Real Talk

We Should Give (Some) Beauty Supplements Another Chance

Can a pill or powder really deliver clearer skin and thicker hair? Surprisingly, science seems to say yes.

Originally Published: 
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Shutterstock

It started with baby-blue gummy bears. In 2016, you couldn’t go on Instagram without seeing an ad for SugarBear Hair — adorably shaped gummy supplements that promised longer, thicker hair, usually promoted by a smiling influencer with millions of followers or a member of the Kardashian/Jenner crew.

Then came the backlash. A very eye-opening study was released, revealing the brand’s ingredient labels did not accurately reflect what was in the supplements and actually contained a concerning amount of lead, and the public’s marketing bullsh*t meter went way, way up. And yet, that hasn’t stopped the global beauty supplements market from continuing to boom. In 2016, it was valued at $3.5 billion. Now, it’s worth $6.2 billion and is projected to hit $6.8 billion by next year.

As supplements migrated from crunchy health-food aisles to beauty retailers like Sephora and Ulta, they’ve been wrapped up in aesthetic packaging and positioned as miracle solutions for a variety of skin and hair concerns. But, as SugarBear-gate shows, they might not live up to their claims — or, worse, be straight-up lying.

“The category has gone from 4,000 to 90,000 supplements in the last 30 years,” says Katerina Schneider, co-founder of Ritual, a supplements company that’s working to set a new standard with its traceable science and sourcing. “Part of the challenge with this is that there’s been better design and marketing and more beautiful packaging, and it’s easy to see that and mistake it for quality versus the actual quality of the ingredients and science. And it covers up some of the fundamentals of testing, certifications, and clinical studies.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good beauty supplements on the market — there are! — but there are also a whole lot of bad ones, too.

Understanding The Regulation — & Lack Thereof — In The Supplements Space

Because of a lack of oversight in this space, brands are responsible for doing their own due diligence around the efficacy of their products — which doesn’t always happen. “Wellness has exploded, but the regulations haven’t kept up to date with this explosion,” says Schneider.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DHSEA), which was put into effect in 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) technically requires that manufacturers of dietary supplements are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded. Manufacturers are charged with ensuring the safety of their products and that any labeling (including ingredients and health claims) is truthful. If any serious adverse events occur as a result of consumers taking a supplement, manufacturers are required to report it to the FDA.

Read that closely, though, and you’ll notice that all of the responsibility falls on the brands to hold themselves accountable. While the FDA has the power to pull products from the market if they don’t meet these standards, it’s a mostly reactive approach. “The challenge lies in the fact that the supplement industry isn’t regulated in the same way that food is, so brands are putting claims on their labels and nobody is required to verify what they’re saying [before they go out on shelves],” says Lauren Manaker, a registered dietitian-nutritionist.

And even if the supplement does include that ingredient, most of the time it’s unclear if it’s in an amount that will even affect the body. “There are some brands that may say a certain dose [of an ingredient] is in a supplement, but the reality is that no one is verifying that, so we don’t really know,” Manaker says. “We need a certain [level] of these ingredients for them to actually offer any sort of effect or benefit, so it’s important to see how much of them we’re getting [to be able to compare that to] how much the research says we need.”

The beauty supplements space has become a Wild West of sorts, and if you don’t know what’s in that pill or powder you’re popping every morning, you run the risk of spending your hard-earned money on something that, at best, doesn’t work, and at worst, may be harmful to your health. “There are some [brands] that really lean into the science, but there are others that take some liberties,” Manaker adds. “Consumers, unfortunately, are tasked with figuring out [which one is which].”

What Beauty Supplements Can (& Can’t) Do

In recent years, consumers have wisened up to the fact that what you put into your body can have real effects on your skin and hair (see: a dry, dull complexion the morning after a few too many tequila shots). “A lot of people believed that ingestible beauty was pseudoscience, and while the science has been around for some years, the conversation of its efficacy is now finally making its way into the mainstream,” says Anna Lahey, founder of Vida Glow, a supplement brand that has poured more than $1 million into independent clinical trials for its products. “More and more, experts at the forefront of skin health, like dermatologists, are investing in understanding the science behind ingestible beauty, and advocating the benefits of treating skin concerns effectively with it. This has been a huge game-changer because people are now hearing from professionals, and not just brands, that these products really do work.”

It’s important to remember, though, that supplements are designed to do exactly what their name implies: supplement. They won’t change your life (or skin, or hair) on their own — they need to be combined with a healthy diet and a solid topical skin care routine.

The truth is, if you’ve already got those things on lock, you may not need a beauty supplement at all. Biotin supplements, for example, promise to deliver stronger hair, skin, and nails — but they only work if you’re deficient (aka you aren’t already getting enough of the nutrient from your diet). “In the same way that if you’re drinking enough orange juice every day you may not need a vitamin C supplement, if you’re eating a diet that’s rich in the amino acids found in collagen, you may not need a collagen supplement,” says Manaker.

All’s to say, “This is a great example of a category where we should be highly skeptical of beauty benefits through ingestible means, but really interested because there is physiology,” says Nima Alamdari, Ph.D., Ritual’s chief scientific officer.

How To Be A Smart Beauty Supplement Shopper

While it may feel like you need a master’s degree in integrative nutrition to navigate this space, there are some steps you can take to ensure the supplements you’re buying are legit.

1. Look For Science-Backed Ingredients

There are ingredients that have been proven to actually make a difference in skin and hair health. For example, collagen — one of the most popular ingredients in beauty supplements — is backed by encouraging research. A systematic review of 12 studies published between 2010 and 2020 found that “collagen supplements improve skin moisture, elasticity, and hydration when orally administered,” and reduce the wrinkling and roughness of skin without any negative side effects.

However, not all collagen supplements are created equally. “For collagen to be effective, it must be hydrolyzed, because in its natural state it’s a large molecule that has low bioavailability, meaning that the body can’t absorb it,” says Lahey. “A high-quality collagen [supplement] should contain 100% pure hydrolyzed collagen … and in the best form to be absorbed by the body.”

Certain topical skin care ingredients have also shown promise when translated into supplement form. “Ceramides and hyaluronic acid are synthesized by our bodies — meaning that they produce these on their own — so ingestibles can help to allow the synthesis of these components within the skin layers,” says Alamdari. Studies have shown that over 12 weeks, oral hyaluronic acid can “inhibit skin wrinkles and improve skin condition” and oral ceramides can significantly improve the moisture content of the skin.

Carotenoids like b-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and astaxanthin can protect the skin from free radicals and pollution and slow premature aging. “We have carotenoids in our bodies, and they tend to concentrate in our skin,” explains Leonard Guarente, Elysium’s chief scientist and director of The Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The higher levels you have in your skin, the better, because they protect you both by absorbing the [damaging] photons from UV light and by detoxifying some of the [existing] damage they’ve created.”

2. Don’t Be Fooled By Marketing Jargon

It’s important to understand that “clinically studied” is to supplements what “clean” is to skin care: It doesn’t mean a damn thing. “It’s not a regulated term — there’s no oversight over the definition of ‘clinically studied,’ so it’s being misused,” says Schneider. “Some companies say their products are clinically studied, but the results don’t match the doses, and many times they don’t have clinical studies on the finished formulas.”

3. Support Brands That Put Money Toward Third-Party Testing

In a sea of beauty supplements, the easiest way to ensure you’re purchasing a legitimate one is to prioritize brands that are third-party verified through double-blind, placebo-controlled testing. If you can’t find this information on their website, it’s a good sign it doesn’t exist. “Having third-party certifications is validating, because you’re not just taking the company or manufacturer’s word [for the efficacy of their products] — you have a third party who’s verifying the formulas and ingredients,” says Schneider. “You can’t necessarily trust the manufacturer, so third-party certifications are the ultimate way to ensure your products are safe.”

However, know that these tests don’t necessarily confirm that the supplement will deliver on whatever hair or skin benefits it’s promising. “What they are going to show, though, is that what’s being said on the label is actually in the supplements,” says Manaker, meaning that you’ll be able to know exactly what you’re taking.

4. Learn How To Read Labels

The Ritual team recommends seeking out products that are USP verified by the (which, by the way, less than 1% of supplements are) to confirm that “the supplement contains the ingredients listed on the label in the declared potency and amounts, does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants, will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time, and has been made with good manufacturing practices.” Other (actually meaningful) terms to look for on your labels include: Non-GMO Verified Project, USDA Organic, Clean Label Project, NSF, Informed Sport, Informed Choice, Vegan Certified, and Cruelty Free & Vegan.

5. Don’t Trust Everything At Face Value

It also needs to be said that you cannot — I repeat, cannot — believe everything you see on the internet. “You really can’t trust influencers,” says Manaker. “I have one eye open if they’re selling a product, because they have an ulterior motive to get you to purchase it.” Considering there are currently $21 billion in active lawsuits against health influencers for shelling out faulty supplements, your eyes should be open, too.

6. Be Cautious Of Mixing Supplements With Medication

Finally, be acutely aware of anything else in your routine that may not play well with the ingredients in the supplements you’re looking to take. “There can be some interactions with certain medications, so there are some watch-outs when you’re putting supplements in your body that people don’t realize,” says Manaker. As researchers from the Journal of Internal Medicine put it, “Herbs, like any other drugs, have side-effects and interactions with other drugs but unfortunately, the majority of the herbal drugs have not been systematically studied.”

7. Consult A Doctor

The best thing you can do before starting a beauty supplement is to consult your health care provider, and ideally, one who’s well-versed in holistic health care. “It's hard to be an expert at everything, so it’s best to go to someone who can cut through the noise and give you great recommendations with your limited time — ideally a board-certified dermatologist who has done additional training in integrative dermatology if you want to explore these alternative approaches,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Caren Campbell. “I think the best treatment plan can be a blend of both Eastern and Western medicine, but you need to make recommendations based on credible science, studies, and experience.”

Ed note: This story has been updated from a previous version.

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