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They make a lot of claims, but do those claims live up to the science?
We’ve all had a funhouse mirror moment: Standing over our bathroom sink and noticing the way our pores have grown monumentally larger than what we’re comfortable with. Maybe we haven’t been getting enough sleep and there are now bags the size of Oreos under our eyes. It’s like going to the carnival, minus the fun.
As a full-time freelancer and mother to an active toddler, my beauty routine has taken a backseat, to say the least — I’ve had more funhouse mirror moments than I’d like to admit. And my eating and sleeping habits haven’t exactly been “optimal.”
So when I read about all the benefits promised — by beauty gurus and online reviews alike — from taking beauty supplements, I was both curious and wholeheartedly committed to investing in my well-being.
Aside from the more obvious aesthetic appeal, having stronger nails was a huge incentive. In the last few months alone, my nails have cracked so badly I’ve had to wear bandages on multiple fingers (not great for typing or washing dishes, let me tell you).
The whole thing seemed pretty straightforward — take your beauty vitamins each day and voilà!
But not so fast. According to the New York Times, more than half of Americans take vitamins, all of which aren’t regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Often, preliminary studies fuel irrational exuberance about a promising dietary supplement, leading millions of people to buy in to the trend.”
One of the issues with these studies is that they often contain a small number of participants, but the results get filtered by advertising as solutions “for everyone.”
Some experts have voiced concerns about the safety of some of the ingredients found in these beauty supplements. In a recentBustle article, Tati Westbrook’s Halo Beauty came into question as her supplement contained saw palmetto, which can decrease the efficacy of oral contraceptives and be a hormone-disruptor. Many of her followers addressed the lack of labeling and scientific backing to her claims on her social media.
While many people are seeking out these vitamins as a cure-all for unachievable beauty, trying to parse out what’s harmful and what isn’t can often feel like a fool’s errand.
The amount of misinformation is well — significant — which begs the question, is it all a scam? Or can these magical pills confer some benefit to the nutritionally challenged among us?
After searching through different options (of which there are many), I opted for taking GNC Women’s Hair, Skin, and Nails Program, which claims to “support beauty from within.”
Aside from what you might find in your average multivitamin, some of the core ingredients include biotin, primrose oil, and collagen, which places them squarely in the category of “supplement.”
What exactly are supplements?Confusing but true items listed as vitamins should only contain just that, vitamins,” says Brooklyn-based Maya Feller, a registered dietitian. “If there are other ingredients on the label, then it’s a dietary supplement.
Always the cautious enthusiast, I didn’t expect much to come out of ingesting the pills. Yet surprisingly, within two weeks of faithfully taking the capsules each day, I realized my nails had drastically changed. No more painful cracks, no more wet bandages. My hair was also significantly more lustrous, so that even my husband took notice.
Only my skin… wasn’t faring as well.
Far from the glowing complexion I had hoped for, my face started breaking out in suspicious (and unappealing) patches. Quite the opposite from what the package claimed.
“Beauty supplements seem to imply that a pill a day will do away with a multitude of skin problems,” says Claire Martin, a registered dietitian based in California. “While nutrition plays a key role in many skin issues, consuming pills specifically to target these without making any other changes to your diet or lifestyle is likely counterintuitive.”
There’s no easy answer whether vitamins help or hurt us in the long run, as each person is an individual, says Feller, who specializes in nutrition for chronic disease prevention. Still, some experts hold that it’s reasonable to take a daily multivitamin “for insurance,” as it can take anywhere from five years to decades to see supplements’ true benefits.
Was it the collagen, primrose oil, biotin, or some other mysterious ingredient? So many questions!
San Francisco-based beauty vlogger, Trina Espinoza, says she finds many people think of supplements as purely beneficial. “They think ‘it can’t do any harm’ when they add supplements to their routine, and yet, excess amounts of preformed vitamin A can cause birth defects, high amounts of biotin can skew some medical tests, and too much B-6 is known to cause nerve damage.”
She adds that multivitamins or beauty supplements have these in quantities far beyond our daily requirements.
Our best bet is to be careful of herbs and botanicals when taking dietary supplements, says Feller, as there may be interactions with medications we’re already taking. “For example St. John’s Wort may decrease the activity of some birth control pills. Also look out for added sugars, artificial flavors, colors, and dyes.”
“I noticed one anti-acne supplement had red clover as an ingredient,” says Martin. “Red clover is a naturopathic ingredient that can help balance your hormones during menstruation or menopause, but can also cause miscarriages. There was no indication of this side effect on the supplement’s packaging.”
Are there proven, absolute vitamins I should look for?
One size does not fit all, just as there’s no one perfect diet, says Feller. “If I have a patient who eats a majority of ultra-processed foods and I know that they are likely malnourished, I would first recommend a reduction in the harmful food with a transition to minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods.”
Vitamins from food is the recommended route, although vegans or strict vegetarians should take vitamin B-12, which is found mostly in meats.
Martin recommends seriously considering why we’re taking supplements to begin with: “Is your diet lacking? Are you taking them for the sake of taking one?”
“If you’re eating a well-balanced diet daily, you don’t need a vitamin,” she adds, “unless you have extensive blood tests or deficiency symptoms (for which you’ll need blood tests to diagnose) and know for certain that you are missing a vitamin or mineral.”
Espinoza offers this simple advice: “Don’t take the marketing claims for granted. Do your research. It’s okay to ask manufacturers for more information,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to decide if a product lives up to its claims. And at these prices, it pays to do your research!”
Personally, while I may never find out the cause of my outbreak, I wouldn’t give up entirely on taking supplements. They do in part live up to their hype — my nails are stronger than ever.
If anything, they’ve made me realize an important fact: We can’t put a bandage on our well-being. In the long-term, nothing should replace the endless benefits of eating healthier and getting a good night’s rest. After all, natural beauty comes from within.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.