When my parents returned to visit relatives in China five years after immigrating to the United States, they took a suitcase full of multivitamins and fish oil gel capsules purchased in bulk at Costco. Vitamins and other supplements were so much more expensive over there, according to my mother, and you could not guarantee the purity of ingredients either.
As a result of my parents’ dedication to multivitamins, I also bought into the idea that they were important. As a kid, I choked down those chalky Flintstone pills. In high school and college, I committed to the gummy versions.
So when the Instagram-influenced craze for “beauty supplements” recently hit my feed, it seemed like a logical next step. I’ve been a beauty editor for years. Why not supercharge my diet and make myself more attractive with a tablespoon of powder or a pill?
In the age of social media marketing and celebrity-as-wellness-guru, Americans now spend nearly $13 billion a year on natural product supplements. And multivitamins have branched out into the business of beauty aids.
Most of these beauty supplements cost more than your average drugstore multivitamin. They claim to improve your hair, skin and nails and come in enticingly photogenic packaging. But do they work? I decided to put some of the products to the test.
Over the course of 12 weeks, I tried two “beauty vitamin” regimens: Perricone MD’s Omega 3 Supplements ($42) and Hum Nutrition’s Runway Ready Skin, Hair & Nail Repair Kit ($35). I also tried two “adaptogen” products: Sun Potion’s Reishi Mushroom Powder ($50) and Raw Complexions’ Skin Balance Beauty Food ($35).
All the items claim to deliver several benefits: I’d be able to wear less makeup, live only a moderately healthy lifestyle and still have shiny hair, clear skin and strong nails. My waistline might even shrink ― many of these supplements imply there could be weight loss due to their “gut-health” effects.
The Beauty Vitamins
The first thing Shah and Fahad told me, I already suspected: Many of the ingredients in these supplements come from Eastern traditions, like Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
A lot of these ingredients weren’t new to me either. I had seen them in traditional Chinese medicine shops, where my parents would occasionally duck in to buy ginseng. Now they were just being sold in Instagram-friendly packaging instead of musty glass jars lined up on the shelf.
“As Western medicine advances, we are learning more about the benefits of Eastern approaches that people have been using effectively for thousands of years,” Shah said.
For example, she said, scientists have only started conducting clinical studies on the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric, which is a common ingredient in South Asian cuisine and has been used for health purposes for centuries.
Both Shah and Fahad recommend turmeric supplements to some of their patients and clients. Fahad suggests trying turmeric if you want to look slimmer since it can decrease inflammation. Shah recommends turmeric for its demonstrated antioxidant benefits.
Dandelion root is another ingredient found in traditional Chinese medicine and modern beauty supplements (such as Hum Nutrition’s Daily Cleanse Clear Skin and Acne Supplement, which I also tried briefly).
There is currently very little clinical research on the effects of taking dandelion root. But it is “used in Chinese medicine to improve digestion,” said Shah, and digestion is linked to acne in Eastern mind-body philosophies.
Besides turmeric and dandelion root, the products I tried also included black currant seed oil, astragalus root, beetroot, hemp seed, asparagus, alfalfa, kelp, slippery elm, celery root and Siberian ginseng.
How did the beauty vitamins appear to work for me? My hair has always been thick and healthy, so I honestly didn’t notice any substantial changes there. But my nails! What a difference. I’ve shied away from manicures for years because I have brittle nails that flake when covered with nail polish. But after 12 weeks of taking these supplements, my nails were strong enough for a manicure.
Adaptogen herbs have become en vogue recently, although many have been known to Eastern communities for centuries. The term “adaptogen” was coined in 1947 by two Russian pharmacologists, Israel I. Brekhman and N.V. Nazarev, who observed that herbs like ginseng could help the body resist the physical and emotional effects of stress.
The Sun Potion product uses reishi mushroom powder, which I tried mixing into coffee after reading about it on the beauty blog Into the Gloss. The Raw Complexions powder, which I mixed into almond milk, contains the herbs ashwagandha and astragalus root, which are used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines, respectively.
Both Fahad and Shah are cautious about adaptogen herbs.
“They are stimulants. You have to see how they relate to your hormones,” Fahad warned. “And you have to be careful about mixing adaptogens together. I don’t believe in any of it unless there’s been several clinical studies on humans.”
Adaptogens aren’t supposed to give you an instant boost like caffeine. The effects are subtler and they take weeks to develop. My acne-prone skin did become clearer over the 12 weeks. Without any other changes to my skincare routine, I didn’t suffer additional breakouts. I even went a few days without wearing concealer or foundation.
But when I told Shah, she observed that, sure, it could be the supplements. Or it could be the fact that I was eating marginally healthier during this experiment, drinking supplement-enhanced smoothies instead of chomping down doughnuts for breakfast.
The Price of Designer Packaging
I introduced Yu to the camera-ready supplements section at Sephora, where Hum Nutrition’s Runway Ready Skin, Hair & Nail Repair Kit is sold.
“I do not think beauty supplements in the form of oral pills are worth the money nor have they been proven to work,” the plastic surgeon said. She noted that the supplements sold by Sephora “read like a typical multivitamin” ― which, as noted, you can buy for less at a drugstore.
What does Yu recommend? “Eating a diet that meets the food pyramid devised by the United States Department of Agriculture to encourage healthy eating, [along] with a daily multivitamin, is sufficient.”
Similarly, the Perricone MD Omega 3 Supplements that I took are more or less the same thing as the fish oil capsules you can buy in big jars.
Omega 3 supplements are good for you, Fahad said, although she cautioned about eating too much fish, due to mercury poisoning. But you don’t have to pay a premium. Nordic Naturals, for example, are half the price of Perricone MD’s product if you buy in bulk.
A Note of Caution
Adding beauty vitamins and adaptogens to your daily routine won’t replace a healthy lifestyle ― or overcome genetics ― and taking too much of them can be risky.
In some cases, the active ingredient may cause harm. There may also be ingredients in the supplements that you didn’t sign up for — and they can have their own adverse effects.
Yu warned against “taking large, unsupervised doses” of some vitamins and supplements. Some ingredients, she said, “can interact and decrease the effectiveness of prescribed medications and others, such as vitamin K, can affect the natural clotting process.”
She also noted that it’s “difficult to ensure the quality or purity of products as consumers.” Yu herself does not typically recommend specific vitamins or supplements for the average person.
“In the wrong hands, supplements can be dangerous,” Shah agreed. “Just because [these supplements] are over the counter, they’re not free of risk.”
The Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they’re sold to consumers, although the agency can take action if they later prove dangerous. Unlike medical drugs, supplements can’t be marketed “to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.” The FDA is currently highlighting the risks of dietary products marketed as weight loss supplements, which may contain active ingredients that aren’t listed and could be harmful.
In short, checking with your doctor before embarking on a course of vitamins and herbs, even those with a long history in Eastern medicine, is a good idea.
Ultimately, it came down to cost for me: Adaptogenic tonics and designer vitamins add up. I’ve returned to my gummy bear multivitamins and half-priced omega 3 supplements, purchased in bulk from Costco. And I don’t look or feel the worse for it.