March 18th 2020
Who, What, Hair
Should you be taking a hair supplement?
October 1st 2019 / 0 comment
They claim to help with everything from hair loss to dandruff and brittleness, but with so many to choose from, how do you go about deciding which one’s right for you? Here’s what to look for and what to buy
From protein powders to probiotics, supplements are as commonplace in our supermarkets as fruit and veg. But there’s one type that seems to be occupying more and more shelf space by the month - hair vitamins.
Claiming to help with everything from hair loss to brittleness, it's unsurprising that these little pills of follicular fertiliser are becoming increasingly popular. Could you benefit from taking one? If your diet is lacking in key hair health-boosting building blocks such as protein, B vitamins and iron, then quite possibly, yes.
A key reason for this is because of the hair’s position in the body’s pecking order when it comes to the delivery of nutrients. As trichologist and founder of My Hair Doctor Guy Parsons explains:
“The body is an amazing machine, but it has a lot of things happening all at once - millions if not billions of things to attend to every second of every day. Hair is a non-essential tissue and the body treats it as such, attending to its issues as a minor priority. In short, the body has a box of special treats to give to its workers - first comes the heart, then the lungs, the liver...the list is endless.”
Throw in the fact that the energy requirements of hair cells (the second fastest cells the body produces), and it’s no surprise that hair often falls short of getting the fuel it needs to feel its best.
To keep chances of follicle fatigue low, the general consensus among the experts I’ve spoken to is that lifestyle, specifically dietary, modifications should be your first port of call. Nutritional therapist Fiona Lawson abides by a food first, supplements second ethos:
“Make sure you get the basics right first: eat well, sleep well, exercise appropriately and manage your stress levels,” she tells me. “If you still feel your hair could use a little extra help, then add in a supplement.”
Who could benefit most from supplementation in her opinion? Vegetarians, vegans and those leading high-pressure lifestyles that can cause them to eat less than healthily (the dreaded ‘stress-shed’ is one that I’m all too familiar with). “Those who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet may benefit from a supplement, as they don’t always get the full spectrum of hair-healthy nutrients,” says Fiona. “If you’re out in the sun a great deal, or burning the candle at both ends, it can also make sense to add in a hair supplement—as well as gradually adjusting your lifestyle habits.”
Furthermore, as Guy Parsons points out, supplements can also act as a handy way of helping reduce potential nutritional deficiencies that can occur from other types of modern day pill popping (of the legal kind that is) such as prescription medication. “Supplementation could be considered as a back-up to the system,” he says.
It’s worth keeping your expectations realistic though should you choose to take a supplement. As mentioned above, they are just part of the hair care puzzle. “It’s not just about internal support, you must look after the condition of your hair externally,” says trichologist Anabel Kingsley. “While supplements can help to improve the integrity of hairs that are growing, they will not affect the condition of existing strands – and if your hair is breaking at the ends, it simply won’t be able to reach the length you want it to. To help strengthen and moisturise your hair, use a weekly pre-shampoo conditioning treatment, apply heat protective products when you blow-dry, and be gentle when you style.” Results may take some time too. “Hair only grows half an inch a month,” says Anabel. “You should expect to see results after about three months.”
What to look for in your hair supplements
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common health-boosting nutrients found in hair supplements highlighting what they do and the foods they’re commonly found in to help you decide if your diet needs a helping hand.
Deficiency can cause brittleness and hair loss. It’s found in foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, brown rice, nuts, seeds and red meat. “Low iron can affect blood flow to the scalp, resulting in dry and undernourished hair,” says Fiona. “However, it’s very important to have your levels of iron checked before supplementing, as it’s possible to take too much.”
Found in wholegrains, almonds, meat, eggs, fish, pulses, seeds and dark leafy greens. “They create red blood cells, essential for carrying oxygen and nutrients to the scalp and hair follicles,” explains Guy. Those with dull hair and the dandruff-prone can benefit from upping their intake (more on that later).
Biotin (otherwise known as vitamin B7), is a particularly important one. “While biotin deficiency is relatively uncommon, taking a supplement containing biotin can really help to strengthen and improve the integrity of growing hairs,” notes Anabel Kingsley. “This is because it aids in the breakdown and use of amino acids (proteins) – the substance that forms the bulk of your strands. Taking biotin can be especially helpful if you have a low-protein diet as it helps your body to utilise the proteins you ingest.”
“This is the building block of hair so dramatically affects the rate of growth,” says Fiona. “Some hair supplements do contain amino acids (the smallest unit of protein) but it’s best to optimise protein in your diet first.” If you’re vegan or vegetarian, check out our article on how to increase your protein levels from food and/or supplements for further advice.
Found in foods like walnuts, seeds, fish and seafood and are great for a dry, itchy scalp and surprisingly, if you have greasy hair too. “It may seem counterintuitive, but it might be a sign that you’re not getting enough essential fats,” says Fiona. “These help to balance sebum production in the body.”
“While zinc is a trace element, it’s essential to many biological processes, such as carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, as well as the breakdown of other micronutrients,” explains Anabel. “The breakdown and utilisation of these nutrients is essential to hair growth – especially protein as it is what our hair is made of.”
Deficiency is quite common. “One reason for this is it is not always bioavailable – i.e. it often isn’t easily absorbed by the body,” says Anabel. “This is because zinc binds to phytate, a substance found in many staple foods such as legumes, nuts and wholegrains. As such, a supplement containing zinc is often beneficial.”
Low levels can give rise to hair loss. “Studies show that some forms of hair loss are associated with low levels of zinc, which supplements can help to correct,” highlights Fiona, however the reasons for hair loss can be complex and it’s best not to self-diagnose. “It’s normal to shed around 100 hairs a day but if you feel like you’re losing too much, it’s important to get it checked out by a doctor as it could be a symptom of an underlying condition.”
Good sources include oily fish, red meat, egg yolks and of course, sunshine. “It helps to create new hair follicles,” highlights Guy.
“Vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen, which helps to give hair that enviable lustre,” says Fiona. Good sources of the vitamin are oranges, red and green peppers, strawberries and broccoli.
Found in foods such as avocados, sunflower seeds, almonds and spinach. “It’s an antioxidant that can prevent free radical stress on the hair,” explains Guy.
Top hair supplement recommendations from the experts and us
Wild Nutrition Food-Grown Skin Hair & Nails, £30
For: A dry and itchy scalp
“For a dry, flaky scalp, look for supplements that contain essential fatty acids and zinc, both of which help to balance sebum production,” recommends Fiona. This and Bare Biology Pure Omega-3 Fish Oil, £47.50, are Fiona’s top picks.
Kansha Alchemy Good Hair Nutrition Complex, £39.99
For: Stronger hair and preventing hair loss
The inspiration for Kansha Alchemy came from founder Ann-Louise Holland’s personal experiences with hair loss and her disappointment in the options that were available to her. The product of the research she conducted into the subject, Good Hair aims to address the cause rather than the symptom of androgenic alopecia or male pattern baldness (DHT, a derivative of testerone), and contains biotin, zinc and hair growth enhancing antioxidant selenium, in addition to herbs palmetto and pygeum africanum. Plus, it doesn’t contain synthetics, preservatives or fillers to increase its efficacy.
Terranova B-Complex with Vitamin C, £17
For: The dandruff-prone
“There are lots of different B vitamins, and many of them have been associated with the development of dandruff,” explains Fiona. “A deficiency of biotin (vitamin B7), for example, has been found to lead to skin lesions that resemble seborrheic dermatitis, while folic acid (vitamin B9) has been found to improve the condition.”
“If you’d like to boost your intake with supplements, make sure you choose a formulation that includes all the B vitamins (rather than one or two in isolation), as they all work together,” she recommends.
Viviscal Max Strength Supplement, £39.99
For: Hair growth
This is a favourite of dermatologist, Justine Hextall’s, who often recommends it to her patients for supporting the foundation of healthy hair growth. “One of the most commonly used supplements for healthy hair and nails are marine proteins such as those in Viviscal, which have been shown to reduce hair loss and promote stronger hair,” she says. “They provide missing amino acids in the hair follicle to promote a healthy follicle and subsequent hair growth.”
Philip Kingsley Biotin Boost, £30
For: Weak, brittle hair
This newbie from Philip Kingsley contains a trio of ingredients - biotin in addition to zinc and oxygenating vitamin B12 - to strengthen breakage-prone hair and stimulate the scalp.
It’s recommended to those who follow a low protein diet as well as vegans, vegetarians and those who are gluten-free. “It is also formulated with pure biotin, which makes it more effective,” explains Anabel. “We specifically chose to formulate vitamin B12 and zinc into it as deficiencies in both are very common – especially in women.”
My Hair Doctor Volume-ise Nutritional Supplement, £25
For: Hair health and growth
This contains a great mixture of hair building blocks such as biotin, collagen, iron, B vitamins, zinc, vitamin D and microcirculation-boosting botanicals. “We worked with a specialist nutritional company to produce the most effective capsule containing what researchers have proven to be the most scientifically beneficial collaborative ingredients essential for hair growth, nail strength and skin repair,” explains Guy. “We have had excellent feedback in the months that it has been used as part of the My Hair Doctor - 5 step Volume-Ise programme.”
Healthspan Super20 Pro probiotic, £9.95
As well as our gut, it seems that our scalp can also benefit from certain strains of probiotics. “A randomised, placebo-controlled trial found that a type of probiotic called lactobacillus paracasei reduced the severity of dandruff, as well as alleviating other symptoms such as redness, itching and greasiness,” notes Fiona. “Interestingly, the levels of malassezia yeast (associated with dandruff) also decreased.
“It’s possible to buy lactobacillus paracasei on its own but, like B vitamins, its best to supplement with a variety of probiotic strains. Look for a formulation that contains 20–50 billion colony forming units (CFUs), and take one capsule daily.”
Philip Kingsley Root Complex, £40
For: Problematic scalps
Containing omega-3, vitamin D3 and vitamin E, this supplement’s been formulated with the needs of itchy scalps in mind. It also offers a distinct delivery system designed to allow for better absorption. “It is contained within an ultra-modern ‘pill in a pill’, where an inner capsule of dry ingredients lies suspended in an outer one encasing oil ingredients,” Anabel tells us. Its combination of anti-inflammatories helps tackle dandruff, eczema, scalp flaking, irritation and dryness.
Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach should never be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.