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: hair vitamins and hair gummies.
Claiming to help with everything from hair loss to brittleness , it's unsurprising that these little pills of follicular fertiliser are becoming increasingly popular. Hair loss has now also been identified as one of the symptoms of 'long Covid'.
Could you benefit from taking a hair supplement? If your diet is lacking in key hair health-boosting building blocks such as protein, B vitamins and iron, if you are recovering from illness, have been on a diet or are going noticing hair fall in menopause, 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, seeing it 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, 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 says. “If you still feel your hair could use a little extra help, then add in a supplement.”
Who could benefit most from a hair supplement?
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 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.”
If you're in the perimenopause or menopause, consider taking a hair supplement. During this period your oestrogen declines sharply which results in a dominance of testosterone in the bloodstream. Testosterone is then converted to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which when it reaches the scalp, can cause inflammation. "This results in damage to the hair follicles which ultimately leads to hair loss, " explains pharmacist Shabir Daya of Victoriahealth.com.
It’s worth keeping your expectations of supplements realistic, as they are just part one of the haircare 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.”
Which vitamins and minerals to look for in a hair supplement?
Here are the most common health-boosting nutrients found in hair supplements as well as the foods they’re commonly found in to help you decide if your diet needs a helping hand.
If your hair is shedding or brittle, it could be down to iron deficiency. "Iron is required for the growth phase of hair called the 'anagen' phase," explains pharmacist Shabir. "When don't have sufficient iron in your diet, the body takes the iron from the hair bulb and provides it to essential tissues such as the heart."
“Low iron can affect blood flow to the scalp, resulting in dry and undernourished hair,” adds Fiona. “However, it’s very important to have your levels of iron checked before supplementing, as it’s possible to take too much.”
Iron-rich foods include dark green leafy vegetables, brown rice, nuts, seeds and red meat.
Found in whole grains, almonds, meat, eggs, fish, pulses, seeds and dark leafy greens. “B vitamins create red blood cells, essential for carrying oxygen and nutrients to the scalp and hair follicles,” explains Guy. if you have dull hair or are prone to dandruff you could benefit from increasing your B vitamins.
Biotin (vitamin B7)
Biotin is a particularly important hair nutrient, especially if you have a low protein diet as it helps break down proteins in your diet into amino acids and make keratin, the substance that forms the bulk of your strands., " says Anabel Kingsley. "Biotin deficiency is relatively uncommon but taking a biotin supplement can be especially helpful if you have a low-protein diet as it helps your body to utilise the proteins you ingest.”
It's also known for its nail-strengthening powers (nails are also made of keratin) says Shabir. But don't worry, you won't sprout hair where you don't want it. "It won’t encourage hair to grow anywhere else except your scalp, because this is where the vitamin works.”
“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 walnuts, seeds, fish and seafood, omega-3 fats 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.”
Zinc deficiency is quite common and 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.
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.
Methylsuphonylmethane (MSM) is a form of sulphur found in many foods and is needed to make hair proteins, says Shabir. "Due to its volatility, it is easily destroyed by cooking," he says, which is why a supplement can be beneficial.
Gelatin helps to strengthen hair and nails, preventing hair loss and strengthening hair too, explains Shabir. It's the natural protein and amino acids found in animal gelatin that encourage healthy hair and nail growth and this isn't found in vegetarian alternatives. "There is a supplement that mimics the amino acids found in animal gelatin called Hairjelly Protein Capsules, £29.95 ," Shabir says. "These are 100 per cent vegetarian and can be used by those who are experiencing thinning hair, loss of texture, chemical damage of hair or even cyclical hair loss such as during a period or due to a largely vegetarian diet.”
For non-vegetarians try Great Lakes Gelatin Collagen Hydrolysate, £29.95 , an unflavoured grass-fed beef collagen powder that can be added to drink, breakfast bowls and soups.
Silica (horsetail or bamboo extract)
Silica’s role for hair health is two-fold, Shabir says. Firstly, it helps with female hormonal balance, "one of the biggest factors for hair loss and the thinning of hair," according to Shabir. "Silica will most definitely help to prevent hair thinning, restore vitality to hair and may even address hair loss without the need for hormone-mimicking herbs," he explains.
Secondly, silica plays a key role in transporting nutrition to hair. "Silica takes many nutrients to the peripherals of the body, namely the hair, skin and nails, and thus ensures that the hair follicles are supplied with all the vital minerals necessary for hair growth and vitality," he continues.
You'll find silica in hair supplements listed as horsetail or bamboo extract. Horsetail is much less rich in silica than bamboo (eight per cent as opposed to 70 per cent) so look for silica listed as 'bamboo extract' on the label of your hair supplements to get the most powerful form. Bamboo contains biotin, which we already know is a key player in the hair growth game.
Top hair supplement recommendations from the experts
For: Menopausal hair loss