Vitamins & Supplements for Thinning Hair: Are They Worth It?

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At some point in life, to one degree or another, almost all of us will lose some of the hair on our head—hair that we would much rather keep. It is the rare person who gets to the age of 50 with the same amount of hair they had in their youth. With odds like that, and given that hair is a vital part of how attractive we feel, at some point you're bound to ask if there is something you can do to grow more hair—or at the very least to stop losing hair and keep the hair you have.

Before you search online or ask your hairstylist about hair-growing solutions (most of which are completely bogus), you need to know what could be causing the problem in the first place, and what, if anything, you can really do about it. Many of you ask us about supplements for thinning hair—we'll discuss those and a lot more! The information that follows isn't hair-raising, but it is based on facts, not hype. Armed with this info, you'll understand what causes hair loss and how to slow it down.

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What Causes Hair Loss?

For both men and women, hair loss is primarily a result of genetics and changes in hormone levels. Other causes can be health issues, such as thyroid problems, reactions to medical treatments such as chemotherapy, the side effects of medications (including steroids), serious illness, auto-immune disorders, pregnancy, unusually high levels of stress, and malnutrition.

Another cause is over-processing, from coloring, thermal straightening, or perming, which can cause so much damage that the hair literally starts to fall out. Wearing hair in a tight ponytail on a repeated basis or wearing heavy braids, weaves, or extensions also can cause profuse hair loss, especially along the hairline. The roots of the hair simply cannot take the added weight of these enhancements, and eventually it will fall out by the handful.

Aside from medical situations and faulty hair care, the major cause of hair loss is related to the natural change in hormone levels the body goes through as we age. For women, the inevitable loss of estrogen and increase in testosterone will cause hair to thin or fall out altogether. Testosterone (and its more potent offshoot, dihydrotestosterone, also known as DHT) is the primary male hormone, which explains why men experience more pronounced hair loss than women, but, regardless of your gender, this male hormone is the culprit, and any hair loss on the head is an unwelcome event.

What Can You Do to Stop Hair Loss?

If you suspect your hair loss may be due to health-related issues, then it is essential you see your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment. Thankfully, once your medical condition is under control, your hair will almost always return to how it was before.

If your hair loss results from taking poor care of your hair, such as using too much peroxide (bleach) to make your dark hair blond, or strong perms to make your straight hair curly, or inadvertently burning your hair with daily use of flatirons, the only hope of stopping the problem is to change how you take care of your hair. The same is true if you wear your hair tightly pulled back or have heavy hair extensions.

Dietary, nutritional, and hormone-related hair loss is another subject altogether—keep reading to learn more!

Can Vitamins or Supplements Grow Hair?

Given the vast number of vitamins, supplements, and plant extracts claiming to grow hair, you would think there wouldn't be a receding hairline or thinning head of hair anywhere to be found—obviously, that isn't the case.

While there are a handful of studies showing that some exotic plant extracts, such as Asiasari radix extract, Citrullus colocynthis schrad extract, Polygonum multiflorum extract, Thuja orientalis extract, Eclipta alba extract, and Cuscuta reflexa Roxb extract, may have a positive effect, most of those studies were done on specially bred mice—none of them were performed on people in an appropriate, independent study. So, the results may be good for the mice, but not necessarily for you.

When it comes to vitamins and supplements for hair growth, if you aren't seriously vitamin deficient (and most of us aren't), there are no studies showing any vitamin or mix of vitamins and supplements can change a single thinning hair on your head.

If you are truly vitamin deficient, it's important for you to find out which vitamin or vitamins you're lacking, because hair loss would probably be the least of your problems. For example, biotin, a form of B vitamin, is often present in hair-growth supplements. But, if you were truly biotin deficient, you would be too sick to get to the store and buy the supplement!

Blood tests can show if you are low in vitamin D, zinc, or iron, all of which are related to hair growth as well as to other important fundamental bodily functions related to your overall health. Getting these nutrients back within the normal range definitely can make a difference in your well-being, and possibly can help increase the density of your hair.

Other vitamins and supplements that show up in claimed "hair-growing" products include vitamin C, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, amino acids, B vitamins, vitamin A, and vitamin E. All of these are basic ingredients in most vitamin supplements (including prenatal vitamins, which many swear by to help their hair grow); you don't need to get them from a special "hair-growing" pill.

Can Diet Affect Hair Growth?

As is true for every part of your body, a healthy diet can go a long way toward making your hair, nails, and skin look beautiful. That said, there is no research showing a specific diet or group of foods will help grow hair on your head. You'll read about lentils, walnuts, salmon, and even poultry as being a few of the dietary answers for hair growth, but it's really about a healthy diet; for sure, potato chips, sweetened soft drinks, and chocolate cake are not going to grow hair.

Although a healthy diet, along with appropriate vitamins and other supplements, is great for maintaining your health (which can in turn help general hair growth), it won't change:

  • Your genetics
  • Your hormone levels
  • Your reactions to drugs that may cause hair loss
  • Other medical conditions
  • How you take care of your hair

When concerned with hair loss, you also must take into account the factors listed above; thus, for most of us, solving hair-loss problems isn't as simple as changing what we eat or which vitamin we pop.

One interesting aspect of diet: Because hair is mostly protein (in this case, a protein known as keratin), it is a good, though unproven, assumption that you need protein in your diet to grow hair. A protein deficiency can cause hair loss, as can malnutrition from excessive dieting or the eating disorder anorexia, but these are related to serious protein deficiency, and affect only a small percentage of the population. However, if you eat only protein or too much protein, and exclude other key nutrients, it won't be healthy for your body overall.

What Really Works for Hair Growth

Sometimes, the truth is boring, but here it is: The well-known, FDA-approved topical over-the-counter drug minoxidil (brand name Rogaine) is what anyone concerned with hair loss should use, because copious research has made it clear that minoxidil works for the majority of people who use it. Minoxidil is available in 2% or 5% concentrations. When applied twice daily, most will find it can restore hair growth and stop some amount of hair loss. It's boring, but true! The trick is to start using it as soon as you notice any amount of hair loss, because waiting limits minoxidil's ability to stimulate new hair growth and help you hang on to the hair you have.

Not surprisingly, many hair-growing systems often include minoxidil as part of their product offering; in reality, minoxidil is the only ingredient in the system that really does anything. The ads and infomercials go on at length about exotic plant extracts or special vitamin complexes being the miracle you've been waiting for, but when you get the products, sure enough, there's minoxidil listed among the so-called "revolutionary" plants and vitamins.

The oral medication finasteride (brand names Propecia and Proscar) stops the conversion of testosterone into its more potent form, DHT, which, as we mentioned, is the chief cause of hair loss, for both men and women. The risks are associated with the medication finasteride, so it is important to talk to your physician about the side effects, which can be significant for women who get pregnant while taking it. For men, there is solid research proving finasteride's benefit, especially when combined with minoxidil.

The Future of Hair Growth

Hair growth and hair loss are hot topics in scientific research. Many researchers believe stem cells are the panacea of the future for curing disease and almost anything else that ails us, including hair loss. Studies on mice have shown that stem cells can do the job, at least to some extent. Whether or not that outcome would be the same for people, or even safe, is far off in the future, so for now, don't be suckered into believing companies' claims that they have products with stem cells that can grow your hair.

A potentially exciting option is Latisse, a prescription-only drug (active ingredient bimataprost) used initially to treat glaucoma. Doctors prescribing Latisse to treat glaucoma in their patients noted that longer eyelashes were one of the side effects of using the drug in eye drop form, and at the end of 2008 the FDA approved its use for growing eyelashes. Not surprisingly, the company that makes Latisse is carrying out studies to obtain FDA approval for its use to combat hair loss on your head as well. At present, there are no independent studies showing Latisse is as helpful for hair on the head as it is for the eyelashes. Although we usually do not reference personal experience because it's not wise to base your decision on an individual's anecdotal information, we thought it worth mentioning that Paula tried Latisse for her receding hairline, but it didn't work, and she returned to using 5% minoxidil, as she has done for years.

Beware of Hair-Growth Scams, Shams, and Silliness

It's a rare person who won't eventually be concerned about losing their hair, whether or not it's a lot of hair loss at once or a gradual, overall thinning. There are things you can do to improve hair growth, but wasting your money on hair-care products, hair-growth systems, and vitamin supplements that don't work is not a good thing, for your budget or your hair. There are tried-and-true solutions you can turn to, if you can get past the razzle-dazzle of the numerous shams carefully designed to take your money while preying on your insecurities around hair loss. Using the information we present here, you have the power to make an informed decision—and a very good chance of seeing some regrowth of your hair—and perhaps less hair loss, too.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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