Tati Westbrook, a.k.a. @glamlifeguru, has 1.2 million Instagram followers and 3.9 million YouTube subscribers. Her rabid fan base tunes in for her beauty product reviews, hauls, and tutorials. For weeks she’d been teasing the launch of her own product line, which most of her fans assumed would be skin care or makeup. Instead, at the end of February she unveiled a line of Barbie-pink supplement capsules called Halo Beauty, which claim to do everything from prevent premature hair graying to firming skin and reducing fine lines. Westbrook saidthat she sold more than 25,000 bottles, or about half her stock, the first day. They cost about $40 for a month’s worth.
Westbrook is not the first social media star to shill beauty supplements. You can’t open Instagram lately without seeing a celebrity or major beauty brand selling them. The Kardashian-Jenner clan and other celebrities have been promoting Sugarbear Hairgummies, which claim to “support hair growth,” for a few years via paid Instagram posts. The Tiffany-blue bears, which reportedly also taste like delicious candy, are the self-proclaimed “best-selling hair vitamin online since 2016.”
Even beauty mogul Bobbi Brown, who left her namesake beauty brand in 2016, has a new line of supplements and protein powders called Evolution 18. The brand’s newly minted Instagram page claims they will give you “gorgeous skin, strong bones, and overall glow.”
Beauty supplements aren’t a new concept either. We’ve been able to buy hair and nail formulas for decades at the drugstore. But this new iteration of shiny, celebrity-endorsed supplements is smack in the middle of the Venn diagram of three huge and utterly modern obsessions: wellness, skin care, and Instagram, helping to drive their popularity like never before.
Take away the shiny packaging and celebrity endorsers, though, and you’re left with products plagued by the same problems as dietary supplements: There’s no good evidence that they can deliver on the results they promise, and a lack of government oversight and clear standards puts consumers at risk.
The beauty supplement market is exploding
The supplements all boast different formulas, but the commonality is that they claim they will make your hair, skin, nails, or all of the above look better … somehow. You’ll find old-school vitamin ingredients like biotin, zinc, folic acid, and vitamin C in many formulas. Collagen, which was first popularized in Asia as an ingestible and comes with claims that it increases skin elasticity, is also popular. You’ll find botanicals that often pop up in the wellness space, like oils, saw palmetto, ashwagandha, green tea, and turmeric in these formulas. The supplement claims run the gamut from “shiny and fuller hair” to more nebulous descriptions like “healthy hair, strong nails, dewy skin.”
And they’re becoming more popular. The global beauty supplement market was worth about $3.5 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $6.8 billion by the end of 2024, according to a report by Goldstein Research, a consulting and marketing research firm. This is still a small portion of the overall global supplement market, which is projected to reach $220 billion by 2023.
But the increasing popularity is most obvious when supplements are broken out as a sector of the beauty industry, where they previously were barely a blip. Dr. Deirdre Hooper, a dermatologist in New Orleans, says she’s had more patients using and asking about supplements over the past few years. “It’s not only hope in a jar but now also hope in a bottle,”she says.
A beauty industry analyst told Business of Fashion last year that the category had doubled in the previous two years, with “strong growth” noted. According to a 2017 consumer study by the supplement trade group the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 31 percent of female respondents ages 18 to 34 cited taking supplements for “skin, hair, and nails.”
At the recent Indie Beauty Expo in LA, a survey of buyers revealed that the brands most likely to be picked up by retailers were not skin care or makeup brands — they were supplement brands. Hum Nutrition, which has multiple beauty-specific formulas, and Vital Proteins, which sells “beauty waters” and “collagen creamers,” garnered the most retailer interest at the expo.
Hair, nail, and skin vitamins are not new. The techniques used to market them are.
Companies have been selling “hope in a bottle” for decades. In the early ’90s, Time ran a cover stating that vitamins could, among other things, fight “the ravages of aging.” This lionization of vitamins was partially due to Linus Pauling, who became a zealot about the benefits of vitamin C and other supplements, even when research proved him wrong.
Dermatologist-founded skin care companies like Murad and Perricone have been offering supplements and touting “from the inside out” beauty for 20 years now. The hair growth supplement Viviscal, which contains a complex made up of shark cartilage and oyster extract powder, has been hyped by celebrity hairstylists for years. But until the recent wellness boom made supplements aspirational, they had a reputation as being something that maybe only older women bought at the crunchy health food store.
About five years ago, companies realized they could use social media to promote these supplements as youthful and fun. Hum Nutrition was one pioneer. It offers a range of brightly packaged supplements that are heavy on formulas for beauty-related concerns like acne, anti-aging, and hair growth. It launched in 2012, but the brand started its Instagram account in 2014, coinciding with the announcement that it would be carried in the beauty retailer Sephora. In the past year, Hum’s Instagram account has become more stylized, featuring a mesmerizing, undulating rainbow pattern when you scroll through it on mobile.
Facebook ads for the brand are now ubiquitous. When it landed a $5 million Series A investment at the end of last year, one if its investors noted that one of the attractive qualities of Hum was its “strong engagement on social media.”
Then there’s the Kardashian-Jenner industrial complex. Kim Kardashian started promotingHairfinity vitamins (almost 1 million Instagram followers) back in 2015. That hot pink bottle was then forsaken for the now ubiquitous Sugarbear Hair gummies, which have blanketed Instagram since early 2016. The Kardashians even came under fire by consumer watchdog groups and the Federal Trade Commission for not clearly disclosing that their images were paid for by the company. But that hasn’t stopped Sugarbear from hitting almost 2 million followers.
Further cementing the vitamin-social media connection is Ritual, a supplement subscription service for women that launched in 2016. While not explicitly a beauty supplement, it calls itself “age defying” and “skin perfecting,” among other claims. It also comes in a bright yellow box, and the clear capsules look like snow globes, with particles suspended in oil.
Forbes wrote of the brand last year: “Subscribers to the $30-per-month service post snapshots of Ritual’s sleek yellow and white delivery box on their own feeds. … Both the vitamin itself, which looks iridescent in the light, and its packaging were designed to be ‘super-shareable,’ says founder and CEO Katerina Schneider.”
The brands are using beauty personalities instead of doctors to sell their supplements
These supplement brands are doing what more traditional beauty brands have done for years — making their products look really attractive on social media and then tapping influencers to further spread the message. A slew of new beauty supplements launched, many from traditional beauty brands and beauty industry-adjacent personalities, who understand how to market to beauty customers.
Avon launched Espira, a line offering to “boost, glow, restore.” Ouai Haircare, founded by the Kardashians’ hairstylist Jen Atkin (who is now a social media celebrity in her own right with 2.2 million followers), launched hair supplements last year. Kora Organics, a beauty line founded by former Victoria’s Secret Angel Miranda Kerr, launched “skinfood” supplements. Model Giorgos Tsetis co-founded the thinning hair supplement company Nutrafol. Olly, sold at Target and drugstores, counts Mario Dedivanovic, Kim Kardashian’s longtime makeup artist (4.3 million followers), as a brand ambassador. He posts pictures of the colorful bottles on his Instagram and recommends it to mainstream fashion publications, which sometimes do not disclose his paid association.
Philip VanDusen, a consumer product design specialist, says that many of these brands have “adopted the higher-level aesthetic of beauty so they don’t stand out as being cheap or looking too mass.” The bright colors help grab attention both in stores and on Instagram. VanDusen compares the marketing to when Method, with its weirdly shaped clear bottles, took on the orange plastic laundry detergent aisle. (Olly was co-founded by Eric Ryan, the co-founder of Method.)
The natural progression is that stores that sell fashion and beauty, like Sephora, Barneys, Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Ulta have hopped on board. Prices range anywhere from $28 to $88 for a 30-day supply from these various brands. All of these are marketed on the brands’ Instagram feeds, often pictured nestled among offerings like moisturizers and hairspray.
The ultimate sign that they’ve found mainstream acceptance? They’re now common on Instagram shelfies, a popular type of aspirational image in the social media beauty realm wherein people post pictures of their carefully arranged, color-coordinated medicine cabinets.
But do beauty supplements do anything?
For all the modern, social media-savvy marketing, the claims these supplements are making are as dubious as ever. Companies will cite a study to validate one or several of their ingredients, but the truth is that very few supplement ingredients have been thoroughly studied in humans. Many products have no data at all to substantively support their claims.
If there are studies, they often involve only a small number of subjects, explains Boston dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch in an email. “It is always important to assess who is doing the study,” she continues, since some are done by the companies selling the supplements.
Biotin, a supplement ingredient long promoted as an aid in hair growth, probably won’t do anything unless you’re deficient in the nutrient, which is rare.
Collagen is the substance that keeps your skin looking springy and elastic, so it would seem to follow that taking a collagen supplement would keep your face looking youthful. But a supplement probably doesn’t do much, according to an analysis by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
Turmeric, which is present in a lot of these supplements and has been hyped as a food ingredient for its anti-inflammatory effect, was dismissed as “much ado about nothing,” according to a group of scientists who analyzed multiple studies involving curcumin, which is thought to be the beneficial compound in turmeric.
While ingredients like probiotics show some promise for atopic dermatitis and acne according to Hooper, the data for their use for things like preventing wrinkles is still far from conclusive.
A bigger issue is that these supplements often contain multiple ingredients, and while one or two may have small studies supporting a benefit, there are no large, well-designed studies to demonstrate how they all work in tandem.
Beauty supplement marketing copy also usually attempts to simplify issues such as thinning hair when, in reality, conditions like these are usually multifactorial and can reflect a combination of diet, medications, medical conditions, hormones, nutrient deficiency, age, gender, and a host of other factors that rarely lend themselves to a one-pill-fits-all fix. Indeed, a lot of the common ingredients in these products are only helpful if someone is actually deficient in them.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has studied dietary supplements and is a noted critic of the industry. He pulled no punches when it came to his opinion on the efficacy of beauty supplements: “It’s just magical thinking. It’s taking advantage of people who will spend money.”
Safety is definitely a concern
As Vox’s health reporter Julia Belluz has written, the safety, efficacy, and even contents of supplements cannot be trusted. We’ve seen this play out in multiple categories across the supplement industry. It’s an issue in beauty too.
In 2016, BuzzFeed reported that an independent lab that analyzed Sugarbear Hair supplements found they contained small quantities of lead, a heavy metal that’s a neurotoxin for children and is linked to cardiovascular disease in adults. Plus, the ingredient amounts differed by 20 percent or more compared to what was on the label, including containing 70 percent more biotin than claimed. The recommended daily amount of biotin needed for adults is 30 to 100 micrograms, an amount that’s easy to get from diet. Sugarbear Hair contains 5,000 micrograms.
Additionally, biotin is not as harmless as has been presumed. In fall 2017, JAMA published a small study indicating that taking 10 milligrams (10,000 micrograms) of biotin daily was associated with false lab results. Two months later, the Food and Drug Administration posted a safety alert about the risk of high doses of biotin, which it designated as a dose over the recommended daily allowance. It noted that the ingredient can “significantly” interfere with some lab tests, producing both false negative and false positive results. The agency attributed one death to the phenomenon, in a patient who was tested for the blood marker that can indicate you’re having a heart attack. Lab results are obviously an important part of the data a health care provider collects to determine diagnosis and treatment, so the risk of inaccurate results is concerning.
The CRN, the supplement industry trade group, issued a press release that patients should stop biotin supplements temporarily before having lab tests. “It’s something we really don’t have good studies on, it’s probably not going to benefit you, and it has potential problems, so maybe we should get away from taking biotin,” says Hooper.
Cohen said that while he recommends single-ingredient vitamin or mineral supplements to patients with deficiencies, he is wary of anything that contains multiple ingredients, has proprietary blends without specific amounts of ingredients listed, or claims any sort of outcome — which is pretty much every single supplement discussed here. “These are more likely to act like drugs in the body and more likely to have side effects or have potential downsides,” he says.
Some of the downsides are scary. Saw palmetto, which is in both Tati Westbrook’s new supplement and Nutrafol, could possiblyaffect the efficacy of estrogen-containing birth control pills. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center warns that ashwagandha, an ayurvedic herb used in Moon Dusts and a Hum formula, has a variety of potential side effects, possibly including miscarriage. Too much vitamin A and E can actually cause hair loss. Hooper says anecdotally she sees liver function variations in her patients who take a lot of supplements. The bottom line is that we don’t really know conclusively what these supplements can do, in terms of risks or benefits.
But the FDA must be keeping tabs on these companies, right? Nope.
Unlike prescription drugs, which are heavily regulated by the FDA and whose claims and safety have to be proven before they can be sold, supplements are barely subjected to government scrutiny. Due to a law pushed through in the mid-1990s by Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose home state of Utah is home to a big chunk of the supplement industry, supplement manufacturers pretty much have free rein to say anything and do anything. (Read more in Belluz’s explainer.) The FDA can’t force companies to remove products or ingredients until it can prove that they are really harmful, resulting in potential injury and even deaths in the meantime.
This also explains the vague wording like “promotes,” “maintains,” and “supports” that you often see on these supplements. This is called a structure/function claim, and it’s perfectly legal, as long as manufacturers also attach a disclaimer that says: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Our product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Supplement brands seem to expect consumers to just trust them. Rose-Marie Swift, the founder of RMS Beauty, told the fashion trade publication WWD at the time of her supplement launch, “But [probiotics] are exactly like the cocaine industry — there’s s–tty cocaine, s–tty acidophilus. And then there’s movie star cocaine, Hollywood movie star acidophilus.” She actually makes a good point that can be extrapolated to the whole supplement industry: There’s no way of knowing which is the shitty stuff.
Tati Westbrook, the beauty guru, faced backlash about her supplement line from skeptical fans who challenged her on pretty much every single claim and ingredient. At one point, she had to disable her comments because things got very heated. She eventually posted a 50-minute YouTube video to rebut the “haters” and explain the line, though she started out with the assertion, “This is not snake oil.” Her commenters pointed out that she really didn’t provide the proof of efficacy they were asking for.
While the popularity of these types of products is on the rise, aided and abetted by weak regulations and a beauty industry eager to make money, it is heartening to see that some target consumers are starting to become more educated, and to care enough to be loud about it. Cohen does think the regulations will change in the next decade or two, but consumers will ultimately need to be the catalyst.