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Kombucha toner, oat milk shampoo, beet serum: health food is everywhere in the beauty aisle. | Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Thanks to a collective obsession with wellness and a growing concern about beauty product safety, brands are turning to trendy food ingredients — but do they actually do anything? 

When you think of the beauty and personal care aisle at Walmart, images of deodorant, razors, and utilitarian lotion brands like Cetaphil and Jergens likely come to mind. But as of the end of August, you can also buy brightly colored bottles of skin care potions with descriptors like “super fruits watermelon hydrating juicy serum” and “honey manuka day gel cream” at the big box retailer. These products would not be out of place at Sephora or Anthropologie, based both on their looks and their ingredients.

The line of almost 30 skin care products, called Earth to Skin, will be exclusive to the superstore, according to Allure. Everything will cost $10 or less, a rare accessible price point for skin care.

But what this launch really highlights is that “superfood” ingredients like ginger and oat milk — popular in wellness enclaves and in $12 juice cleanses for years — have now officially gone mainstream in products to put on your face, skin, and hair. PopSugar just wrote an article about finding 11 different matcha products at Sephora. Earlier this year, Aveeno launched an oat milk hair care line. The US Chamber of Commerce even wrote a blog post in August enthusiastically noting that “kitchen beauty” offered business opportunities for entrepreneurs. Food as an ingredient in beauty products is more common than it has ever been.

 Walmart
A trial kit of Walmart’s new Earth to Skin skin care range.

So how did the beauty aisle start looking like Whole Foods? We now have kombucha toner and oat milk shampoo because of the collision of two major consumer moments: the pervasiveness of wellness culture, and the increasing fear that our beauty products are dangerous. And much like the dietary trends that many of these products are inspired by, there is often not a lot of truth to the claims about what they can do.

What foodie beauty looks like

Theresa Yee, a beauty editor at trend-forecasting agency WGSN, says her firm first identified the trend back in 2015. And she says it’s only “getting bigger.” Fermented ingredients, like kombucha, are newly trending in products. “And celery juice is the next matcha,” she says. This seems to be true, as gymnast Nastia Liukin just released a celery cream with Volition, inspired by the celery juice her mom made for her growing up. (It is also a huge wellness craze popularized by the Medical Medium, a Goop-favorite who says spirits talk to him about health.)

Putting food ingredients in beauty products is not a new concept, of course. Pre-Olay, our ancestors smeared all sorts of edible stuff on their faces to beautify themselves. If you listened to the Dream podcast about MLMs, you know that Holiday Magic sold products in the ‘60s stuffed with fruity ingredients. Even after the dawn of high-tech skin care, edible ingredients still appeared in products, and a few years ago beauty hacks featuring DIY skin care were all the rage. You can find the stalwart (and much maligned by skin care enthusiasts) St. Ives apricot scrub on drugstore shelves, where it’s been since the 1980s. Aveeno’s brand has been based on the alleged skin-soothing properties of oatmeal since its inception. Fruits and grains are healthy. The beauty industry has relied on them off and on through the decades to promote the “goodness” of their products.

But there are many more of them now, and they reflect the trendy foods people are eating. Youth to the People’s whole skin care range uses these ingredients and includes a spirulina/blue algae/kale/spinach mask and kombucha toner. Aveeno’s hair care range, launched at the beginning of this year, features collections highlighting oat milk blends, apple cider vinegar blends, blackberry quinoa, and fresh greens. Briogeo offers shampoos and conditioners that include apple, banana, and coconut, packaged in bottles that look like drinkable yogurt. Turmeric, the ingredient that makes trendy golden lattes golden, finds its way into lots of products, like the popular turmeric and cranberry seed mask from Kiehl’s.

Several years ago, brands like Juice Beauty and Tata Harper started to offer ranges that took the farm-to-table food concept and made it farm-to-face. Now there are second-generation brands like Farmacy (get it?) that offer the ingredient story with a bit of fun mixed in. It recently launched a pink serum containing cherry juice.

Glow Recipe brought the trend to the next level, pioneering watermelon creams that suddenly made that ingredient popular, several avocado products, and a vitamin C pineapple serum. They’re packaged in cute jars that look like fruit. It also has a lower-priced range of skin care called Sweet Chef, sold at Target. Its products highlight beets, kale, and ginger. (Walmart’s Earth to Skin line seems heavily influenced by and sells copycat products similar to those offered by Glow Recipe, Ole Henriksen, Farmacy and other brands you can find at Sephora.)

Origins in wellness and “clean” beauty

In the current wellness vernacular, so-called superfoods are nutrient-dense compounds that supposedly have powerful health benefits. But the term is pretty meaningless.

“‘Superfood’ is an arbitrary definition. It’s a marketing term,” says David Tyrrell, a global skincare analyst at Mintel, a market research firm. But it’s been so pervasive for so many years that consumers now take it at face value. Beauty brands have capitalized on the halo of health these ingredients have to sell products in a new way.

Ultimately, the origin of the trend goes back to the popularity of wellness in general. The elusive pursuit of wellness, which includes ingesting all sorts of herbs and plants via actual food or, increasingly, supplements, is now itself mainstream.

“Consumers understand the ingredients in food and understand they have benefits when you eat them. They are now looking for these ingredients in their beauty products,” Yee says, explaining that it’s a truism that what you eat reflects on the condition of your skin, so it would seem to make sense that putting healthy ingredients on your skin would do the same. Or at least that is what beauty brands assume consumers will think.

The other factor that helped this trend take hold is the increasing distrust that consumers have about the safety of beauty products, which are not as heavily regulated in the US as they are in other countries. “Clean” beauty is on the upswing, with brands starting to proclaim that they only use safe ingredients and retailers like Sephora and CVS policing ingredients they deem to be undesirable.

“Consumers are overwhelmed by this concern that ingredients could be unsafe. At this juncture, consumers who use beauty products perceive natural ingredients are safer,” says Tyrell. But they aren’t necessarily safer. Plus, the words “natural” and “clean” are just as meaningless as “superfood,” with no officially sanctioned definition. But “pumpkin” and “pomegranate” are more familiar and comforting than “pentylene glycol” at this point. Products still contain these traditional compounds, but the natural stuff is what you’ll see in big print on the jar.

Glow Recipe has roots in Korean beauty, another factor influencing the trend. According to Mintel, Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, and China have incorporated ingredients like ginger and green tea into their beauty products for decades. South Korea also has a heritage of whimsical packaging that makes using the products fun. Tonymoly has a hair mask product that looks like a squeeze bottle of mayo, and its hand cream packed in a jar shaped like a peach is beloved among its fans.

Glow Recipe co-founder Sarah Lee calls the concept “skintertainment” and notes that “sensoriality” has always been important in K-beauty. “Pampering your skin and yourself should be enjoyable and fun, not a chore,” she says. Food ingredients also make the products seem not so clinical and intimidating.

Marketing sleight of hand

The biggest question though: Do these food ingredients even do anything? Well, it depends.

Rhonda Davis, a cosmetic chemist, calls them “marketable ingredients” and says the first clue about efficacy can be found in the ingredient list. In the US, products are required to be listed in the order of concentration, from high to low, though ingredients present at 1 percent or less can be listed in any order. She says a rough rule of thumb is to search out the preservative ingredients, which are commonly compounds like phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, and ethylhexylglycerin. Check out which ingredients are listed below and after the preservative.

 Youth to the People
Youth to the People’s kombucha toner.

“When marketable ingredients are listed after the preservative systems, the consumer is only getting a small percentage of that marketable ingredient, which won’t do much for the skin,” Davis says.

Youth to the People’s Kombucha + 11% AHA Power Toner is a great example. Lactic acid and glycolic acid are the third and fourth ingredients listed. The preservatives, phenoxyethanol and potassium sorbate, are eighth and ninth. All the superfood ingredients like citrus and ferments (the kombucha), are the last few ingredients listed.

“[It] most likely works wonders on the skin due to the glycolic and lactic acid blend. After reviewing the formula, I would have to question if the kombucha and tree bark ferment ingredients have any impact,” Davis says. Acids are well known and studied for their exfoliating properties and are used in tons of products now.

So it’s not necessarily that the products don’t do anything. It’s just that sometimes they work in spite of — not because of — the tiny concentration of whatever superfood ingredient is touted on the label. So many products contain common ingredients like glycerin, which ultimately keeps skin hydrated better and more efficiently than any exotic jackfruit extract. Walmart’s Earth to Skin Avocado Overnight Mask has glycerin and shea listed before avocado on the ingredient list, so it’s probably a decent moisturizer. But not necessarily because of the avocado.

But being high up on the ingredient list doesn’t mean an ingredient will be effective either. “Not all ingredient manufacturers test or provide clinical results for their ingredients,” says Davis. Unlike drugs, skin care makers don’t need to prove that something works. Some companies do send out completed products for clinical testing, so they can make claims like “reduces 30% of wrinkles in 60 days” or whatever, but that’s rare. Davis says instead that beauty companies rely on vague wording like “will appear smoother.” Walmart’s watermelon serum is “brightening” and “radiance boosting,” two vague terms that are used frequently in skin care marketing now.

This is all a time-honored tradition in beauty. The only thing that changes are the trendy ingredients. Now, the stage is set for food companies to launch their own beauty lines. Your move, Oatly.

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Author: Cheryl Wischhover

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