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."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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