Growing supplements industry promises a dose of beauty

Dubbed cosmeceuticals, pills and powders that claim to deliver everything from longer nails to healthier hair are steadily growing in popularity

  • "The thing is to be realistic." blogger Kelly Gould says of beauty supplements. "You can't take a supplement and think that overnight you'll become gorgeous. “
"The thing is to be realistic." blogger Kelly Gould… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
December 29, 2010|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

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 ( 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."

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