We all know caviar is the hors d'oeuvres of the rich and swanky—but did you know it’s also the regenerative cosmetic of the rich and swanky?
As a regular old plebeian, I didn’t know that, either. But a growing number of cosmetic products claim to incorporate caviar—often termed “caviar extract” or “caviar complex”—into their formulas, touting the ingredient as a breakthrough for youthful skin and luxurious hair. As a curious beauty-product consumer, I wanted to know: Is there anything to this fad other than, of course, the exotic allure of caviar?
First, let’s discuss what caviar extract actually means.
“That’s just it, we don’t know!” said Brian Barron, a professional beauty mythbuster and co-author of The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here.
“There’s no standardization or regulation behind this ingredient name. It can essentially mean any extract or partial extract or oil from fish eggs, with no specific fish in mind. The caviar we eat usually comes from sturgeon or salmon, but caviar extract might come from any number of fishes that may or may not have a similar nutrient profile.”
My journey to get to the bottom of the caviar cosmetics industry—which includes products ranging from mid-level shampoos to creams that sell for hundreds of dollars—only got fishier from there.
Why would people pay big bucks to put fish egg-infused products on their face and hair in the first place? Mostly because they are marketed as creamy fountains of youth.
One Europe-based company, Caviar of Switzerland, claims that after using any of its three caviar products—including one that sells for $185 on Amazon—the “skin is intensively moisturized, remineralized and regenerated” and “activated to produce new collagen” and "is overall protected against the damaging effects of extrinsic aging.”
Another company, the New York-based RG-Cell Skincare, cites a study on its website claiming that “Caviar extract was found to speed up the natural production of collagen up to 67%,” and that “Caviar extract firms your skin and provides the highest possible level of hydration.”
The highest possible level of hydration, huh? That's setting the bar pretty high. Unless caviar can guarantee moisturization to the level of that pod scene from The Matrix, I don't know.
Alterna—a New York-based caviar hair product producer that boasts Katie Holmes as a spokeswoman—offers caviar shampoos, conditioners, hair oils, and gels, and promises that with their Caviar Replenishing Moisture Shampoo, "Hair acts instantly healthier and younger."
The cosmetics industry is not regulated in this country—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken a pass on monitoring it—so these companies can pretty much claim whatever they want. Including the fact that their products are using "natural" ingredients.
"We caution consumers not to rely on claims of 'made with organic ingredients' or 'made with natural ingredients,' unless those products have a meaningful certification behind them," Ena Do, director of marketing and communications for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, told me broadly of the industry.
(Europe is a bit more stringent with cosmetic regulation and actively bans harmful chemicals—but sturgeon caviar extract for the purpose of "skin conditioning" is approved by the European Commission, given that it isn't harmful to humans.)
None of the caviar products I encountered boasted any certification of their effectiveness, per se, but Vital Trends GmbH—the distributor of Caviar of Switzerland's fancy products—does say on its website that it uses "certified-farmed" Siberian sturgeon eggs from France.
When I reached out to the company, a spokesperson told me over email that the caviar they use abides by the standards of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and is signed off on by the U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries before being imported into this country. (Yes, you read that correctly—sturgeon is an endangered species, but the company uses farmed sturgeon.)
"We are very proud of this," said Pan Hadjichambis, the spokesperson.
Despite being so forthcoming about its caviar sourcing, Hadjichambis did not reveal what exactly is in its extract. Though he did mention that it is processed by a "very specialized" laboratory.
So Caviar of Switzerland uses sturgeon eggs—but what about the handful of other companies selling caviar-infused products?
Well, a rep from Alterna told me that they also use Siberian sturgeon. A representative from Europe-based Mirra Cyprus cosmetics told me in an email that they use a mix of salmon and sturgeon eggs in their products. And although RG-Cell's website still lists the health benefits of fish caviar, a spokesperson told me that the company no longer uses fish eggs—they now use something called green caviar, which is a type Caulerpa, or edible algae.
Whether or not caviar is the fabled regenerative skin and hair elixir man has sought since the beginning of time, research has shown that fish eggs do have health benefits.
Caviar is "a very good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids,” said Brian Himelbloom, an associate professor of seafood microbiology at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Sure, some studies suggest that eating omega-3 fatty acids may help build resistance against heart disease, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and even depression—and benefit hair and nails. And on top of these benefits, fish eggs supposedly offer something that can’t be found in any other food product: a compound called LD-1227.
But using caviar as a topical? “This sturgeon-derived compound LD-1227 … is probably what is unique about caviar,” said Zakia Rahman, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford. However, the "benefits are probably best from oral consumption, not topical application." And the research is far from conclusive.
So while it's possible that, someday, we might discover that caviar is the holy grail of beauty products, for now, the evidence just isn't there.
“It might, and I stress might, serve as a helpful source of omega-3 fatty acids which can help to reduce skin inflammation and potentially repair skin’s barrier,” said beauty mythbuster Barron. "For hair, at best it might provide a mild conditioning benefit, but there are several other less enticing-sounding hair-care ingredients that would go a lot further.”
As a final step, I had to test out caviar-infused products for myself. And so, I obtained two 8-ounce bottles of caviar-extract shampoo and caviar-extract conditioner ($32 each) from Alterna and prepared to douse my own hair in fish eggs.
The first time I used the products, my hair felt like a down comforter as I rinsed out the conditioner. So soft. There was a strange smell to it—maybe not fishy, but definitely not unfishy. Kind of like if you built a hair salon in a building that was previously a fish market.
And after four uses over the course of ten days, my hair does feel noticeably softer—it may even be even shinier—although it also gets greasier faster now, which requires me to wash it more often. Which would probably make me want to buy more, if I was an ideal consumer.
However, I should mention that before using Alterna, I used the cheapest bottles of Herbal Essences I could find at Target, which I know is not really all that compatible with my hair, anyway. (Sometimes I just want to smell like a commercial, okay?) It's likely that if I used any other product in Alterna’s price range I probably would have gotten similar results.
My ultimate verdict? Caviar is basically the Sriracha of luxurious cosmetics. Just a drop can make any product seem more exotic than it is—but the concept is overrated.
“From the lack of research and absence of an agreed-upon definition for what caviar extract is (and isn’t), the only reason to choose it would be to reinforce a misguided belief that the luxury caviar conveys when eaten as a delicacy somehow transfers to luxurious benefits for skin and hair,” Barron said—basically encapsulating my two-week experience with the ingredient and several-week experience attempting to find its scientific justification.
So sorry, rich folks. Dousing yourselves in the sacs of a fish’s unborn may not do that much for you. Might as well go back to using the blood of youthful maidens.
Poor folks, as you were.