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There are a lot of myths surrounding male pattern baldness. There always have been. In ancient Egypt, clinicians swore that a mixture of hippopotamus, crocodile and snake fat would reverse it—literal snake oil, you could say. A bit later, Hippocrates prescribed the topical application of pigeon droppings as a cure.
Today, we’ve gotten a skoch more sophisticated, but fictions remain. One of the biggest is that you can take specially formulated “hair vitamins” or hair health supplements to “nourish your follicles” and improve hair growth. Your dermatologist might even stock some in their office. Whether it’s zinc, B vitamins, or folic acid—there are no shortage of manufacturers who claim their formulations will thicken, strengthen, preserve, or regrow hair.
But the reality is this: Almost all of the time, male pattern hair loss is caused by a biological process that the vast majority of vitamins and dietary supplements can’t touch.
In 2019, a group of researchers reviewed 125 scientific articles on vitamins and hair loss, publishing their findings in the journal Dermatology and Therapy. They concluded 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 the use of biotin (Almohanna, 2019). While there is no upper limit for the amount of biotin you can take, biotin may interfere with lab test results if you are having other things checked, such as your cardiovascular health and hormone levels (FDA, 2017).
Exactly one vitamin and one mineral have been found to affect male pattern baldness (“androgenetic alopecia,” if you’re nasty). More on those in a second.
- Many vitamin formulations and supplements are advertised or popularly believed, to slow, stop, or reverse male pattern baldness.
- The vast majority of them aren’t supported by scientific data.
- A 2019 review of decades of studies on vitamins and hair loss found that exactly one vitamin and one mineral may help with baldness.
- One popular “hair health” supplement, biotin, can be particularly dangerous when taken in high levels—not because it is toxic, but because it can interfere with other lab test results.
What causes male pattern hair loss?
Male pattern baldness is caused by DHT (dihydrotestosterone), a male sex hormone that activates at puberty. In men with a genetically determined susceptibility to DHT, the hormone attacks hair follicles on the head, causing them to miniaturize (or shrink), producing progressively thinner hair, and potentially none at all.
DHT is the culprit for almost all of adult male hair loss. In very rare cases, other causes come into play, including stress, trauma, or a nutritional deficiency.
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What science says about vitamins for hair loss
In that 2019 Dermatology and Therapy review, here’s what the researchers discovered about vitamins that are popularly claimed to help with hair loss and promote healthy hair growth:
Not only is there no evidence that taking vitamin A can slow or stop balding, taking too much of it can actually cause hair loss and skin damage. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin A is 4,300 IU. Taking very high doses of A can be toxic.
There are a ton of B vitamins—thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6, biotin (B7), folate, and vitamin B12—and they don’t do much for hair loss. Although the Bs perform A-list functions in the human body (they’re essential for energy production and the formation of red blood cells, to name two), research doesn’t support claims that they’ll help you grow more hair.
Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is probably the supplement most touted in formulations for hair. But there’s no evidence it works for hair loss. “While signs of biotin deficiency include hair loss, skin rashes, and brittle nails, the efficacy of biotin in supplements for hair, skin, and nails as a means to remedy these conditions is not supported in large-scale studies,” the researchers said.
In fact, taking biotin supplements (when it’s not necessary because of a deficiency) can cause serious harm. Because biotin is involved in the formation of skin and hair, manufacturers have developed supplements containing massive amounts of biotin. Some formulations designed to be taken for “healthy hair, nails, and skin” contain hundreds of times the amount of biotin that is recommended daily.
While the biotin itself isn’t directly toxic, the problem is that very high levels of biotin can alter the results of blood tests, including hormone and heart workups. In 2017, the FDA issued a warning about falsely elevated or low results on a variety of blood tests related to the use of biotin. This can be very dangerous. It has led to at least one reported death: A patient who was taking high doses of biotin had a heart attack, but the biotin prevented his physicians from recognizing it (FDA, 2017).
Vitamin C can be helpful if an iron deficiency has caused your hair loss (read on for a major caveat about that) because it helps the body absorb iron. But as a standalone hair supplement, “there are no data correlating vitamin C levels and hair loss,” said the researchers.
This is the single vitamin that research shows may be helpful. The researchers noted that supplementing your diet with low levels of vitamin D 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.
In one study of 45 men with alopecia areata and 45 control subjects, researchers tested the men’s blood levels of vitamin D. They found that the balding men had significantly lower vitamin D levels than the non-balding men, and 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 men without. It found that 96.7% of the men with alopecia areata were vitamin D deficient, compared to only 73% of the non-balding men. This study didn’t find a connection between D level and severity of hair loss (Daroach, 2017).
Vitamin D is naturally produced by the body when the skin is exposed to the sun. We also get it via food like milk and eggs. But many Americans are vitamin D deficient, particularly 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 D isn’t a magic bullet for hair loss, but there are other benefits to making sure your levels are adequate: It’s believed to be protective against several forms of cancer.
Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that wipes out free radicals—an important immune system boost. But the jury is out regarding its effect on hair loss. One study found that men with male pattern baldness had lower vitamin E levels than those without (Ramadan, 2013); another study found no difference between the two groups (Naziroglu, 2000)—far from enough evidence to recommend taking it as a hair supplement.
Studies have shown that taking an iron supplement was effective against hair loss in people who had low iron levels in their blood. But a word of caution: Men are rarely low in iron. It’s a condition primarily found in women, because iron is lost through menstruation. If your iron levels are low, it could be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding, such as that caused by a gastric ulcer or colon cancer. Your doctor may refer you for further testing. If they do, follow through.
There’s no evidence that selenium is effective against male pattern baldness, and as with vitamin A, taking high amounts has been associated with hair loss (MacFarquhar, 2010).
For decades, the studies on zinc and hair loss have been all over the place: Some studies show an association between a low zinc level 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.