Product to be released in November; some experts are dubious.
Picture this pre-run routine: You slip on shorts and a shirt, wrestle with knee-high compression socks as if pulling on panty hose, then finish with a spritz of caffeinated-water on your neck.
This fall, two entrepreneurs are releasing a topical caffeine spray they’re callingSprayable Energy. The product’s solution—water, caffeine and an amino acid derivative—is applied like perfume and absorbed through the skin. Four sprays, the recommended dose, is roughly equivalent to one cup of coffee, but because it’s absorbed slowly, it provides a steady stream of energy, rather the jolt and drop of caffeinated drinks, according to its creators Ben Yu and Deven Soni.
The pair, who are both recreational runners, set out to develop a product for people who can’t stomach coffee or who get the jitters from caffeine. They say Sprayable Energy is for anyone looking for quick, convenient, calorie-free energy, including college students, overworked executives, and athletes.
“It really helps me going on long runs, since the key breakthrough with our product is that it permeates the skin and enters at a steady rate,” says Yu, 21, who dropped out of Harvard to become a Thiel Fellow. “[It] has really allowed me to stay consistent and maintain my pace without premature exhaustion.”
Yu believes the product is ideal for runners “because Sprayable Energy goes straight from the skin to the circulation, we bypass the GI tract entirely, so it’s perfect for those people whose stomachs can’t currently handle the energy products out there.”
But can the body really absorb caffeine through the skin?
Yu says a number of studies show that, yes, caffeine is transdermal. He and Soni developed Sprayable Energy with the assistance of Chongxi Yu, Ph.D., (Yu’s father), a chemist whose work has focused on how substances can be better absorbed by the skin. Sprayable Energy’s own tests have found that four sprays deliver enough caffeine into the bloodstream to be effective, the developers say.
But some experts are dubious.
“Where is the research paper stating this?” asks Terry Graham, Ph.D., professor in the Human Health and Nutritional Sciences department at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who has participated in multiple studies on caffeine, health and athletic performance. “The product sounds interesting, but why would you not test it thoroughly before providing it to a naive public?”
Graham adds that nicotine and estrogen patches work, and that in theory, caffeine can be absorbed through the skin too. But, as with other substances, the absorption rate is very slow.
“Frankly, I would be shocked if you could spray on and absorb enough to create an increase in blood caffeine,” he says.
Trent Stellingwerff, Ph.D., lead researcher at the Canadian Sport Institute in British Columbia, says the only time he has seen slow-release caffeine work is in studies on sleep deprivation. While there’s robust research on caffeine and performance, Stellingwerff says, he is unaware of any research that compares slow-release with normal caffeine intake head to head.
“Without seeing blood caffeine data associated with this product (I immediately looked for this on their website), it is impossible for me to make any judgment on this product other than it is probably a great placebo effect,” says Stellingwerff.
Graham adds that the creators seem like smart guys who have thought out the concept, but he’s puzzled by the lack of scientific transparency.
He suggests that athletes looking to avoid ingesting caffeine might be better off with caffeinated gum and candy.
“Holding these in the mouth would result, in theory, in absorption via the lining of the mouth, a much more efficient tissue for absorption than the skin,” says Graham. Rinsing your mouth with a caffeine drink, then spitting it out, also provides quick energy, according to new research, though not a steady stream of caffeine.
Sports dietician and Runner’s World Fuel School columnist Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S., R.D., favors coffee over spray-on caffeine because the classic drink offers more than a performance boost.
“Coffee provides lots of potassium as well as antioxidants so if the runner skips coffee, they’re missing these nutrients,” she says.
But, she adds, when compared to energy drinks, which can have unhealthy additives, she sees the spray-on concept as a viable option.
All three experts raised concerns about dosage. Caffeine is a stimulant and can be harmful in large amounts. “Will the high school runner be careful and not spray on too much?” asks Graham.
Yu and Soni say their product is “very safe,” but caution against using it with other caffeine sources.
Sprayable Energy will be available via the company website and in select markets in November.