The New Coffee Is Made for Your Skin

One pocket-sized bottle of "Sprayable Energy," a prototype caffeinated skin spray, contains the equivalent of 40 cups of coffee. Demand for the product is already feverish.
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webfoto/flickr

"Coffee and energy drinks can give you a quick boost, but they come with a ton of issues, and can cause you to crash."

That, according to the pitch from Harvard undergrad Ben Yu and venture capitalist Deven Soni, is why we need  Sprayable Energy—a caffeine product that the user absorbs through their skin. Creators Yu and Soni recommend that one spray it "in the same places you would a fragrance (like your neck)." 

A lot of energy-product pitches start by telling us how bad coffee and energy drinks are. Then, by the end, they admit that the active ingredient in their product, too, is caffeine. The Sprayable Energy pitch is no exception, eventually siding with its demons: "You spray it on your skin to get the alertness and focus you would from coffee or energy drinks."

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(Sprayable Energy)

Without, though, a ton of issues. 

Sprayable Energy is also no exception to the caffeinated product register in that people love the idea. Yu and Soni unveiled the spray with the August 7 launch of a campaign to fund the first round of production. Their goal was to crowd-source $15,000 dollars in eight weeks. Less than half way through, they have already raised more than double thatcurrently $36,000.

The people want Sprayable Energy. 

Why? Part of the stated appeal is simplicity. No scary chemicals. The product is a just three ingredients: caffeine, water, and a compound that helps it be absorbed by our skin (a derivative of the naturally-occurring amino acid tyrosine). Though Yu and Soni have also sort of obfuscated their premise by calling it a "secret sauce."

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(Sprayable Energy)

Yu and Soni say their recommended dose—four sprays—should deliver about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.

Their Sprayable Energy website also clearly states: "The product is odorless, colorless, and safe." The Indiego pitch says, in bold font, "Never be concerned for your health when using caffeinated products again."

Who better than the proprietor of a new transdermal stimulant product to tell us that it's safe? We don't have reason to expect it to be any less safe than other caffeine delivery methods, though it's not been tested by the FDA. This sort of product is exempt. In May the FDA announced that it planned to look into our large-scale deployment of caffeine, retroactively. It said at the time, "In response to a trend in which caffeine is being added to a growing number of products [jelly beans, waffles, gum, syrup], the agency will investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents."

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Image from the Sprayable Energy campaign. If this is relatable, consider an EKG. And start reusing your cups.

So the organization in charge of making sure that everything we consume topically and otherwise is safe for us is, decades into the mass marketing and sale of caffeinated products without regulation, planning to look into their safety. As I wrote at the time, the only time the FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine was beverages (colas) in the 1950s (not long after increased caffeine had replaced the psychoactive component of coca leaves in sodathe latter, essentially cocaine, having been implicated in a spate of rapes). The current FDA stance is that beverages should not contain more than .02 percent caffeine.

The FDA's mid-century caffeine approval almost certainly did not anticipate fortified waffles and skin sprays. Michael Taylor, a deputy commissioner at FDA, said in May, "We believe that some in the food industry are on a dubious, potentially dangerous path. If necessary, and the science indicates that it is warranted, we are prepared to go through the regulatory process to establish clear boundaries and conditions on caffeine use. We are also prepared to consider enforcement action against individual products as appropriate."

An upside to Sprayable Energy—though I wouldn't go as far as Yu and Soni do in their pitch ("Caffeine products currently suck")—is that coffee can cause stomach ulcers and yellow teeth. And energy drinks can come with a load of extra sugar. Both can add up cost-wise if you're using regularly. (These are the aforementioned issues.) For some, a cutaneous route of delivery may turn out to be a relatively healthy way to get caffeine.

Caffeine skin patches, akin to nicotine patches, have been on the market for a little while, and feedback I found so far is benign. Yu and Soni also promise that the absorption through the skin into the blood will be more gradual, leading to lower highs and higher lows than most stimulant products. That does line up with research on caffeine skin patches that says transdermal caffeine can work, though less efficiently than lower doses taken by mouth. Of course if you take enough, expect to crest and crash in the same way you might with any other caffeine product.

The existence of this sort of product seems more symptomatic than therapeutic, though; part of the market-driven trend normalizing maximally-efficient consumption of stimulants. In 2005, fewer than 2,000 trips to U.S. emergency departments involved energy drinks. By 2011, that number was over 20,000. Divorcing the drug from the ritual and culture of coffee, uploading it to our blood by the most mechanically efficient routes possible, draws more attention to the fact that caffeine is indeed a drug. We're using it in the traditional sense of the word.

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Image from the Sprayable Energy campaign. Not pictured: Sleep, companionship, sense of purpose

Caffeine in the context of pills, sprays, and patches seems tangentially related to the caffeine that elevates a morning conversation over a hot cup of coffee or subtly alters our perspective to enhance creativity. This is the caffeine that is coldly punching the clock, replacing sleep, pulling us to keep pace, and letting us work more than we're meant to.

But, look how affordable it is.

Soni expects that we'll see Sprayable Energy nationwide by the end of this year, next to 5-Hour Energy at convenience stores and gas stations. “We’re not trying to augment behavior, just to make it easier to get what you want,” Soni told New York Daily News. Probably just me, but I imagine that as he spoke he was unconsciously tenting his fingers.

If you want to get what you want right now, and a lot of it, Sprayable Energy does offer an online deal of 52 bottles for $449. Strangely at odds with their message of moderation and subtlety, they call it the Zombie Apocalypse Stockpile—"Want to be able to outrun a legion of zombies?"

Personally, no. Once the zombies take over, I will join them. If you insist on outrunning them, though, with the equivalent of 2,080 cups of coffee at your disposal, you should be able to. Even if the zombies are just caffeine-induced hallucinations. 

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.

 
 
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