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Do hair loss supplements really work, and how can they boost hair growth?

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Here's what the experts had to say...

We may not talk about it as much as other beauty woes, but as many as one in two women will experience hair loss in their lifetime. That means millions of women have to deal with the emotional distress of their hair thinning or falling out. Our hair is so intrinsically linked to our sense of identity and our mental health; it's the reason why a dramatic haircut often marks a new era in your life as well as why a good hair day will leave you feeling invincible.

Not only does hair growth slow as we age - especially after the menopause (in our 20s and 30s we typically have 615 hair follicles per square centimetres which drops to 485 by time we hit our 50s), research by hair brand Toppik finds that seasonal shedding really is a ‘thing'.

In Europe, for example, hair loss has been shown to peak around August and September when the fewest follicles are in the anagen (growth) stage of the hair cycle.

Given it is a problem many of us will come up against at some point during our lives, we thought it wise to educate ourselves on exactly why hair loss happens as well as the steps we can take to hold on to our strands. Specifically, we want to know whether hair loss supplements can really help, or whether they make promises they simply can't keep.

Hair Loss Causes

“Hair loss is a huge subject as there are innumerable causes from stress and short-term illnesses (such as the flu) to genetics, long-term illnesses (such as a thyroid disorder), hormonal imbalances (particularly post-pregnancy), auto-immune disorders, mechanical trauma and of course general aging too,” says Hairmedic director and consultant trichologist Iain Sallis.

“Diet is another very common cause,” adds Director of Communications at Philip Kingsley, Anabel Kingsley. “This is because hair is, physiologically, a non-essential tissue. As such, it's the last part to receive the nutrients we ingest and the first to suffer when our diet is lacking.”

Can a supplement really boost hair growth?

“‘Boost’ is the wrong word but the body does have an optimum level which it can produce hair cells at and this can be inhibited by things such as low iron and protein which are the main nutritional issues people suffer from,” says Sallis. “We can supplement against these types of issues, but first you need to know what you are lacking because taking a hair supplement just for the sake of it will do very little for hair growth if you are not lacking in the vitamin/mineral/supplement you are taking.”

Kingsley agrees; “A supplement can most definitely boost hair growth if you are losing your hair due to a nutritional factor and supplements containing protein and biotin can also bolster the strength of newly growing strands. However, if your hair loss is completely unrelated to diet, supplements are not going to fix it.”

What ingredients should you look for in a hair supplement?

“I recommend everyone takes a daily protein supplement,” says Kingsley. “This is because your hair is made of protein and hardly anyone eats enough protein – at least from a hair-health standpoint. In terms of other ingredients, it depends on your individual requirements. You definitely don’t want to be popping loads of supplements if you don’t need them. I suggest having a yearly blood test and basing your supplement intake on the results.”

Can you get the same effect from changing your diet?

“The supplement which I formulated (Hairjelly, £29.95) is designed to give people an extra dose of the sulphur-rich amino acids that may be lacking in your diet if you don’t eat much meat, eggs or oily fish. I actively encourage people to use the natural alternatives (food) first but in some cases they can’t - such as if they're vegetarian/vegan or their lifestyle is too busy to incorporate these food groups into the diet daily, in which case it’s an ideal cheat,” says Sallis.

“The most important thing to understand when it comes to diet and dietary supplements is that your hair’s nutritional requirements are unique and incredibly high,” says Kingsley. “Because hair cells are the second fastest growing cells the body produces, it means strands need a consistent supply of energy in order to grow which means it can be difficult to give it all the nutrients it needs through diet alone. Supplements can therefore be incredibly handy as they provide an extra boost of readily available vitamins and minerals but it should always be a combination of the two.”

Other ways to boost hair growth?

“I would take a five-pronged attack,” says Kingsley:

1. “Try to manage your stress levels as stress can affect the hair growth cycle. Yoga, meditation and Pilates are all good options.”

2. “If your hair is breaking at the ends, it won’t be able to grow past a certain length so use a weekly pre-shampoo conditioning treatment to strengthen strands."

3. “Scalp health is key to healthy hair growth. Try to shampoo regularly (daily to every other day) to keep your scalp clean and flake-free as a flaky scalp can cause hair loss. Once weekly use an exfoliating scalp mask to gently lift away dead skin cells as like the skin on your face, your scalp benefits from gentle weekly exfoliation.”

4. “Never skip breakfast - it’s the most important meal of the day for your hair as it’s when energy to form hair cells is at its lowest. A ‘hair-healthy’ breakfast will include a portion of protein and a complex carbohydrate. For instance, eggs and whole wheat toast, smoked salmon on a bagel, or quinoa porridge with nuts and berries.”

5. “Snack between meals. Energy to form hair cells drops four hours after eating. To keep energy levels sustained, snack on a nutrient-dense food to keep your follicles happy between meals.”

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