Growing supplements industry promises a dose of beauty
Some women are coy about revealing their beauty secrets, but Dana Williams-Johnson happily concedes that she's a product junkie.
Inside the Clinton townhouse she shares with her husband, her private bath overflows with health and beauty aids — hundreds in all. Think teeth whiteners and lip glosses, firming creams and false eyelashes.
"I'm a girl who's been obsessed with makeup and beauty products since I was a little kid," says Williams-Johnson, 32, a webmaster for a trade association. "I am not afraid to try new things, to look and feel my best."
In recent years, the product connoisseur has added something new to her arsenal: beauty supplements that promote certain aesthetic benefits. Think longer hair and nails, for instance, or clear, glowing skin.
No prescription is required for these supplements, which often come in tablet form, as well as in drinks, powdered mixes, drops and breath sprays, sold at drugstores, cosmetics stores and via the Internet. In the Baltimore area, retailers like Rite Aid, GNC and specialty cosmetic purveyors Sephora and Ulta all carry beauty supplements. And they're widely available at many other drugstore chains, salons, department stores and via the Internet.
In recent years, beauty supplements have become big business, a growing slice of the multibillion-dollar supplement industry.
"That whole world — we call it the 'beauty from within' category — is definitely growing," says Marc Brush, editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal, a Colorado-based trade publication that chronicles industry trends.
According to NBJ point-of-sale data and other sources, dietary supplements (excluding weight-loss products) accounted for nearly $27 billion in U.S. consumer sales in 2009.
Hair, skin and nail supplements yielded approximately $520 million in 2009 — up 10 percent. "It's in the top five growth rates of all the categories of supplements," Brush says.
The allure of such products — dubbed cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals or newer terms like nutricosmetics — isn't hard to peg in a society that places a premium on youth and attractiveness. But has science truly reached a place where beauty is as easy as popping a pill? And are they safe?
Beauty supplements may be trendy, but the concept behind them isn't exactly new, notes Dr. Gerard E. Mullin, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with certifications including internal medicine, nutrition and gastroenterology.
"We've known for years, in the setting of nutrient deficiencies, that certain nutritional supplements can bring about some dramatic skin and nail changes," says Mullin. "And if you know you're not getting it through proper diet, it may make sense to use supplements."
A 2010 survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition reported that a consistent percentage of U.S. adults (about 66 percent of nearly 2,000 people sampled) identified themselves as supplement users, up from the previous year. And when it comes to beauty supplements, a slew of manufacturers and product options are available.
GNC's "Well beIng" line includes the "be-Beautiful Beauty Enhancing Pak." Phyto, a Paris-based company, makes "Phytophanere" caplets to fortify hair and strengthen nails. "RepHair by Pierre Michel with AC-11" has a patented key ingredient extracted from a plant in the Brazilian rain forest.
There's also a category of "doctor brands" — dietary supplements created by physicians. Dr. Fredric Brandt makes fruit-flavored antioxidant water-boosters that purport to promote younger-looking skin. Murad Inc., created by pharmacist-turned-dermatologist Dr. Howard Murad, has dietary supplements designed to fight acne and induce better sleep, among other things.
Meanwhile, several celebrity doctors have supplement lines, including Dr. Nicholas Perricone, an occasional guest on "Oprah" and "Today," and Dr. Andrew Weil, a popular wellness guru.
That beauty supplements have become so ubiquitous doesn't surprise Kelly Gould, 37, a Parkville resident and local ad agency director, who writes a beauty blog (www.gouldylox.com) in her spare time.
"A lot of women are curious about them," she says. "I've tried several different ones myself."
Gould reveals that one particular hair supplement did garner results. "I didn't necessarily see hair sprouting magically, but about three weeks into taking the supplement, I noticed it was growing a little more quickly. The thing is to be realistic. You can't take a supplement and think that overnight you'll become gorgeous. "
Dr. Monte O. Harris, facial plastic surgeon and hair-restoration expert who heads the Center for Aesthetic Modernism in Chevy Chase, doesn't have a line of beauty supplements, but he has noted their impact.
"We had traditionally separated beauty from wellness," says Harris, also a clinical assistant professor at Georgetown and Howard universities. "The reality is, they go hand in hand."
Yet the wider use of beauty supplements does raise inevitable questions, he believes — specifically, how to quantify issues like the safety, efficacy and quality of products.
"Supplements can have value, but a lot of what you see is marketing, and it must be sifted through," says Harris. "What a consumer has to ask is, 'Does a company have a scientific platform? And are they using products already established in the scientific community?'"
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has regulatory responsibility for dietary supplements under the federal Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.
According to Siobhan DeLancey, an agency spokeswoman, supplements are regulated under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" food and drugs, such as prescription and over-the-counter products.
The FDA does not review supplements for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed, DeLancey says. Instead, manufacturers are responsible for marketing a safe product.
"They must ensure that product label information is truthful and not misleading," she says. "For instance, a hair-care supplement can't make a drug claim."
If a safety issue arises, the FDA can investigate and take steps to have the product removed from the market.
Although the agency previously did not have mandatory recall authority, she says, this authority is included in a sweeping food-safety bill that recently passed Congress. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill in the coming weeks.
Safety, of course, is a significant issue.
While many manufacturers are legitimate, say experts, melding mainstream medicine with scientific, evidence-based practices culled from alternative medicine, not all are created equal.
And since formulas are often proprietary, consumers must rely upon the label and other sources to glean what's in those capsules, powders and liquids.
"Supplements can be very tricky, because you are adapting the use of botanicals," says Bevin Clare, a practicing herbal clinician and chairwoman of the herbal medicine department at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel. The accredited institution offers a master's program in herbal medicine and other graduate certificates.
"The biggest problem is, some companies put everything in there," says Clare, who's also vice president of the American Herbalists Guild. "You don't know how old it is, it's hard to determine the quality or whether it contains a clinically viable dose."
Most people take dietary supplements at levels not shown to do harm, says Paul M. Coates, director of the office of dietary supplements at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
"Most are safe," says Coates. "But nothing is completely safe. An example may be if someone is taking prescription drugs or has an underlying health condition. Some supplements can interact or interfere with medicines that you take."
Coates also expressed skepticism as to whether such products actually work.
"I have not seen data to convince me of efficacy. They may work, but who knows?" he says, noting that studies at the National Institutes of Health specifically related to dietary supplements for skin, hair or nails would probably be given lower priority than, say, cancer research.
"Would I like to see more peer review and independent research? Yes," he adds. "The reality is consumers should be asking the questions, `What are the possible benefits. What happens with prolonged use?'"
Anne Williams, the sister of Dana Williams-Johnson, tried Murad's Pure Skin Clarifying dietary supplement for her occasional adult acne.
Its label says the patented formula contains more than 30 vitamins, herbs and other ingredients, and it boasts of "eliminating breakouts" and reducing blemishes "by 55 percent in six weeks."
Williams took the pill four times a day, as recommended.
"I thought it was a really good system," says the marketing professional, who lives in Upper Marlboro. But is she still taking it? Nope.
"I'm not great with taking pills regularly," she says. "It gets to be a lot."
In the final analysis, experts say consumers must practice due diligence, researching products and consulting trusted medical professionals as needed.
"Perhaps some supplements are over-marketed. And there are some [manufacturers] who are unfairly exploiting customers," says Mullin. "But in terms of being beneficial, it really depends on the source, the integrity of the source, and the quality of the product."
Before you purchase beauty (or other types of) dietary supplements, consider the following information from the FDA.
•Neither dietary supplements nor conventional foods can make any claims that they prevent, treat, cure or mitigate disease.
•Food ingredients that have met scientific benchmarks can make what are called "health claims." These are statements such as, "Calcium builds strong bones."
•Most dietary supplements make what are called "structure/function" claims. These are statements like "supports normal cell function." Products that make such claims must carry a disclaimer stating that these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and that the product is not intended to prevent, treat, cure or mitigate disease.
— Donna M. Owens
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