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The science (or lack thereof) behind beauty supplements

“Nutraceuticals” or “nutracosmetics” is a broad category that includes super-specialized products that are geared at specific health and beauty benefits, from gummies that are said to help you grow “longer and stronger” hair and nails to drinkable powders that claim to help slow down the aging process by controlling free radicals. Though nutraceuticals sound pretty great in theory, their merits are hotly debated by scientists, physicians, and dietitians alike.

The controversy

There are some products that work as they claim to, but the whole category is getting a bad rap because of the plethora of inferior and untested ones. “Dietary supplements are permitted by law to make claims about the role of a nutrient in the structure or function of the body, whether or not there is any actual research on the product to back up those claims,” explains Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D, a nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City, Utah. As an example, Talbott says that a product that contains vitamin C could legally make a claim that says it “supports healthy skin,” since vitamin C plays a role in the function of collagen metabolism, and collagen is a major structural protein in skin. That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that taking a vitamin C supplement is going to visibly improve your skin because there are a lot of other factors at play (i.e. maybe your skin is aged from sun damage, not lack of vitamin C), and the way vitamin C is related to your skin health is not exactly direct. "Having actual research showing the benefits and effects of a product is what consumers should look and ask for,” he says.

You shouldn't have to look to hard for it, either: More companies are investing in clinical studies and trials to show exactly what their products do. “These studies are not inexpensive, so if companies have made that investment, they will be enthusiastic about sharing the results with their customers,” he adds. Still, many of the most popular products in this category, like ingestible probiotic skincare and “skin food” formulations, offer no research on their specific formulations or even their ingredients.

The products that are research-backed

Studies suggest that ingestible collagen can improve skin’s elasticity, increase bone mass, and reduce joint pain in athletes. Still, the bone mass studies were conducted in rats, so human research is really needed to fully understand the scope of the benefits. The joint pain study is promising, but relatively small, and lastly, not all dermatologists are convinced that taking a collagen supplement can produce visible improvements in your skin. “Yes, if you go looking under the microscope and show that there are a few more collagen fibers than before, that's a good start, but do these few extra collagen fibers mean when I look in the mirror I actually have a measurable difference in fine lines and wrinkles?” says Annie Chiu, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Redondo Beach, California. “The reduction of wrinkles by a clinical evaluation that is actually meaningful to the person taking it is really the big barrier of proof that has yet to be seen,” she adds

One beauty supplement Chiu recommends to her patients is Heliocare, a drinkable powder for skin health that has been around for 20 years. “Polypodium leukotomos, a fern extract marketed as oral Heliocare, is the best-researched supplement for oral photoprotection (aka sun protection) and decreasing inflammation in certain skin conditions,” she says. There are various animal and human studies showing that this extract is basically a "super antioxidant" with benefits that have been tracked in large groups of people over time.

How to score true beauty from within

Before she even gets to talk of supplements with her patients, Chiu says she starts with recommending dietary changes. “I encourage my patients to eat a well-rounded diet rich in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, as the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of this type of diet have been shown to offer some degree of photoprotection and decrease a process called glycation, which in effect ‘ages’ cells in the body.”

The bottom line

Some might argue that these newer supplements are just yet to be proven effective, and that nutraceutical companies are likely on the forefront of supplementation science. Others who take them could argue that even if they’re not proven to work, they’re certainly not doing harm. While that’s possible, many of these products have not been tested for long-term safety. If you really want to try one of these trendy powders or gummies, as with any new vitamin or supplement, your best bet is to consult your doctor before incorporating it into your regimen.