When I was a kid, I hated salmon. My disdain disappointed my mother, who prepared the fish multiple times per week. “Mmm,” she would trill whenever she’d finished her own omega-rich dinner, “good for the skin!” As a 9-year-old (and someone with a sufficient supply of squalene), I couldn’t have cared less about salmon’s supposed skincare benefits. I was far more interested in the Swedish fish gummies I’d procured from my schoolmates.
It wasn’t until I was old enough to care about my skin’s health that I finally gave fish a chance. To my mother’s credit, salmon is packed with omega-3s and healthy, glow-inducing fats. (Plus, I now find it delicious.) Once I understood the correlation between nutrition and skin health, I found myself choosing nutrient-dense foods more frequently. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I hopped aboard the skin supplement train — which, in 2019, is zipping along like the TGV®.
[Editor’s note: As always, talk to your doctor before starting or stopping any new supplement.]
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when retinol — one of the most lauded anti-aging skincare ingredients — turned ingestible. Liquified, in fact. To date, drinkable retinol is a concept unique to DirtyLemon®, a beverage brand that peddles nutraceutical elixirs. (The brand sells exclusively via text message, so don’t expect them from your local grocer.)
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
The concept of drinkable retinol is objectively avant-garde (admittedly, it was this cool factor that initially drew me in). But ingenuity and aesthetically-pleasing packaging alone do not spur collagen production. According to Laurie Brodsky, HBSc, ND, an in-house naturopath for the brand, the skin benefits come from retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate. “[These ingredients] are forms of vitamin A derived from retinyl esters,” she explains.
If these ingredients sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen them listed on skincare labels. Retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate are popular because they’re both pro-retinols, which means that they are capable of converting into retinoic acid. (Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A that’s ultimately responsible for all of those wonderful anti-aging benefits.)
So, what’s the benefit of sipping these ingredients when you can just slather them on instead? According to Brodsky, it’s all about the body’s conversion process. When applied topically, retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate must jump through a few hoops before they can be effective. Specifically, enzymes in our skin must convert them into retinaldehyde, then into retinoic acid. Drinking these ingredients, however, circumvents the conversion process. “Unlike topical retinoids, ingestible retinol is metabolized through digestion,” Brodsky says.
Another purported benefit is the drink’s lack of irritating topical side effects — side effects like redness and peeling, which are often par for the course with topical retinol. Ingesting retinol allows it to bypass the skin; theoretically, this lack of contact means lack of physical skin irritation.
Jenny Liu, MD, a dermatologist based in Minneapolis, isn’t entirely sold on sipping her skincare. (Case in point: she does not believe in ingestible collagen.) Nevertheless, she’s not ruling out ingestible retinol. Much of Dr. Liu’s reasoning echoes Brodsky’s, but she also brings up an entirely different point: isotretinoin, a prescription retinoid taken in pill form to treat severe acne. “Studies have shown that prescription isotretinoin, or oral retinoid, does confer similar effects on photoaging as topical retinoids,” Dr. Liu notes. Given that ingested retinol has been shown to mimic the effects of topical retinol before, it’s plausible that a retinol beverage might just deliver, too.
That said, the potency of an OTC retinol drink is not commensurate with a medical-strength pill; unlike isotretinoin, DirtyLemon +Retinol does not require a prescription. Not to mention, “With OTC ingestible retinol, it is unclear how much of the active retinoic acid is ingested,” Dr. Liu notes. “Therefore, the benefits and side effects are not as clear.”
One thing that is clear: the DirtyLemon drinks are selling like hotcakes. Since its launch in March, +retinol has been a consistent bestseller for the brand, Brodsky shares. Full disclosure: the brand sent me some to try — so I didn’t shell out $65, and I can’t speak to the texting delivery experience. However, I did receive a normal-sized order of six bottles, packaged neatly in a black lunchbox. When I unzipped the container, I was dazzled by a row of golden beverages, glowing in a way I hoped my skin might glow after I’d gotten my fix.
Alas, chugging a bottle — or even all six — wouldn’t have made an immediate difference in my skin quality. Plus, the instructions say not to exceed one bottle per day — which, according to Dr. Liu, is important advice to heed. Vitamin A is fat soluble (i.e. excess is stored in fat cells, not excreted). For this reason, vitamin A toxicity is possible. “This would be a concern of mine,” Dr. Liu says, pointing out that prescription oral retinoid requires lab monitoring for this very reason. “Unfortunately, no study has been done on OTC retinol drinks,” she adds. Thus, it’s unclear as to whether drinking more than the recommended dose could be a health risk.
If I were granted an unlimited supply of retinol bevvies, I suspect I’d incorporate them into my daily routine. Skincare benefits aside, I’ve actually grown fond of the flavor. One friend compared the taste to unsweetened cranberry juice mixed with water (“tart, but not in a bad way”). When my flavor-discerning boyfriend took a swig, he sensed notes of watered down lemon (“not entirely unpleasant, but I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards it if it weren’t healthy”). As the name suggests, DirtyLemon does contain citrus. It also has hibiscus, ginger, and a host of antioxidants. “If [nothing else], drinking a drink which contains antioxidants is good for your health,” Dr. Liu notes.
Ultimately, however, Dr. Liu says she would stick to topical retinol over an oral version. This is for a few reasons: first, the lack of standardized studies on drinkable retinol. Secondly, there’s the question of whether drinkable retinol is as efficacious as its topical counterpart: “Even though [an] oral form bypasses skin irritation, it doesn't get preferentially taken up into skin,” Dr. Liu notes. In other words, it can be used by other parts of the body just as easily as it can be used by the skin. Topical retinol, on the other hand, works directly on the skin (by virtue of where you’re applying it).
I just finished my first week of drinking Dirty Lemon +retinol. So far, I can’t say there’s a discernible difference in the quality of my skin — though a friend did say that I looked particularly radiant on day three. Of course, as with any form of retinol, Dirty Lemon +retinol takes some time to actually deliver obvious change: Brodsky tells me I would have to drink one bottle daily for six to 12 weeks before I’d begin to notice any visible results. This timeline is par for the course; topical retinol takes around as long.
Whether drinkable retinol will even out my complexion is still a mystery, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. If I’ve learned anything from my relationship with salmon, it’s that sometimes, a healthy glow truly does come from within.
Complimentary products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.