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Throughout history, there have been myths surrounding hair loss. In ancient Egypt, clinicians swore that a mixture of hippopotamus, crocodile, and snake fat would reverse it—literal snake oil, you could say. Hippocrates later prescribed the topical application of pigeon droppings as a cure.
Today, we’ve gotten a bit more sophisticated, but fictions remain. One of the biggest myths is that taking specially formulated “hair vitamins” can nourish your follicles and improve hair growth. The reality is this: male or female pattern hair loss is almost always caused by a biological process that vitamins and dietary supplements can’t touch.
Let’s take a look at what the science has to say about which vitamins may help with hair loss and which are just another type of snake oil.
Do vitamins for hair loss work?
There’s a long list of vitamins and supplements purported to improve some aspect of your hair. Your dermatologist might even stock some in their office. Whether it’s zinc, B vitamins, or folic acid—there’s no shortage of manufacturers claiming their formulations will thicken, strengthen, preserve, or even regrow hair. But most supplements don’t deliver on these promises.
In 2019, researchers reviewed 125 scientific articles on vitamins and hair loss. They concluded that there was insufficient data to recommend many of the vitamins and minerals touted to help with hair growth, including zinc, riboflavin, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin E, and biotin. In fact, they cautioned about using biotin, which can change the results of specific blood tests (Almohanna, 2019; FDA, 2019). Only vitamin D and iron have been found to affect male pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia). More on those in a second.
What causes male pattern hair loss?
Male pattern baldness is usually caused by DHT (dihydrotestosterone), which is commonly referred to as a male sex hormone, though everyone has it in their bodies. In men with genetic susceptibility, DHT attacks hair follicles on the head, causing them to shrink. This produces progressively thinner hair, potentially leading to no hair at all.
DHT is the culprit for almost all adult male hair loss. In rare cases, other causes come into play, including stress, trauma, or nutritional deficiencies.
Vitamins for hair loss: what does the science say?
In that 2019 Dermatology and Therapy review, here’s what the researchers discovered about vitamins that popularly claim to help with hair loss and promote healthy hair growth:
There is no evidence that vitamin A can slow or stop hair loss, and taking too much of it can actually cause hair loss and skin damage (Almohanna, 2019). The recommended daily allowance of vitamin A is 4,300 IU. High doses of vitamin A can be toxic, causing headaches, vision problems, and even seizures.
There are a ton of B vitamins—thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6, biotin (B7), folate, and vitamin B12—but they don’t do much for hair loss. Although the Bs perform A-list functions in the human body (they’re essential for producing energy and making red blood cells, just to name a few), there’s no scientific evidence that they’ll make you grow more hair.
Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is probably the most touted supplement in hair growth supplements. But there’s no evidence it works for hair loss. Biotin deficiency can cause hair loss, skin rashes, and brittle nails, but most people with hair loss don’t have a biotin deficiency, so biotin supplements aren’t an effective treatment (Almohanna, 2019).
In fact, taking biotin supplements when it’s not necessary can be harmful. Because biotin is involved in the formation of skin and hair, some manufacturers have developed supplements containing massive amounts of biotin. These formulations, which claim to promote healthy hair, nails, and skin, have hundreds of times the daily recommended dose of biotin.
Biotin itself isn’t directly toxic. The problem is that very high levels of biotin can alter the results of blood tests, including thyroid hormone levels and heart attack tests. In 2019, the FDA reemphasized its 2017 warning about falsely elevated or lowered results on various blood tests in people taking biotin (FDA, 2019). This can be very dangerous. For example, if a person taking high doses of biotin has a heart attack, the biotin might skew the results of their blood tests and prevent the healthcare provider from recognizing it.
Vitamin C alone does not help treat hair loss. There’s no evidence that your level of vitamin C is related to your hair growth (Almohanna, 2019). However, it may be helpful if you have an iron deficiency because vitamin C helps your body absorb more iron.
Vitamin D is the single vitamin that scientific data indicates may be helpful for hair loss. Researchers note that if you have low vitamin D levels, taking a vitamin D supplement may improve symptoms of baldness, especially when the cause is alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, or telogen effluvium (TE), temporary hair loss caused by stress or trauma (Almohanna, 2019).
In one study, researchers studied vitamin D levels in 45 men with alopecia areata and 45 control subjects. They found that people with hair loss had significantly lower vitamin D levels. The lowest levels were correlated with more severe hair loss (Gade, 2018).
Another study looked at the vitamin D levels of 30 men with alopecia areata and 30 control subjects. It found that 96.7% of the men with alopecia areata were vitamin D deficient, compared to only 73% of those without hair loss (Daroach, 2017).
Your body naturally produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun. You also get it from foods like milk and eggs. But many Americans are vitamin D deficient, especially in the winter. If you have thinning hair, you might want to get your levels checked by a healthcare provider and talk with them about whether you should take a vitamin D supplement.
Taking Vitamin D isn’t a magic bullet for hair growth. Still, there are other benefits to ensuring your levels are adequate.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that wipes out harmful free radicals in your body—so it packs an important immune system boost. But the jury is out regarding its effect on hair loss. One study found that people with male pattern baldness had lower vitamin E levels than those without, while another study found no difference between the two groups —far from enough evidence to recommend taking it as a hair supplement (Ramadan, 2013; Naziroglu, 2000).
Some studies have shown that taking iron supplements is effective against hair loss in people with iron deficiency (Rushton, 2002). Low iron is more commonly seen in women because iron is lost through menstruation. Hair loss in men is rarely due to low iron, and iron deficiency may be associated with other conditions. If you suspect you have an iron deficiency, get your levels tested and follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations.
Unless you have a selenium deficiency, there’s no evidence that selenium is effective against male pattern baldness. In fact, like vitamin A, taking high amounts of selenium has been associated with hair loss (MacFarquhar, 2010).
For decades, studies on zinc and hair loss have been all over the place. Some studies show an association between low zinc levels and hair loss; other studies don’t. Some studies show a correlation between precise zinc levels and the severity of hair loss; other studies contradict that. Zinc deficiency can be associated with hair loss, but there’s no data to support taking zinc supplements for hair health in the absence of iron deficiency (Almohanna, 2019).
Many nutritionists say that no supplement can equal the benefits of getting your essential nutrients through food and natural sources. When it comes to hair loss, scientific evidence suggests that supplementing with nutrients you’re not deficient in can, at best, be a waste of time and, at worst, be harmful. When it comes to male pattern hair loss, nothing is more effective than drugs like finasteride (brand name Propecia; see Important Safety Information) and minoxidil (brand name Rogaine).
- Almohanna, H. M., Ahmed, A. A., Tsatalis, J. P., & Tosti, A. (2019). The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review. Dermatology and Therapy, 9(1), 51–70. doi: 10.1007/s13555-018-0278-6. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30547302/
- Daroach, M., Narang, T., Saikia, U. N., Sachdeva, N., & Sendhil Kumaran, M. (2017). Correlation of vitamin D and vitamin D receptor expression in patients with alopecia areata: a clinical paradigm. International Journal of Dermatology, 57(2), 217–222. doi: 10.1111/ijd.13851. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29243839/
- Gade, V. K. V., Mony, A., Munisamy, M., Chandrashekar, L., & Rajappa, M. (2018). An investigation of vitamin D status in alopecia areata. Clinical and Experimental Medicine, 18(4), 577–584. doi: 10.1007/s10238-018-0511-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29869122/
- MacFarquhar, J. K., Broussard, D. L., Melstrom, P., Hutchinson, R., Wolkin, A., Martin, C., et al. (2010). Acute Selenium Toxicity Associated With a Dietary Supplement. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(3), 256–261. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.495. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225252/
- Naziroglu, M., & Kokcam, I. (2000). Antioxidants and lipid peroxidation status in the blood of patients with alopecia. Cell Biochemistry and Function, 18(3), 169–173. doi: 10.1002/1099-0844(200009)18:3<169::aid-cbf870>3.0.co;2-t. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10965354/
- Ramadan, R., Tawdy, A., Hay, R. A., Rashed, L., & Tawfik, D. (2013). The Antioxidant Role of Paraoxonase 1 and Vitamin E in Three Autoimmune Diseases. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 26, 2–7. doi: 10.1159/000342124. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22986950/
- Rushton D. H. (2002). Nutritional factors and hair loss. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 27(5), 396–404. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2230.2002.01076.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12190640/
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, November 5). The FDA Warns that Biotin May Interfere with Lab Tests. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/safety-communications/update-fda-warns-biotin-may-interfere-lab-tests-fda-safety-communication
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.