Smack dab in the middle of the skin care boom, it’s no longer enough for your products to just work. To win a beauty enthusiast’s dollars again and again, products need to make consumers feel something. Consequently, cosmetic chemists and skin care brands are always searching for the right scent, trending ingredient, or application experience that transforms a regular moisturizer into an event worth repeating. We’re all familiar with how an intentionally refreshing or calming product can either jumpstart your day or prepare you for a good night’s rest. Now, a buzzy ingredient category, called neurocosmetics — which seeks to directly harness that brainpower and trigger positive neurological responses in both the skin and the mind — is gaining steam.
The concept of neurocosmetics is based on the idea that the brain and skin are intrinsically connected, and certain topical ingredients have the power to elicit specific sensations, emotions, and activity. “Traditional cosmetic ingredients focus exclusively on the skin,” says Daniel Robustillo, sales director at Spain-based cosmetic manufacturing company Vytrus Biotech. “Neurocosmetics look for mechanisms and pathways that trigger the nervous system to activate the skin and have an impact on our wellbeing.” In layman’s terms, neurocosmetics confirm that some benefits are truly all in our heads. “Overall the goal is to help reach the brain,” says cosmetic chemist Esther Olu. “While [neurocosmetic products] are cosmetics, they are also intended to be therapeutic. For example, the feeling of cooling makes your skin feel more soothed.”
So what is, and isn’t, a neurocosmetic? And how do you know when you’re using one? TZR asked the industry experts to break down the emerging trend and learn what you can expect from future formulas within the category.
Neurocosmetics Aren’t Technically “New”
You’ve likely used neurocosmetics in your beauty routine previously, even if you didn’t realize it. Menthol is popular in cleansers for its ability to trigger a cooling sensation, while capsaicin is often included in muscle rub creams to create a feeling of heat that can help relieve body pain and tension. Aromatherapy, by definition, uses scent to affect mood, and CBD is thought to bind to cannabinoid receptors in skin to reduce pain. However, the relatively novel nature of neurocosmetic research makes it difficult to nail down the parameters of the ingredient category.
“The concept has been going on since the early 2000s, but it’s become more trendy,” says Olu. “I want to say essential oils are neurocosmetics because fragrance evokes emotions, but it’s tricky. It depends on who is doing the research to demonstrate [that] it affects neuroreceptors. CBD has the potential to be a neurocosmetic, but some people don’t believe it has any benefit. It’s really only the large beauty conglomerates that can [fund] these discoveries.”
Menthol and capsaicin are among the small smattering of researched and well-understood neurocosmetics currently available. Though there are options in the category that target skin stress, sensitivity, and anti-aging, not all brands using these ingredients choose to market them as neurocosmetics. This is likely to change as the trend grows.
There Is Some Overlap with “Clean” Beauty
As research continues, much of our understanding of neurocosmetics remains in the realm of herbalism. Sarah Polansky, founder of Prismatic Plants, has worked with adaptogens and traditional Chinese medicine for years. The concept of neurocosmetics neatly overlaps with her formulation philosophies. “In the Western mentality, we’ve lost sight of how all these systems are communicating to each other all the time. Pain in your body affects your mental state and your mental state can affect your physicality,” she explains.
The brand’s latest product, Melt Tension Serum, specifically wields cannabinoids and capsaicin to topically induce relaxation. “Capsaicin helps numb the signal sent to your brain that would normally transmit pain,” explains Polansky. “The plan is that you feel immediate relief. We wanted something more elegant than Tiger Balm, because it’s so strong, but is still effective.” Despite her love for plant-derived ingredients, Polansky emphasizes only certain ingredients have the desired neurological effects. “People are taking just any kind of adaptogen or trendy herb that’s beneficial when taken internally and trying to make it a topical [product],” she says. “In my research and working with my herbalist we found a lot of that to be really ineffective.”
There’s More To It Than Feel-Good Emotions
Beyond relaxation, targeting certain nerve receptors in skin has demonstrated potential for anti-aging benefits. “When I talk about neurocosmetics, most people usually think about wellbeing, improving mood, and self-love. They associate neurocosmetics or neuroactive activity with aromatherapy and relaxing massage during the application of the skin care products,” says Katarzyna Janocha, founder of LAST Skincare. “However, from the scientific point of view, neuroactive ingredients strongly influence skin cells’ performance and are powerful tools when addressing skin aging, tissue regeneration, redensifying skin, and wound healing.”
LAST Skincare’s neurocosmetic approach focuses primarily on decreasing cortisol levels, the stress hormone that can damage collagen, and increasing beta-endorphins, neuropeptides that can reduce pain and enhance barrier function. The brand’s hero anti-aging serum imparts both traditional and neurological skin care benefits by combining more data-backed ingredients like vitamin C and CoQ10 with purported neuro actives like rhodiola rosacea root extract and copaiba oleoresin.
Neurocosmetics Innovate On What We Already Know
While some familiar plant actives may fall into the category, the allure of neurocosmetics lies in the potential for better options. “Some of the ingredients that are more common, like menthol, some people might not be able to tolerate it [on their skin],” says Olu. “You [might] want an even better alternative to essential oils or chamomile. We want to innovate for someone that can’t handle what the industry is used to.”
Vytrus Biotech, which specializes in what the company calls “active naturals”, has developed several new alternatives to tried and true ingredients. “Sensia Carota is designed to help people with sensitive skin,” says Robustillo of the brand’s proprietary plant-based active. Derived from the flower of orange carrots, the raw ingredient can increase a formula’s soothing power or act as a substitute for traditional ingredients that may pose an allergy risk. “The active ingredient increases skin’s tolerance and modulates its response. The mechanism of action interacts with [neuropeptides that help] achieve a soothing effect and avoid hyperactivity. Test subjects felt calmer and the sensitive feeling was reduced.”
Neurocosmetics present an exciting opportunity for beauty as brands like ARKANA Skincare, which directly advertise them in their entire product line, while others like Farmacy and BeautyPie, are quietly folding neuro ingredients into formulas with advanced anti-aging or restoration claims. These products typically launch with higher price points and more robust marketing claims, but the experts warn against getting too wrapped up in the hype before there is more information.
“I would say for consumers not to get your hopes up too high,” says Olu. "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. Overall, neurocosmetics are very limited. They are just cosmetics. People need to manage their expectations because it's not going to give you this magical sensation."
Janocha knows there is more research to be done, but is still inspired by the youth of the category. “We need to better understand why only particular ingredients influence [the skin’s] nervous system,” she says. “But I always take the time to explain the mechanism of action. The more we understand, the less vulnerable we are to manipulation.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 1:00pm EST to include an expanded quote from Esther Olu regarding the classification of neurocosmetics as cosmetics, not FDA-reviewed drugs.