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You may have heard that taking prenatal vitamins can give you strong, shiny hair and nails even if you’re not pregnant. This is actually false—the “pregnancy glow” is most likely to hormonal changes, not prenatal vitamins.
But while prenatals won’t help your hair and nails any more than a multivitamin will, there are other ways you can improve your hair and nail health.
What are prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins, or prenatals, are multivitamins designed specifically for the nutritional needs of a pregnant or breastfeeding person.
While regular multivitamins meet your day-to-day health needs, creating and feeding a baby demands a lot more from your body. Most of your nutrients should come from your food since many nutrients are better absorbed from whole foods rather than supplements—but the nutritional needs of pregnancy can’t always be met by your diet (Melse-Boonstra, 2020).
Certain essential nutrients for pregnancy (like folic acid) are hard to get enough of through food alone but are critical to prevent birth defects (Merrell, 2022). That’s why prenatals are recommended to supplement—not replace—a healthy pregnancy diet.
If you’re planning to become pregnant, it’s a good idea to take prenatal vitamins for a couple of months before trying to conceive; it can take some time for nutrients to build up in your blood to properly nourish and protect a growing fetus (Wilson, 2015).
Will prenatal vitamins help my hair grow?
There isn’t any evidence showing that prenatal vitamins improve hair or nail strength and quality. The pregnancy “glow,” lustrous hair, and strong nails pregnant women often have are more likely a result of hormone shifts in pregnancy (like increased estrogen) and not due to taking prenatal vitamins.
So unless you have a severe pre-existing nutritional deficiency that can damage hair health (like a protein or iron deficiency), the nutrients that make prenatals special won’t make your hair or nails grow (Guo, 2017). You’re better off sticking with a daily multivitamin and trying other tools for improving hair health.
What is in prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins contain many of the same ingredients as traditional multivitamins (like zinc, magnesium, vitamin B12, and vitamin C). The benefit of prenatal vitamins is that they have especially high levels of key nutrients that are important for a healthy pregnancy, including:
Folic acid deficiency increases the risk of having a child with neural tube defects (spinal cord problems like spina bifida), so folic acid (sometimes called folate) is an essential prenatal nutrient (Merrell, 2021).
Fortunately, prenatal vitamins contain plenty of folic acid. It’s recommended that women take prenatal vitamins or folic acid supplements at least a month before getting pregnant and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Since a baby’s spinal cord forms very early in pregnancy, it’s important that this nutrient is immediately available to the developing fetus (ACOG, 2022).
Folic acid for pregnancy: why it matters and how much you need
Your iron requirements skyrocket during pregnancy—the recommended iron intake goes from 18 mg per day to 27 mg per day (ACOG, 2022). This is because your blood volume increases during pregnancy. Having enough iron is essential to help you create that extra blood and reduce your risk of getting iron-deficiency anemia (Pascual, 2021).
You probably know that calcium supports healthy bones—but did you know that when you’re pregnant, your body will leach calcium out of your bones to build your baby’s bones if you don’t get enough of the mineral? (Hacker, 2012).
Although it’s thought a mother’s bones recover their strength by one year postpartum, it’s widely recommended that women who are pregnant or lactating increase their calcium intake (Pascual, 2021).
Can I take prenatal vitamins if I don’t want to get pregnant?
Taking a prenatal vitamin if you’re not pregnant (and don’t want to get pregnant) won’t improve your health or the quality of your hair and nails any more than a regular multivitamin would.
Plus, taking prenatals if you don’t want to get pregnant could be risky in the long term; consuming excess vitamins and minerals for a long period with no outlet for them (like growing a fetus) can theoretically cause health problems.
Can men take prenatal vitamins?
Remember, prenatal vitamins contain extra amounts of things like iron and folate because they’re needed for pregnancy—not because your body can normally use those extra amounts. Taking in too much of these vitamins and minerals can result in things like:
- Nutrient “overdosing”: Without a physical need for the high amounts of nutrients in prenatal vitamins (like pregnancy or breastfeeding), chronically taking these higher-than-recommended amounts of nutrients can cause things like gastrointestinal problems and nerve pain (Perez-Sanchez, 2020). This is relatively uncommon, but it’s worth considering that over 50,000 adverse events (unexpected medical problems) occur every year due to dietary supplements (Binns, 2018).
- Constipation: High amounts of iron can cause constipation (even in pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins), which is uncomfortable and can lead to other health issues like hemorrhoids.
- Stress on certain organs: Your liver and kidneys play a big role in processing supplements. If you’re consuming high and concentrated amounts of nutrients your body can’t use, it can overtax these organs, especially if you have any other risk factors (Binns, 2018).
When is it okay to take prenatal vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are safe when taken as directed. Typically, that means only taking one serving of your prenatal supplement each day and checking the supplement container to see how many pills are in one daily serving.
Prenatal vitamins are usually recommended if you’re:
- You want to get pregnant within a few months
- You don’t want to get pregnant but aren’t using reliable birth control
Exercise, weight, and fertility: what’s the connection?
If you don’t want to get pregnant and are correctly using highly effective birth control (e.g., you have an IUD or take your birth control pill every day at the same time), you probably don’t need to take prenatals. However, if you aren’t reliably using birth control (maybe you miss your pills sometimes or are late getting your birth control shot), it may be a good idea to take prenatal vitamins (Wilson, 2015).
Tips to improve hair and nails while you’re not pregnant
Still looking for a way to improve your nail health or get thicker hair, even if taking prenatal vitamins isn’t a good idea? Here are a few tips to try (Al Aboud, 2021):
- Make sure you have a healthy diet: Make no mistake—while supplements are no replacement for a healthy diet, getting plenty of good nutrition is essential for healthy hair. Making sure you eat a balanced diet full of good proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals will help support a healthy hair growth cycle, so your locks are as thick and lustrous as possible. Great foods for hair growth include eggs, fish, berries, avocados, seeds, and nuts.
- Manage your stress: Stress is an inevitable part of daily life, but too much stress is proven to damage your hair. Getting enough sleep, using relaxation and breathing techniques, and removing unnecessary tasks from your to-do list can help keep your stress levels low.
- Get moving: Getting routine exercise can help you manage stress and boost circulation, which can improve hair health and regrowth.
- Avoid using artificial nails: While they can be fun for a special occasion, using glued-on acrylic nails or gel nail polish can damage your natural nails. Acrylics can prevent your nails from bending, making it more likely for them to crack, and they often need to be filed off, which can make your natural nails thinner. Gel polish often needs to be soaked in acetone to be removed, which can also weaken nails. Try using no-chip regular nail polish or giving your nails breaks from treatments to encourage thickness and health.
Fertility tests for women: types, results, cost
Whether you’re concerned about your hair and nail health or are considering getting pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider before starting prenatal vitamins.
- Al Aboud, A. M. & Zito, P. M. (2021). Alopecia. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 20, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538178/
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2022). Nutrition during pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/nutrition-during-pregnancy?utm_source=redirect&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=otn#much
- Binns, C. W., Lee, M. K., & Lee, A. H. (2018). Problems and prospects: Public health regulation of dietary supplements. Annual Review of Public Health, 39, 403–420. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040617-013638. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040617-013638
- Guo, E. L. & Katta, R. (2017). Diet and hair loss: Effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, 7(1), 1–10. doi:10.5826/dpc.0701a01. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315033/
- Hacker, A. N., Fung, E. B., & King, J. C. (2012). Role of calcium during pregnancy: Maternal and fetal needs. Nutrition Reviews, 70(7), 397–409. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00491.x. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/70/7/397/1846543?login=true
- Melse-Boonstra, A. (2020). Bioavailability of micronutrients from nutrient-dense whole foods: Zooming in on dairy, vegetables, and fruits. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7, 101. doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.00101. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7393990/
- Merrel, B. (2022). Folic acid. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 20, 2022 from https://www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/21863
- Pascual, Z. N. & Langaker, M. D. (2021). Physiology, pregnancy. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 20, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559304/
- Perez-Sanchez, A. C., Burns, E. K., Perez, V .M., et al. (2020). Safety concerns of skin, hair and nail supplements in retail stores. Cureus, 12(7), e9477. doi:10.7759/cureus.9477. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7455464/
- Wilson, R. D., Audibert, F., Brock, J. A., et al. (2015). Pre-conception folic acid and multivitamin supplementation for the primary and secondary prevention of neural tube defects and other folic acid-sensitive congenital anomalies. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 37(6), 534–52. English, French. doi: 0.1016/s1701-2163(15)30230-9. Retrieved from https://www.jogc.com/article/S1701-2163(15)30230-9/fulltext#secst0050
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.