Skeptics may scoff at Dirty Lemon's new +retinol drink. (I did.) It sounds a little gimmicky. After all, retinol — a super-potent, typically topical skin-care ingredient revered for its ability to prevent and correct wrinkles, pimples and hyperpigmentation — is decidedly trendy at the moment. Once available only via dermatologist prescription, it's now showing up over-the-counter in low-dose creams and high-dose serums. There are retinol face oils and all-natural retinol alternatives. Amazon even launched an in-house retinol moisturizer. One could make the argument that Dirty Lemon is merely jumping on the buzzy bandwagon with what it touts as "the first-ever drinkable retinol."
Each bottle of +retinol — the 10th addition to the beverage brand's beverage library, following popular formulas like +charcoal and +collagen — features a proprietary concoction of "pro-retinols" and antioxidants. Available in cases of six for $45, the product was developed by the Dirty Lemon Research & Development team to "deliver youthful looking skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines and stimulate natural collagen production," according to the press release. I read that, raised an eyebrow and forwarded the info to a few dermatologists for comment.
I fully expected them to call bullshit. They didn't. In fact, they're actually kind of, sort of, maybe on board with the whole drinkable retinol thing?
"Accutane, or isotretinoin, is an ingested form of retinoic acid," explains Dr. Jennifer Vickers, a dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology. Accutane, as you may know, is a prescription acne medication so powerful in its original form that it was taken off the market in 2009. (Even though it's the most effective treatment for cystic acne in existence, it also comes with a heaping helping of side effects, like birth defects and hearing loss — dermatologists now prescribe a different type of isotretinoin not labeled under the "Accutane" brand name.)
Of course, Dirty Lemon's +retinol is not Accutane. It's not even close. ("Nutricosmetic ingestibles are not comparable to medical-grade dermal treatments," Dr. Laurie Brodsky, N.D., a medical advisor for Dirty Lemon's parent company, Iris Nova, tells Fashionista.) But the comparison serves a purpose — namely, it speaks to the fact that ingestible retinol, in one form at least, can work.
This makes even more sense when you consider that retinol is derived from vitamin A, and vitamin A is very, very good for you. It's a powerful antioxidant, meaning it helps prevent and reverse free radical damage from pollution and other environmental aggressors. It also can also boost the immune system, strengthen eyesight and improve skin health. So what's the difference between, say, eating a lot of carrots and gulping down +retinol?
For starters, there are two categories of vitamin A: beta-carotene and retinoids. "The form that we find in carrots (and other vegetables and fruits) is beta-carotene, which is a pro-vitamin, or a precursor to vitamin A," explains Dr. Vickers. "The body must use enzymes to convert beta-carotene into a usable form of retinol. In fact, the body requires six units of a beta-carotene to convert to one unit of retinol. That is a lot of carrots."
That is a lot of carrots. Which is why Dirty Lemon formulates with pro-retinols instead, a form of vitamin A derived from "retinyl esters" that are more readily metabolized by the body. It's not dissimilar to how topical retinol products work, actually. "Retinols must be converted into retinoic acid to exert their beneficial effects on our skin," says Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, the medical director of Mudgil Dermatology in New York City. "Whether applied or ingested, the conversion to retinoic acid is the key step."
"By ingesting retinyl esters, you are bypassing the intermediary breakdown steps of vitamin A to provide an easier format for the body to use," Dr. Brodsky clarifies. Basically, Dirty Lemon's +retinol helps the digestive system skip ahead to straight-up retinoic acid.
The expected results are pretty much on par with that of a low-dose topical: smoother, plumper, clearer skin with a healthy glow. "It stimulates the production of fibroblasts, the cells found deep within the layers of the skin, which are known to synthesize collagen and are responsible for the fresh, constant renewal of firm, healthy skin cells," Dr. Brodsky explains. In addition, pro-retinols increase oxygenation and circulation, which "aids in the removal of toxins at the skin's surface for a more youthful look and improved skin tone," according to the naturopathic doctor.
What's less clear, however, is just how much of the Dirty Lemon drink you'd need to gulp down before you really start seeing noticeable results. "I could see that ingesting retinol could be very beneficial to the skin, but it is uncertain how satisfactory the results would be or how long it would take before results would start to show," says Dr. Vickers. Dirty Lemon suggests you might see improvements around the two-week mark, although that timeline can differ from person to person.
The one undeniable advantage of drinkable retinol, as compared with the topical version? Fewer side effects. Retinol creams are notoriously irritating and they often lead to redness, peeling, sensitization and weeks of inflammation before the skin adjusts. This is because the skin itself is metabolizing the ingredient and turning it into retinoic acid. In this ingestible form, though, the ingredient "is metabolized in the body through digestion," says Dr. Brodsky, so the skin's barrier isn't disrupted. Those who've been hesitant to try traditional retinol due to concerns about irritation (shout out to my fellow sensitive-skinned beauty enthusiasts) will likely find a drinkable version more palatable. "Ingesting retinol may be a gentler option," Dr. Vickers agrees.
Even if you're still side-eyeing the concept, Dirty Lemon's latest product does have other redeeming qualities: For instance, it's packed with skin-healthy, antioxidant-rich ingredients like pineapple juice, ginger and hibiscus flower — and this is one area where +retinol has your usual serum beat. "Our skin is the largest organ in our body and is constantly bombarded by environmental toxins, and antioxidants help protect our DNA from the damage they cause," Dr. Mudgil says. "Although the application of antioxidants topically is helpful, a diet rich in antioxidants is even more important in helping our bodies fight toxins."
At the very least, it is delicious, like grown-up fruit punch — except instead of a sugar rush, it (supposedly) delivers sweet, sweet skin-care benefits.
The retinyl esters used in Dirty Lemon's formula don't carry any major risks, per Dr. Mudgil. If you do decide to incorporate +retinol into your skin-care routine, just keep an eye on your overall vitamin A intake. Overconsumption can lead vitamin A toxicity and not-so-fun stuff like liver failure. "We recommend that you only consume one bottle of +retinol per day, because one bottle is equivalent to 100 percent of the lower limit of the daily recommended dose of vitamin A," the Dirty Lemon R&D team says. To be on the safe side, don’t mix it with other ingestible vitamin A supplements, even multivitamins. Just like regular retinol, +retinol is not safe to use for anyone who's pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding.
"It would certainly be imperative to avoid this product if already taking medications such as isotretinoin, acitretin or other prescription oral retinoids," Dr. Vickers adds. And while there's probably no harm in mixing your go-to topical version with +retinol, there’s also no need. You're already reaping all the benefits.
Barring those restrictions, "it certainly can't hurt," as Dr. Mudgil says. "The proof will be in the pudding." Or, more accurately, the six pack.
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