skin-Care Products
Caffeine primarily works through circulation, so it’s fast acting, protective against oxidative stress, and anti-inflammatory for the skin, says Ife Rodney, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics in Fulton, Maryland.
Caffeine may also protect against photodamage, like fine lines and wrinkles after sun exposure. “Studies show caffeine helps when it’s applied after exposure to UVA and UVB rays,” Dr. Rodney says. “You will get that immediate lift and oxidative-stress protection, but it can wane over time. Skin-care products should include other active ingredients that can help repair your skin.”
Some other ingredients that are great for skin include aloe, tea tree oil, shea butter, vitamin C, and jojoba oil, says Rodney. “These all have antioxidants, which slow oxidative stress and may even help restore damaged cells,” she explains.
Speaking of sun-soaked skin: A growing body of research in animals suggests that caffeine may have anticarcinogenic properties, says Hsu.
“In one study done with mice, for example, caffeine applied topically promoted apoptosis, or cell death, in cells damaged by sunburn,” he says, referencing a paper published in December 2021 in the Journal of Biology, Medicine, and Biochemistry. “Researchers concluded that topical caffeine resulted in actual cell death of squamous cell carcinoma and benign skin tumors.” Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer. Of course, large-scale clinical trials are needed to determine whether humans would see the same anti-cancer effects.
Are There Any Downsides to Using Caffeine in Skin Care?
The main downside is that the skin benefits of caffeine work for only a short period of time (like a cup of coffee), says Rodney. “Caffeine is a temporary solution and will not cure wrinkles or under-eye bags,” she says. “You should still invest in other skin-care items that work well with this product and target your specific skin issue long term.” Examples include a cleanser with salicylic acid, serums with vitamin C and niacinamide, moisturizers with ceramides, and a broad-spectrum sunscreen, Rodney suggests.
Caffeine can also irritate your skin, causing redness from the increased blood flow. If you have sensitive skin or a caffeine sensitivity, you may want to get started by testing out this ingredient in small doses on a limited part of your skin.
“I suggest doing a small patch test, the size of a dime behind the ear or on the jawline,” says Hsu. “Do it a couple of times and see how the skin reacts before using it.”
Caffeine Skin-Care Products Dermatologists Love
One of the most popular skin-care products is Inkey Caffeine Eye Cream ($9.99, Sephora.com). The actor Gemma Chan and the musician Alana Haim reportedly swear by this formula to reduce puffy eyes in the morning. It contains a popular anti-aging peptide called Matrixyl 3000, which is known to enhance anti-wrinkle performance, though more research is needed to determine how well it can permeate your skin, according to a paper from the March 2022 International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
And that’s not the only product you’ll find caffeine in — the ingredient has cropped up in serums, body scrubs, and even cellulite treatments. Keep in mind that caffeine’s skin-care properties are better suited to some types of products than others. For example, caffeine toner is one product to consider skipping. Because the caffeine concentration in toners is so low, and the effects are so short-lived, caffeine toners are unlikely to offer more benefits than other toners on the market, says Rodney. A caffeine-infused cream or serum would elicit stronger benefits, she says.
If you want to try the caffeine-in-skin-care trend, dermatologists recommend the following products.
1. Biossance Squalane + Caffeine Toning Body Cream
Per Rodney, this product mixes caffeine with plant-based derivatives, which are active ingredients that help soothe skin, speed cell turnover, or provide added hydration. She notes that it also contains squalene, which research in the April 2022 Trends in Biotechnology suggests will hydrate the skin.
Biossance Squalane + Caffeine Toning Body Cream, $28, Sephora.com
2. InterFuse Treatment Cream EYE
This medical-grade buy contains Kakadu plum extract, which is chock-full of antioxidants to help combat free radicals, which break down collagen, an effect that contributes to signs of premature aging by causing fine lines and wrinkles, says Hsu. A study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Phytocosmetics and Natural Ingredients found that Kakadu plum extract retains high antioxidant activity even after it’s added to a cream.
InterFuse Treatment Cream EYE, $110, Skinbetter.com
3. The Ordinary Caffeine 5% + ECGC Depuffing Eye Serum
Rodney likes this product because the caffeine is derived from green tea, which contains more antioxidants than caffeine derived from coffee. “Antioxidants are great for repairing the delicate skin that’s under the eyes,” she says. Rodney notes that it also contains hyaluronic acid, to help keep the skin under your eyes plump and well hydrated. Research supports the idea that hyaluronic acid can help rejuvenate skin and stimulate the production of collagen, which keeps skin firm and bouncy.
The Ordinary Caffeine 5% + ECGC Depuffing Eye Serum, $7.50, Sephora.com
4. ZO Skin Health Cellulite Control Cream
In addition to caffeine, this medical-grade product, which Hsu recommends, contains plankton extract to hydrate the skin. A review published in June 2020 in Marine Drugs suggests that marine-based ingredients, like algae, may have a range of skin-supporting benefits, from reducing pigmentation to reducing wrinkles.
ZO Skin Health Cellulite Control Cream, $98, ZOSkinHealth.com
Caffeine is growing in popularity as a vital skin-care ingredient, and for good reason. It temporarily constricts blood vessels to reduce puffiness and give your skin a fresh, taut appearance, not unlike your favorite Instagram filter.
While its effects are notable, they are temporary. Your best bet may be to use products that combine caffeine with ingredients that promote skin repair over the long haul, like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, or marine algae.
Remember, caffeine applied to your skin can still be absorbed into your bloodstream. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, be sure to use it with caution and check in with your dermatologist to see if it’s the right fit for your skin-care needs.
Additional reporting by Elena Barrera.