You see it wherever you look; on TV, at the movies, in magazines, and even people you pass on the street—thick, luscious, beautiful hair. And if yours is thinning or is otherwise unhealthy, it can be enough to make you want to crawl in a hole and never come out. After all, next to your smile, your hair is likely one of the first things people notice after meeting you (or, at least it can feel that way).
And in your pursuit of heaven-made hair, you’ve probably investigated all sorts of products and services, from styling tools and products to painful, invasive surgery.
Recently though, you may have started thinking about taking a nutritional supplement that promises model-looking locks. But before you hand over your hard-earned money, you want to know: Will these supplements actually regrow my hair? Will they make my hair healthier? Are they worth my money?
Although these are simple—and very important—questions, in order to fully understand the pros and cons of hair supplements, their answers are a little more complex. Don’t worry though, because in this article, we’ll explore the ABCs of hair supplements over the course of 5 steps, so you can learn whether or not one is right for you.
So to begin, we’ll first take a look at what the phrase “hair supplement” means in step one.
Step 1: What a Hair Supplement Is (and Isn’t)
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Isn’t it obvious what a hair supplement is?” As it turns out, this might be more nuanced and in-depth than you think. And since the HighYa team specializes in covering all the basics (whether in our articles or our in-depth product reviews), we’ll start from square one.
A hair supplement is a sub-category of nutritional supplements, which, according to the FDA, is:
“A product intended for ingestion that contains a "dietary ingredient" intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A "dietary ingredient" may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- a vitamin
- a mineral
- an herb or other botanical
- an amino acid
- a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract”
In other words, hair supplements contain different ingredients that are claimed to boost your nutrition and improve the quality (or quantity) of your hair from the inside out. Plain and simple.
However, in order to be classified as supplements, these types of products cannot claim to be effective for “the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” If they did, they would then become classified as drugs, which come with extremely close scrutiny and tight regulations. This is often why you’ll see a similar disclaimer at the bottom of most supplement websites.
We’ll talk more about this in a moment, but for now, here’s a good way to think about it: If Long Locks (a fake product) simply claimed to help make your hair thicker and shinier, it would be classified as a supplement. However, if the manufacturer claimed that Long Locks could help regrow hair lost due to female pattern baldness, or increase dull hair’s shine as a result of too much stress, then it then becomes a drug, because it claims to treat a specific medical condition.
But what causes hair to become unhealthy in the first place? What about hair loss? Let’s find out.
Step 2: The Causes of Unhealthy Hair
Do you crave the full-bodied tossability of model-perfect hair? Want hair that you can effortlessly pull back into a classic ponytail? When it comes down to it, there are 2 main physical characteristics that constitute jealousy-inducing hair:
- Health, which encompasses shine, bounce, body, softness, elasticity, etc., and
- Thickness, which references the not just the thickness of each individual hair shaft, but also the number of hair follicles present on your scalp.
These 2 characteristics are symbiotic, meaning that one doesn’t work without the other. In other words, it’s certainly difficult to achieve “attractive” hair that’s shiny and soft but also super thin, or hair that’s thick, but that’s also brittle and unmanageable.
Before going any further, let’s get a better understanding of how hair works so we can better understand what can go wrong and lead to unhealthy or thin hair.
The Basics of How Your Hair Works
On average, the human scalp contains about 100,000 individuals hairs, which are “protein filaments that grow from follicles found in the dermis, or skin. Most common interest in hair is focused on hair growth, hair types and hair care, but hair is also an important biomaterial primarily composed of protein, notably keratin.”
A basic diagram showing the main components of human hair. Source: Wikibooks.org
Even though they’re all made of the same stuff however, this doesn’t mean each hair on your head is a mirror image of one other. This is because scalp hairs go through three distinct growth cycles:
- Anagen, when the “cells in the root of the hair are dividing rapidly.” Hairs can remain in this phase for 2-6 years, during which time they’ll grow about 1cm every 28 days.
- In direct contrast to the anagen phase, the telogen phase lasts about 100 days, where your hair is at rest and is no longer growing. Roughly 6%-8% of the hairs on your head are currently in the telogen phase.
- The catagen phase acts as a transitional step where your hair moves between growth and rest. About 3% of the hairs on your scalp are in the catagen phase.
Now, we’ll dig in deeper and see what causes thinning and otherwise unhealthy hair.
Conditions that Cause Your Hair to Be Unhealthy
The truth is that there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of medical conditions that can cause your hair to be hard and brittle, break easily, become flat and greasy, or to exhibit any other unwanted traits, including diabetes and endocrine disorders, vitamin deficiencies (specifically zinc), excessive stress levels, heart disease, and even the way you style your hair.
This can be the result of several different processes, including damaging the hair shaft through chemical processing, damaged follicles caused by high heat (which can be permanent if scarring occurs), and more.
Conditions that Cause Thinning Hair
Remember how we discussed hair’s different growth phases above? Often times, hair will shed after completing the telogen phase, so it’s completely normal for you to lose about 50-100 hairs per day. And this hair loss is essentially unnoticeable, since it occurs all over the head and the remaining 100,000 hairs make up much of the difference.
However, when you begin losing more than 100 hairs per day, and/or these follicles no longer produce hair, then you might have a problem on your hands (or in your sink, as the case may be).
Similar to unhealthy hair, there are dozens of internal and external factors that can lead to thinning hair, although the most common is male or female pattern baldness. Other causes include hormonal changes, scalp infections and other skin disorders, excessive stress, some medications, and certain hairstyles and treatments (especially from too-tight ponytails, which can lead to a condition known as traction alopecia).
Wrapping It Up
So, where does this leave us? Ultimately, we discussed a lot of details regarding hair here, including some conditions that can cause it to be less than stellar, but it all comes down to this: Although there’s a whole industry of products and styling tools that claim to help you achieve perfect hair, truly healthy, luscious hair, starts from the inside. Which is exactly where hair supplements claim to help.
But is there anything special about these supplements and the ingredients they contain? In short, will they work to address common causes of hair loss?
Step 3: Common Ingredients Found In Hair Supplements
Before digging in, it’s important to note that there are perhaps hundreds of different ingredients found in various hair supplements, which are often obtained from hundreds of different sources, which themselves can come with widely varying degrees of quality, potency, and so forth.
Despite this fluctuation in quality, hair supplements (and nutritional supplements as a whole) are almost completely unregulated by the FDA—as long as they include a little disclaimer at the bottom of their products’ websites, as we discussed in the first section. In fact, until a specific nutritional supplement garners enough customer complaints to get the FDA’s attention, the manufacturer isn’t required to provide any proof that their product works as advertised, or that it even contains all (or any) of the ingredients it claims.
While we covered this topic in-depth in our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide, it’s important to mention here because in most instances, hair supplements manufacturers can make just about any claim they like about their products, without backing them up. In other words, you should be very wary about anything you read from a supplements manufacturer.
With this out of the way, let’s dive in an look at some of the most common ingredients found in hair supplements.
One of the biggest components of most hair supplements consists of essential vitamins, including A, C, D, D3, E , B1, B2, B3 (also known as niacin), B5 (or pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B12, and K.
For the most part, these essential vitamins don’t have a direct effect on hair growth or health, although they generally constitute the basic building blocks for hair. In other words, unless you’re deficient in these vitamins, then adding them to your diet won’t necessarily give you better hair.
The exception to this is vitamin D, which might “help wake up follicles that have become dormant.” Also, it’s important to note that although vitamin C “plays an important role in the synthesis of collagen,” this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have healthier hair, as we’ll discuss next.
Under the Basics of How Hair Works section above, we mentioned that hair is a protein-based structure (i.e. it’s composed primarily of protein), and there’s no more abundant protein in the human body than collagen. As such, it stands to reason that ingesting extra collagen through a supplement will provide you with better hair, right?
While this makes logical sense, the fact of the matter is that there isn’t enough clinical evidence showing that collagen supplementation can provide any kinds of benefits, whether related to hair health or any other condition.
Also, collagen is generally obtained from bovine (cow) or fowl (chicken) sources, so it wouldn’t be considered vegetarian or vegan-friendly.
Vitamin H (Biotin)
Although biotin deficiencies are rare, if you’re not getting enough, one common side effect is brittle hair and nails, and the internet is full of consumers claiming that biotin supplementation helped them achieve better-looking hair. However, biotin will not address hair loss caused by genetic factors.
From a clinical perspective though, the evidence is weak that biotin can realistically provide visibly thicker or healthier hair.
B Complex Vitamins (Folic Acid or Folate)
Folic acid is a primary ingredient is used by the body for numerous essential functions, and even for the production of DNA. In fact, folate is such an essential vitamin that it’s federally required to be added to hundreds of foods we eat regularly, including cereals, breads, pasta, and more.
While this might be the case, there is insufficient clinical evidence showing that folic acid supplementation can provide hair benefits in otherwise healthy individuals. In other words, unless you’re deficient, it likely won’t provide any results.
Although zinc is an essential trace element necessary for optimal human health, and zinc supplementation can provide a wide range of benefits (especially if you’re deficient), there is no clinical evidence showing it can improve the quality of hair in otherwise healthy individuals.
As the most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium is responsible for a wide variety of processes, including nervous system communication and hormone secretion. And although 99% of calcium is stored in bones and teeth, the remainder is an essential ingredient in muscle and other tissues.
As a result, it might be reasonable to believe that calcium supplementation can help provide you with healthy, lustrous hair.
However, unless you’re deficient in calcium, which can lead to hair loss, there isn’t enough clinical evidence to say whether or not supplementation will provide any hair benefits.
MSM is a key chemical for the production of other chemicals in the body, including those responsible for the formation of tissue. As such, it’s often included in hair supplements to promote healthy follicles, and perhaps even collagen production.
However, there are no clinical studies that have shown a relationship between MSM supplementation and hair growth.
Phytoceramides, which are plant-based ceramides (e.g. waxy lipid molecules), were largely off the most consumers’ radars until Dr. Oz talked about them on his show back in 2012. While he only referenced the role phytoceramides might play in reducing the signs of aging, since that time, they’ve also been widely touted by supplements manufacturers as an effective ingredient for healthy hair growth.
Regardless of what they’re claimed to do though, there remains insufficient clinical evidence showing phytoceramide supplementation can provide any kind of benefits—hair or otherwise.
Another ingredient often found in anti-aging products and hair supplements alike is hyaluronic acid (HA), which is found in abundant supply within the human body, especially in “young skin, other tissues, and joint fluid.”
Although hyaluronic acid hasn’t been clinically proven to help regrow hair or improve hair health, it is an essential ingredient for maintaining scalp moisturization. And since a dry, flaky scalp can lead to decreased hair quality, HA supplementation may provide some scalp conditioning and lead to better quality hair.
We put argan oil last, not because it’s the least important in this list, but because it often comes as a topical treatment (versus an oral supplement). In fact, this ingredient is so popular that if you’ve been searching for different ways of achieving healthy hair for very long, you’ve almost certainly come across a product containing argan oil.
Argan oil is derived from the argan tree, which is native to Morocco. While it has been used for centuries as a food additive, it has also been applied to skin and hair for conditioning skin and nourishing hair. But does it work?
For many, yes. This is because argan oil can help prevent split ends, increase shine, improve strength, and boost manageability. However, from a clinical perspective, there isn’t enough evidence showing that argan oil can boost hair growth or provide any other benefits on a cellular level.
With this said, keep in mind that not all argan oil treatments are the same. As such, some less-than-stellar manufacturers may use low-quality ingredients that don’t provide decent benefits for your money, and many sell their high-priced products only through free trials and autoship programs, including Silk of Morocco.
Speaking of which, let’s take a closer look at these tactics and how they specifically apply to hair supplements.
Step 4: Not All Hair Supplements Are Created Equal
Over the past couple years, an alarming number of supplements have begun popping up online that are only sold through free trials. Here, you’ll pay a nominal amount for shipping and handling (usually $4.95), at which point your 14-day trial begins. And although it’s called a “trial,” you’ll most often receive a full 30-day supply of the product.
Then, once your trial expires, you’ll be billed full price for the supplement, which is often far out of line with any benefits you can realistically expect to achieve from using it. For more details, be sure to read our article Think That Free Trial is a Good Idea?
As if this wasn’t enough, you’ll then be enrolled in the company’s autoship program (often called something like Discount Buyer’s Club, Awesomeness Club, or some other such nonsense), where you’ll continue receiving a regular supply of the supplement and your credit card will be charged each time.
Why do we bring this up?
Because if you’ve read through all the information in this article, have spoken with your physician, and are still intent on giving a hair supplement a try, we’d recommend doing so through a reputable online retailer—not through a product only sold through a free trial.
On top of their less-than-stellar sales practices, these trial-only hair supplements, such as TLS Hair and Silk Advanced Biotin Complex, often come with very poor online customer reviews. As you can see, among more than 100 HighYa reader reviews for these products, they have an average rating of 1.5 stars, with common complaints citing failure to work, poor customer service (difficulty cancelling free trials and obtaining refunds), and even side effects such as headaches and skin rashes.
Long story short: If you’re going to purchase a hair supplement, avoid free trials and autoship programs.
Now, let’s discuss the final step: sharing your experience!
Step 5: Learn from Others’ Experiences
At this point, you have all the basics at your fingertips for purchasing your next hair supplement—if you decide that one is right for you. However, there’s one last key ingredient that can be the final deciding factor, which is customer feedback.
In other words, even though you now have a solid understanding of what a hair supplement is, how they work, common ingredients they contain, and the types of products to be wary of, you still need to find out what others are saying before handing over your hard-earned money (HighYa is a great place to start!).
After all, no one that can provide better advice than someone who’s personally used a product.
As such, be sure to read plenty of customer feedback on any hair supplements you’re thinking about buying. On top of this, whether you’ve had a good or bad experience, be sure to tell the world about it by leaving reviews on websites such as HighYa.
We’re all in this together, so tell us about your last hair supplement in the comments section below. Did it help grow your hair or make it healthier, or was it a bust? With your help, we can make everyone a more informed consumer!