If a plant or nutritional extract can work topically, then wouldn’t an oral supplement work just as well? Because I am not a big believer in vitamin supplements, I’ve never put much thinking or research effort into whether, for example, sea buckthorn supplements have been proven to have a direct positive effect on the skin. Then the other day headlines blared that French maritime pine bark, taken as a supplement called Pycnogenol, had been clinically proven to have anti-aging benefits for the skin.

Because I am innately cynical and uncharitable, I immediately wondered if the makers of Pycnogenol were behind the study claiming that 20 postmenopausal women experienced “significantly improved hydration and elasticity of skin”. It was conducted at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, which sounded objective until I saw that one member of the team was from Horphag Research, the company that, yes you guessed it, makes Pycnogenol.

I was exactly happy to prove myself right though. I’d love to find out that popping a pill alongside all my potions and lotions would boost my skin’s appearance. So I set about seeing if there is an independent study somewhere. Pine bark has been linked to a mind-boggling and implausible amount of cures. It is supposed to treat everything from erectile dysfunction to sunburn. Its fabled potency is due to the presence of proanthocyanidins. But independent research on the effects of taking a supplement on the skin was not something I could find.

What of other supplements. I remembered mentioning once  mentioning one on borage and flax on Truth In Aging. Researchers from Germany and France claimed that the omega-3 and omega-6 (fatty acids) in flax and borage oils prevent skin from roughening and scaling. After 12 weeks, there was a decrease in reddening of the skin in the flaxseed and borage oil groups of 45% and 35% respectively. But this is the only study on these supplements that I have found.

I decided to look at sea buckthorn and had quite a bit more luck. A 2009 study using extracts of leaves and fruits of sea buckthorn at a concentration of 500 μg/ml concluded that it reduced free radical production. And more specifically, a Finnish study on sea buckthorn supplements and dermatitis reported symptoms improved and a beneficial effect on the composition of essential fatty acids within the skin. There’s also one published in the Journal of Applied Cosmetology. According to the study, which examined the effects of both sea buckthorn oral supplements and topical oil application on skin aging, the plant works as a skin hydrator, an anti-wrinkle serum, and as a collagen promoter.

Next, I took a look at astaxanthin. Here again, I found only one study on astaxanthin supplements and skin. The study stated that it is “usually very difficult to observe any significant difference to skin condition resulting from the oral administration of dietary supplements”. I was intrigued – does it mean that typically supplements don’t have a visible effect on the skin and this is all a waste of time? No, it just means (in the researchers' view) that the astaxanthin results – “excellent cosmetic effects on human skin were observed from astaxanthin administration” were all the more remarkable.

Although there isn’t exactly a wealth of evidence and my examples are hardly exhaustive, I feel encouraged enough to continue to look for evidence that a daily pill is a worthwhile supplement to our potions and lotions. In the meantime, sea buckthorn could be the best bet.