When we think about taking nutrients into our bodies, we usually think about swallowing them, in the form of pills, powders, or that radical format known as food. For that matter, when we talk about nutrient absorption, we’re usually talking about the absorption of nutrients from the digestive system into the bloodstream.
But a handful of companies are trying to change the way we think about nutritional supplementation. Instead of swallowing a handful of pills and worrying about whether or not they are being absorbed, why not bypass the digestive tract altogether and apply them directly to your skin?
Nicotine, estrogen, testosterone, and certain pain medications can all be delivered through the skin through medicinal patches, gels, or creams. Why not vitamins and minerals?
Are nutrient patches the future?
The US military, for example, is working on a skin patch that could deliver nutrients and other compounds to soldiers “during periods of high-intensity conflict,” when getting adequate nutrition from food might be challenging. Scientists working on the project don’t expect to have anything ready for field testing for another ten years or so.
But you don’t have to wait for those fusty old scientists to dot every i and cross every t. There are companies who will take your money RIGHT NOW for patches, gels, and bath salts containing magnesium, vitamin D, CoQ10, and various other herbs and nutrients that claim to alleviate nutrient deficiencies, boost your energy, and (of course) help you lose weight.
However, I’m skeptical that any of these substances will actually end up in your bloodstream. And you should be too.
Your skin is tougher than you think
The skin is actually designed to be a fairly impenetrable barrier. And good thing, too. Imagine for just a moment if everything that touched your skin ended up in your bloodstream!
Lotions and cosmetic potions often tout their vitamin-drenched formulas. And while these nutrients may (or, then again, may not) have cosmetic effects on the surface of the skin, very little if any of those nutrients are penetrating beyond the skin’s surprisingly tough outer layers.
That’s why we can slather our skin with mineral-based sunscreens all summer long without developing a zinc overload! Studies have shown that the topical application of zinc-containing sunscreens has minimal if any impact on the amount of zinc in your blood.
For that matter, studies have found that magnesium is not very effectively absorbed through the skin, either. That doesn’t seem to hurt the sales of topical magnesium products claiming to be a more effective way to absorb magnesium. Buyer beware.
In order to be absorbed through your skin and into your bloodstream, a compound needs to have at least two things going for it. It needs to be lipophilic, or fat-soluble. And it needs to be very, very small. A lot of the compounds found in commercially-marketed transdermal patches are neither.
Of course, there are ways to get around these limitations. You can break a large molecule down into nanoparticles, or encase it in a substance that diffuses more easily into the lipid layer of the skin. You can use tiny little needles to poke tiny little holes in the skin, which allows the substance to penetrate into the deeper tissues. You can use chemicals to alter the surface of the skin and make it more porous. You can even use electrical stimulation to open the pores, or a technique known as microdialysis.
Some vitamin patch products include disclaimers like: “This product has not been tested for safety or efficacy.”
All of these are strategies that are currently in use or being developed by pharmaceutical companies and the military. However, you can be pretty sure that $2 vitamin D patch doesn’t include any of those features. Perhaps that’s why the product website includes the disclaimer, “This product has not been tested for safety or efficacy.”
No, seriously. It actually says that.
Similarly, I very highly doubt that much if any of the green tea extract or garcinia cambogia embedded in their weight loss patch is actually going to end up in your bloodstream. Then again, even if it did, it probably wouldn’t result in noticeable weight loss.
On the plus side, sellers of transdermal patches point out that they completely avoid the problem of nausea or stomach upset that pills can sometimes cause. They sure do! You could also avoid stomach upset by dissolving your supplements in water and using it to water your plants—a nutrition strategy which would be about as effective as an over the counter vitamin patch.
Transdermal nutrition may indeed be the wave of the future! But I’m afraid the future is not yet here.