In the midst of the skincare boom, it’s no longer enough that your products work. To earn a beauty enthusiast’s money again and again, products must make consumers feel Something. As a result, cosmetic chemists and skincare brands are always on the lookout for the right scent, trending ingredient, or application experience that turns an ordinary moisturizer into a repeat event. We all know how an intentionally refreshing or calming product can either jump-start your day or set you up for a good night’s rest. Today, a trending ingredient category called neurocosmetics – which seeks to directly tap into that brain and trigger positive neurological responses in both the skin and the mind – is gaining momentum.
The concept of neurocosmetics is based on the idea that the brain and skin are intrinsically linked and that certain topical ingredients have the power to induce specific sensations, emotions and activity. “Traditional cosmetic ingredients focus exclusively on the skin,” says Daniel Robustillo, sales manager of Spanish cosmetics manufacturing company Vytrus Biotech. “Neurocosmetics is looking for mechanisms and pathways that trigger the nervous system to activate the skin and impact our well-being.” Simply put, neurocosmetics confirm that certain benefits are in our heads. “Overall, the goal is to help get to the brain,” says Esther Oluwaseun, cosmetic chemist and licensed esthetician. “While [neurocosmetic products] are cosmetic, they are also intended to be therapeutic. For example, the feeling of freshness makes your skin more soothed.
So what is a neurocosmetic and what is it not? And how do you know when you’re using one? TZR asked industry experts to break down the emerging trend and learn what you can expect from future formulas in the category.
Neurocosmetics is not technically “new”
You’ve probably used neurocosmetics in your beauty routine, 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 warming sensation 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 the skin to reduce pain. However, the relatively new nature of neurocosmetic research makes it difficult to define the parameters of the ingredient category.
“The concept has been around since the early 2000s, but it’s become trendier,” says Oluwaseun. “I want to say that essential oils are neurocosmetics because the scent 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 big beauty conglomerates that can [fund] these discoveries.
Menthol and capsaicin are among the small handful of researched and well-understood neurocosmetics currently available. While 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 increases.
There is some overlap with “clean” beauty
As research continues, much of our understanding of neurocosmetics remains in the realm of herbalism. Sarah Polonasky, founder of Prismatic Plants, has worked with adaptogens and traditional Chinese medicine for years. The concept of neurocosmetics perfectly overlaps with its formulation philosophies. “In the Western mentality, we have lost sight of how all these systems communicate with each other all the time. The pain in your body affects your mental state and your mental state can affect your physique,” she explains.
The brand’s latest product, Melt Tension Serum, specifically contains cannabinoids and capsaicin to locally induce relaxation. “Capsaicin helps numb the signal sent to your brain that would normally transmit pain,” says Polansky. “The plan is for you to feel immediate relief. We wanted something more elegant than Tiger Balm because it’s so strong, yet still effective. Despite his love for plant-derived ingredients, Polansky points out that only certain ingredients have the desired neurological effects. “People take any type of adaptogen or fad herb that’s beneficial when taken internally and try to make it a topical [product],” she says. “In my research and working with my herbalist, we found that a lot of it was really ineffective.”
There are more than feelings of well-being
Beyond relaxation, targeting certain nerve receptors in the skin has demonstrated anti-aging potential. “When I talk about neurocosmetics, most people usually think of well-being, mood enhancement and self-love. They associate neurocosmetics or neuroactive activity with aromatherapy and massage relaxing when applying skincare products,” says Katarzyna Janocha, founder of LAST Skincare. “However, from a scientific perspective, neuroactive ingredients strongly influence skin cell performance and are powerful tools to fight against skin aging, tissue regeneration, redensification of the skin and healing of wounds.”
LAST Skincare’s neurocosmetic approach focuses primarily on decreasing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can damage collagen, and increasing beta-endorphins, neuropeptides that can reduce pain and improve barrier function. . The brand’s Hero Anti-Aging Serum brings both traditional and neurological benefits to skincare by combining more data-backed ingredients like Vitamin C and CoQ10 with purported neuroactives like Root Extract rosacea rhodiola and copaiba oleoresin.
Neurocosmetics innovates on what we already know
While some familiar plant actives may fall into this category, the appeal of neurocosmetics lies in the potential for better options. “Some of the more common ingredients, like menthol, some people might not be able to tolerate [on their skin]“says Oluwaseun. “You [might] want an even better alternative to essential oils or chamomile. We want to innovate for someone who can’t handle what the industry is used to.
Vytrus Biotech, which specializes in what the company calls “natural actives,” has developed several new alternatives to proven ingredients. “Sensia Carota is designed to help people with sensitive skin,” Robustillo says of the brand’s exclusive botanical active ingredient. Derived from the orange carrot flower, the raw ingredient can increase the soothing power of a formula or substitute for traditional ingredients that may present an allergy risk. “The active ingredient increases the skin’s tolerance and modulates its response. The mechanism of action interacts with [neuropeptides that help] obtain a soothing effect and avoid hyperactivity. Test subjects felt calmer and sensitive sensation was reduced.
Neurocosmetics presents an exciting opportunity for beauty, as brands like ARKANA Skincare directly advertise them across their entire product line, while others like Farmacy and BeautyPie quietly incorporate neuro-ingredients into formulas with advanced anti-aging or restorative claims. These products typically launch with higher price points and stronger marketing claims, but experts caution against getting too caught up in the hype before there’s more information.
“I would tell consumers not to expect too much. [Neurocosmetics are not] isn’t going to give you a magical feeling,” says Oluwaseun. “Don’t expect them to have the [mood-boosting] effect of FDA-approved drugs, but they might be worth trying. Janocha knows there is still 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.