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Do hair supplements work? Guidance from a dermatologist

Woman loses clump of hair after brushing

While hair loss can affect people at any time, it typically becomes more common as we age. As we get older, our hairs become finer and thinner, leading to a more visible scalp. It might seem like losing hair is generally a sign of “hair loss,” but is all hair loss the same? 

Dr. Erin Hodges, a dermatologist at Tryon Medical Partners, helps dispel the myth that all hair loss is created equal and clarifies whether, how and what type of hair supplements work to help people with this issue.

What type of hair loss am I experiencing?

The first step in addressing hair loss is to determine what type of hair loss you have. Dr. Hodges notes that male/female pattern hair loss, also known as androgenetic alopecia, is the most common type of hair loss. It results in losing hair on both sides of the front of the scalp (called bitemporal recession) and a widening of one’s visible hair part. Sudden circular hair loss on any area of your head, or other areas of your body where hair grows, can be due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune type of hair loss. There are other forms of hair loss which can, over time, cause scarring of the hair follicles and prevent hair from growing in the future.

“Not all types of hair loss are the same and the treatment will be different depending on the type,” Dr. Hodges says. “Everyone will get the most common type of hair loss at some point. It just depends when and to what extent.”

Do over-the-counter supplements really combat hair loss?

Dr. Hodges flags that while over-the-counter (OTC) hair supplements can work, different supplements work specifically for different types of hair loss. Most hair supplements that you’ll see at drug stores specifically address male or female pattern hair loss, and are not as effective for hair loss due to other causes. 

When selecting a hair supplement, Dr. Hodges advises that you should try to stay away from those containing high levels of biotin,which is the case for popular brand Nutrafol. The United States Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that taking high levels of biotin can alter the effect of other medical testing, resulting in people potentially missing important results about their thyroid or heart conditions. 

Untangled, an OTC supplement developed by a dermatologist, is Dr. Hodges’ supplement of choice when making supplement recommendations to patients with androgenetic alopecia. Along with a lower dose of biotin, Untangled contains saw palmetto, which can help with pattern hair loss. Notably, saw palmetto should be avoided in pregnant and breastfeeding women, and you should check with their doctor prior to starting new supplements.

How can I prevent hair loss?

Dr. Hodges advises that living a generally healthy lifestyle with a diet full of nutrients is the key to preventing hair loss. 

“When people have vitamin deficiencies, they can have hair loss,” she says. “For example, people might have a hair shedding event if they have an iron deficiency. This can also happen when your thyroid is out of whack or you have low Vitamin D.” 

Ensuring that you are eating a healthy diet and getting regular physical exams with your doctor are important to preventing hair loss. 

What are other ways to promote hair growth?

Rogaine (minoxidil), a topical solution that can be applied directly to the scalp, is another popular way to promote hair growth.

Dr. Hodges explains that minoxidil works by “recruiting the hairs into the growth phase of the hair cycle.” 

Notably, minoxidil (and any other hair treatment) can take one to two hair cycles (about three to six months) for someone to see growth, requiring patience from the user. Dr. Hodges also flags that minoxidil will lead to hair growth anywhere that it’s applied, so caution should be taken when applying. 

Other options include topical caffeine (contained in shampoo) and collagen supplements. There has been some data to suggest improvements to prevent skin aging when using collagen, but it is important to know that there is limited evidence about whether it can aid with hair growth. 

When is it time to see a dermatologist?

Whatever the type of hair loss you’re experiencing, it is good to speak to your doctor as soon as possible to work to halt any additional hair loss.

“One of the things with hair is that by the time people notice thinning, they may have already lost a lot of hair,” Dr. Hodges says “In general, men tend to come later for treatment.”

If you develop symptoms on your scalp such as burning or itching, or if you develop oval or round areas of hair loss, these can be signs of hair loss which is treated differently than male/female pattern hair loss. These different types can progress and cause scarring.

Additionally, if you’ve already tried OTC treatments including minoxidil and a product like Untangled and not experienced improvement, you should see your doctor to confirm that you are using the correct products for your type of hair loss. Your doctor can also recommend other options, including prescription treatment and procedures.