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Do caffeine eye and skin creams actually work?

Caffeine does something, but it’s not clear exactly what.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • People widely consume caffeine across the world. Now there are skin products containing the compound that claim to “refresh tired-looking eyes.” Do they actually work?
  • Studies suggest that when applied topically, caffeine may prevent excessive accumulation of fat in cells, protect cells against ultraviolet radiation, slow down photo-aging of the skin, and increase the microcirculation of blood in the skin.
  • The limited data currently available suggests that caffeine skin creams do offer the claimed benefits, albeit on par with other cheaper (and caffeine-free) products, and only temporarily.

Caffeine has humble origins. An alkaloid naturally found in many leaves, seeds, and fruits, it acts as an insecticide, warding off or even killing bugs that would feed upon the plant producing it.

But now, caffeine is so much more. When humans realized that it’s a stimulant when consumed, we started gulping it down in coffee, tea, and soda. It is now the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world, consumed by hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — each day.

Google on caffeine

Given caffeine‘s popularity, it was only a matter of time before it started appearing in more unlikely places. One such application is skin cream, the most popular of which targets the “periorbital” area around the eyes. Google searches for “caffeine skincare” have skyrocketed 300% since 2018. Inquirers are directed to products that claim to visibly reduce “the appearance of crow’s feet wrinkles and the look of dark circles,” provide “smoother, firmer skin in just four weeks,” and “refresh tired-looking eyes.”

The products and claims seem like the seductively intuitive yet pseudoscientific creations of alternative medicine practitioners. After all, caffeine wakes us when consumed, so maybe applying it topically will make our skin look less tired? People seem to be buying these products in droves, at least as their proliferation on Amazon might indicate. But do they actually work?

Caffeine is doing something

“Caffeine is known to stimulate enzymes that break down fats, so it can temporarily dehydrate fat cells,” Cleveland Clinic aesthetician Lori Scarso explained. “That results in a smoother and more firm appearance for a little while.”

“If you have under-eye bags due to genetics, caffeine is not going to help,” she added.

Research exploring caffeine’s effects on the skin of lab animals and on skin cells does show that the compound does — something. As researchers at the Academy of Cosmetics and Health Care in Poland summarized in a 2012 review, caffeine: prevents excessive accumulation of fat in cells, protects cells against ultraviolet radiation, slows down photo-aging of the skin, and increases the microcirculation of blood in the skin.

So, do caffeine eye and skin creams work?

But do these benefits found from animal and in vitro cellular studies actually translate to more “youthful” skin when humans utilize commercially available products (which often contain around 3% caffeine)?

To answer that, what is really needed is a randomized, controlled trial where subjects are blind (no pun intended) to what products they are using. And since the turn of the century, there has been a grand total of one, conducted all the way back in 2009. Researchers at Procter & Gamble (coincidentally the maker of a few caffeine-containing skincare products) carried out two trials with just 77 women aged 30 to 70, in which the participants applied 0.5 gram of individual products (they didn’t know which) to half of their face twice daily for four weeks. One of these products was a caffeinated eye cream. After four weeks, all the products improved the smoothness of the skin under the eye and reduced the apparent depth of larger wrinkles, as measured by sophisticated skin imaging. However, the caffeine eye cream was no better than the other lotions (a daytime SPF 30 lotion also containing antioxidants, a night cream, and a wrinkle treatment).

So where does that leave us? For starters, it leaves us wanting more trials, preferably not performed by a company with a financial interest in the success of the products being tested.

It also leaves us skeptical, yet ambivalent. The limited data currently available suggests that caffeine skin creams do offer the claimed benefits, albeit on par with other cheaper (and caffeine-free) products, and only temporarily — you have to continually apply the creams for the desired “youthful” effect. If that sounds like it’s worth paying between $20 and $40 per ounce of product, go for it.