What Are Neurocosmetics And How Can They Bridge The Gap Between Your Mind And Your Skin?

With a new skincare trend popping up every so often, shopping for products and checking their ingredients list can be confusing. For example, do you stick with your hyaluronic acid-infused serum or is it worth trying a beta-glucan-powered alternative? Well, here's a buzzy skincare category that can help streamline your search by looking beyond a product's efficacy on your skin and considering its more holistic effect on your well-being.

Neurocosmetics are skincare products formulated to target the connection between the skin and the brain. However, instead of having a psychological effect, they work on the physiological level using the two-way communication path between the brain and the skin. Just as the brain sends signals to the dermis so it gets flushed or raises goosebumps in reaction to certain triggers, the skin also transmits cues to the brain. In fact, it has direct links to the central nervous system, with more than 1,000 nerve endings contained within an average square inch of skin. The 2021 study Neurocosmetics in Skincare also stated that, much like the body's nervous system, specific skin cells can locally create and release neurotransmitters or chemical messengers such as serotonin and dopamine to serve localized functions. 

Neurocosmetics leverage that skin-brain pathway to achieve skin balance. Think of how a mentholated after-sun balm works: Its cooling sensation temporarily numbs the nerve endings on heated, irritated skin. It also makes the brain believe that the body's temperature is decreasing, thus reducing blood flow to the affected area and creating a sense of relief.

A common misconception about neurocosmetics

Neurocosmetics have been around for a while. They were first defined by dermatology professor Laurent Misery in 2000 and neurocosmetic ingredients such as the aforementioned menthol and capsaicin have long been used to address skin discomfort; in the latter's case, its heating effect is said to improve circulation and moisture retention.  

Neurocosmetics' impact on the skin-brain connection is usually mentioned in discussions about mood-lifting or psychocosmetic products, especially in marketing campaigns. All cosmetic products fall under psychocosmetics, from makeup and skincare to personal care items like deodorants and aromatherapy oils. Aside from their main purposes, they're formulated to increase one's positive self-perception and lift their disposition through sensory qualities such as scent and texture.

It's different with neurocosmetics, though. Their ingredients work, first, by regulating the skin's cutaneous nerve endings and activating specific skin receptors whose functions include relaxing facial muscles to smoothen out wrinkles and modulating hypersensitive skin's reaction to stressors and environmental stimuli. Neurocosmetics also regulate skin cells' functions whenever they counteract the neurotransmitters' effects. Ingredients like neuropeptides even make products work as neurotransmitters, producing soothing and stimulating sensations that make the skin "feel good" and improve its complexion and barrier performance. "When I talk about neurocosmetics, most people usually think about well-being, improving mood, and self-love," Last Skincare founder Katarzyna Janocha explained to The Zoe Report. "However, from the scientific point of view, neuroactive ingredients strongly influence skin cells' performance and are powerful tools when addressing skin aging, tissue regeneration, re-densifying skin, and wound healing."

Plant extracts as neurocosmetic ingredients

Although synthetic peptides are also used to affect the skin's neurotransmitters, the majority of neurocosmetic ingredients are botanicals, marine extracts, naturally occurring peptides, and vitamins. This has helped the field be perceived as a natural, even "clean" form of holistic skincare.

As interest in neurocosmetics grows, brands are exploring new ingredients and specific areas of neurocosmetic science to unlock further innovations. One of the buzzier research topics is the use of cannabidiol (CBD), an active ingredient found in cannabis or marijuana, in cosmetic products. With recent studies confirming the presence of endocannabinoid receptors in the skin, some brands such as I.D. Swiss Botanicals are studying how CBD interacts with these receptors to prompt the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS) to either soothe pain in a specific area or fight skin inflammation. The ECS is important in maintaining homeostasis in the body since it manages crucial functions and processes, such as sleep, mood, appetite, and memory.

Some neurocosmetic companies have also begun including aromatherapeutic components in their formulations to give their products a mood-lifting effect on top of their physiological benefits. Last Skincare, for example, uses vanilla and lemongrass extracts to make users feel more calm and even indulgent while doing their beauty routine. Janocha described to Byrdie, "Inhaling these ingredients during application stimulates the limbic system, a set of structures in the brain that regulates mood, and is very closely related to the sense of smell."

Be a discerning shopper

Although neurocosmetics present a lot of exciting possibilities, more research needs to be done. Neurocosmetic brands also face the challenge of developing products that are more accessible in terms of suitability for and efficacy on different skin types, affordable price points, and multitasking purposes.

On top of a still-small list of principal and functional neurocosmetic ingredients that are used in the market, there are no clear regulatory frameworks regarding neurocosmetics yet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has clear definitions for both cosmetics and drugs and presents guidelines for categorizing a product as both a cosmetic and a drug. However, it's unclear under which classification neurocosmetics fall. This limits how they can be marketed and promoted to the public. Cosmetic chemist Esther Olu further explained to The Zoe Report, "Cosmetics act on the superficial epidermis. It's not that they can't get to the dermis in some way, shape, or form, but [brands] can't claim [products] get to the dermis and those nerve signals. If they do, they would be considered drugs and would require a bunch of documentation and review by the FDA to get it approved."

Consumers are thus advised to temper their expectations of the available neurocosmetics in the market. Do your diligent research before making a purchase. Be discerning with beauty brands' marketing claims and do not be afraid to ask questions that would test the validity of what they are advertising.