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Do Hair Supplements Really Work? Dermatologist Weighs In

April 15, 2021

You’ve heard of hair supplements that claim to combat hair loss, give you voluminous silky hair, or stop hair breakage, but do these products actually work? In this article, we’ll cover the supposed benefits hair supplements claim to have, and examine the science and evidence behind it. We’ll also discuss other hair loss treatments for hair growth and hair thickness as an alternative to supplements including an excerpt from Haircare Bible: A Dermatologist’s Tips on Haircare and Hair Loss by Dr. Teo Wan Lin, Dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre.

Depending on the goal of the hair supplements, they can market to achieve a number of different things. Some supplements claim to increase blood flow to the scalp, strengthen hair and prevent hair loss, decrease inflammation, prevent hair thinning. Some truly aim to fill a physician-diagnosed vitamin or mineral deficiency. 

Do hair supplements really work? What does the science say?

Dietary supplements are legally recognized as food, as opposed to drugs. This distinction means that supplement manufacturers do not need to confirm safety, efficacy, or quality before selling and marketing it to the public. In short, since vitamins and supplements are not FDA-regulated, brands can make any claims about their product.

These pills and supplements are often not backed by data, and the research you can find on them is lacking. The scientific research and evidence that is out there are often biased or too narrow. A lot of the studies in support of hair supplements you will find are funded by the brands themselves, casting a less-than-credible light on the results. 

Biotin, for example, is a popular supplement for hair thinning and hair loss. Efficacy and effectiveness has only been shown in research performed for a specific concern (nail brittleness), or in a narrow population (those with hair loss and biotin deficiencies). Successful results in limited areas are too often taken as efficacy in other situations. 

Additionally, manufacturers often rely on “deficiency-state” outcomes to support supplementation in normal populations, without evidence. For example, hair loss vitamins often contain vitamin A. While those with vitamin A deficiencies may experience hair loss, there is no evidence that it is useful in individuals with normal levels of vitamin A. In fact, vitamin A may actually trigger hair loss. 

Hence, in terms of scientific evidence, there really isn’t much to back the usefulness of these hair supplements. Instead, it is more important to find out why hair loss is happening before choosing a treatment path. Working with a dermatologist to better understand the reason behind your hair loss or thinning can help you to make a more informed decision in determining which treatments are helpful. 

What are some alternative treatments for hair growth and thickness?

Include more vitamins in your diet

Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA) and telogen effluvium are two common types of hair loss. Studies show that increasing intake of vitamin D in your diet can improve symptoms of these diseases. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and certain mushrooms such as portabella. 

Deficiencies in riboflavin, biotin, folate and vitamin B12 – components of the vitamin B complex, have been associated with hair loss. The recommended daily allowances can be reached by eating a balanced diet. Incorporating dietary sources of vitamin B including leafy greens such as spinach and romaine lettuce, eggs, and certain seafoods, can be beneficial for hair loss.. 

Iron deficiency is common in women with hair loss. Foods that you can add to your diet that are rich in iron include spinach, legumes such as beans, lentils, soybeans, and red meat. 

Topical and oral treatments 

Topical and systemic drugs are often used in treating female or male pattern hair loss. The most common topical drug is minoxidil. Originally developed as an oral medication for hypertension, its common side effect of excessive hair growth has led to its use as a treatment. Minoxidil 2% or 5% solution is often used in topical application to prolong the anagen phase.

Other anti-androgen drugs include fluridil and finasteride. High levels of androgens, including DHT, can shrink hair follicles as well as shorten the hair cycle. Topical application of fluridil helps suppress androgen receptors in hair follicles. Finasteride is available as oral medication and reduces the conversion of testosterone into its active form. Finasteride has also shown to reverse the effects of follicle miniaturization.

Hair cosmeceuticals

Copper peptide is another ingredient that stimulates hair regrowth. Made up of amino acids, copper peptides have regenerative properties that work to increase hair follicle size and reduce hair loss. By fighting inflammation and free radicals, copper peptides also protect the hair follicles from being damaged. [1]

The Copper Peptide Hair Regrowth Serum contains copper peptide for hair growth, hair root strenghtening, and hair shaft thickening. 

“Topical formulations like minoxidil are limited by its side effects such as irritation and scalp flaking. Minoxidil, when topically applied at concentrations between 2-5%, has the potential to irritate the scalp causing symptoms such as worsening dandruff, scalp itch and redness. The effects of minoxidil are lost once the patient stops applying the topical. It is also important to note that minoxidil is teratogenic and is not approved for use in breastfeeding and pregnant women. Hence, for my patients with hair loss and especially those with concomitant dandruff or scalp itch, I routinely recommend copper peptide as the first line hair regrowth serum as it is non-irritating and gentle on the scalp.

I have found that a combination of non-prescription hair cosmeceuticals together with prescription cosmeceuticals, in this case minoxidil and/or propecia (finasteride in men) works well in my practice. It has a much lower risk of scalp irritation and is also more sustainable in the medium to long term,” accredited dermatologist, Dr. Teo Wan Lin.

It is important to note that all treatments for female or male pattern hair loss are for long-term use, which means stopping the treatment will cause your hair loss condition to return. However, if the cause of your hair loss has not been officially diagnosed, it is recommended to consult an accredited dermatologist for professional advice. 

Laser / Light Therapy 

Hair laser (diode laser) treatments work via photobiostimulation, delivering low level laser light to your scalp. The diode laser works at the cell level to stimulate growth factors that help the scalp regenerate faster, helping your hair to grow fuller.

There are also approved diode laser devices for hair regrowth available for home use. For such devices, using a laser comb for 15 minutes, three times a week, also increases the number of hair follicles in the anagen phase, the stage in which our hair grows. 

Alternative to hair supplements: Raser comb

The Raser™ Hair Regrowth Comb is a multi-functional 5 in 1 comb that incorporates Diode Laser + Radiofrequency+ Red Photon + EMS + Massage with Ozone Sterilization. It is beneficial for hair follicle stimulation, hair regrowth, scalp serum absorption, and increases hair elasticity/anti-frizz/shine.

Light therapy in the form of yellow and red light treatment can initiate hair regrowth. Red light treatment, with wavelengths between 630 to 670 nm, stimulates an enzyme called cytochrome C. This enzyme encourages our genes to produce more hair and lowers the cell death of hair follicles.

Radiofrequency 

Fractional radiofrequency devices have been studied in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia. When used on the scalp, fractional radiofrequency has the effect of jump-starting the wound healing process, which triggers off collagen production. In order for hair growth to be activated, the roots of the hair where follicles are, have to be subjected to the same micro-climate as successful wound healing processes. Application of radiofrequency technology is possible in home use devices for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia, as well as other causes of hair loss, as it is able to promote strong and healthy hair growth.

Closing thoughts

In summary, the evidence for hair supplements is very limited. While it may be very attractive to believe that there is a best hair loss supplement for hair growth out in the market, the truth is that it very likely doesn’t work as it claims. So far the research on hair cosmeceuticals has identified primarily plant-derived antioxidants such as safflower oil that can help to stimulate the hair follicle to grow. Minoxidil is another effective option, but as mentioned above, it tends to cause scalp irritation. The promising technologies available for hair regrowth would be laser diode combs with radiofrequency. These have been proven to stimulate the same processes that trigger off hair regrowth. 

If you are looking for the best hair loss supplement for hair regrowth, it is important to understand that there is currently no robust evidence that supports the use of hair supplements in most causes of hair loss that are not related to vitamin deficiencies. It is important that if you suffer from hair loss that you seek an accredited dermatologist consultation, to ensure that important medical causes are ruled out. 

In any case, we have summed up our dermatologist advice on how to navigate the world of hair supplements marketed for hair regrowth here: 

  • Just like FDA-approved drugs, supplements have the potential of having side effects and interactions, so treat them with the same level of caution as you would a pharmaceutical drug. 
  • When reviewing a drug’s safety and effectiveness, the FDA and its panel of experts will ask questions and review the evidence. Since supplements are not FDA regulated, it is up to manufacturers to ask these questions – unfortunately, many do not. 
  • Be sure to evaluate all the ingredients in the supplements. Checking and evaluating specific brands is also necessary as quality can vary. 
  • While independent laboratory verification can attest to dosage, these do not provide information on safety, efficacy, or potential for interactions. 
References: 

Katta R, Huang S. Skin, Hair and Nail Supplements: An Evidence-Based Approach. Skin Therapy Lett. 2019;24(5):7-13.

DiMarco G, McMichael A. Hair Loss Myths. J Drugs Dermatol. 2017 Jul 1;16(7):690-694. PMID: 28697221.

Almohanna HM, Ahmed AA, Tsatalis JP, Tosti A. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2019;9(1):51-70. doi:10.1007/s13555-018-0278-6

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