Pharmacy shelves are filled with dietary supplements that manufacturers claim will help thinning hair, remove wrinkles, and restore weak, brittle nails. Their ingredients can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, hormones, fish oil, and collagen. And depending on the combination of ingredients, the supplements don’t come cheap. Prices can range from a few dollars to over $100 for a month’s supply, says dermatologist Rajani Katta, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
If these products work, what you pay could be money well spent. But do these supplements deliver on their promises? And, just as important, are they safe to take?
Can a Supplement Make a Difference?
The specific nutrients in hair, skin, and nail supplements include antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E, or Coenzyme Q10, and also biotin, a B-complex vitamin. Hair supplements often contain manganese and selenium as well as fatty acids like fish oil and flaxseed oil.
Deficiencies of these nutrients, although uncommon, may cause a range of hair—and, sometimes, skin and nail—changes. Over time, for instance, insufficient intake of vitamins A and E can cause rough, scaly skin patches. A deficiency of biotin may cause eczema and hair loss.
But for those with no clear deficiencies, experts say there’s no good evidence that supplements can make a difference.
“I’m not aware of any robust data suggesting that any supplements can treat natural, aging-related hair loss or nail damage, or give you healthier skin,” says Pieter Cohen, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an expert on dietary supplements.
Two 1990s studies did find that biotin supplements may help strengthen soft, easily breakable nails. But the studies were small and not rigorously conducted, and haven’t been replicated, Cohen says.
“It’s nothing that would ever lead me to recommend it to any of my patients,” he adds.
A lot of hair supplements also have biotin, Katta says, but for people with normal levels, “we’ve never actually shown that taking a supplement will increase hair growth.”
What If You're Deficient?
Most people get enough of the nutrients mentioned above through diet, but in rare cases, a medical problem may cause a deficiency or affect your hair, nails, or skin. People who take antibiotics long-term or use antiseizure drugs, for instance, are more likely to be biotin-deficient. An over- or underactive thyroid may cause hair loss and dry strands. Iron-deficiency anemia can lead to brittle, oddly shaped nails.
If you’re experiencing chronic hair, nail, or skin problems for no clear reason, talk with your doctor. It’s important for your physician to determine whether you’re deficient in a particular nutrient, Katta says. “Then, if you are, you can be supplemented the correct way.” The risk in taking supplements without seeing a doctor first: Getting too much of a nutrient—like vitamin A, for instance—can trigger hair loss just as getting too little can, she adds.
Keep in mind that dietary supplements are not tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and might contain substances not listed on the label or have much less or more of an ingredient than promised. For example, in 2008, one brand of multivitamin was found to have 200 times the labeled concentration of selenium—after it had caused hair loss and discolored, brittle nails in about 200 people across 10 states.
If you choose to take supplements, can you ensure that they are safe? Some carry one of four seals that might have some merit: U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, ConsumerLab.com, and UL.
Manage the Damage
Several lifestyle strategies can help you keep your hair, skin, and nails healthy. Try the following:
Treat them well. Be cautious with hair dye (semipermanent is less damaging than permanent), blow dryers, flat irons, and styles such as tight ponytails. If you bite your nails, keep them trimmed or consider using a clear, bitter-tasting polish to help you stop. Wear cotton-lined gloves when washing dishes, moisturize hands and nails daily, and use moisturizing soap. Moisturize skin frequently and take short, tepid showers. Run a humidifier in your bedroom or office to keep the air between 30 and 50 percent humidity. If you smoke, work at quitting.
Protect yourself from the sun. Exposure to its UV rays can cause premature wrinkling, sagging, spots, and skin coarsening. Limit sun time and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 daily.
Consider Rx help. Prescription topicals such as tazarotene and tretinoin creams have been shown to reduce fine-line wrinkles, skin roughness, and sun and age spots. Over-the-counter formulations with retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl esters, and oxoretinoids are also available, though less evidence supports their effectiveness.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated in June 2021. The original version appeared in the June 2017 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.
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