You know that meme about how everything that was punishment in your childhood is now reward as an adult? Going to bed early, eating vegetables, alone time. And, of course, vitamins. I’m not talking about the Flintstones chewables of your childhood, though, but the latest skin-perfecting supplements, which claim to fix your acne, smooth your scars, fade your redness, and more.
A magic little pill? Sounds too good to be true. So as your resident skeptic, I went to the experts to find out, once and for all, if these fancy vitamins really do work wonders on your skin, or if the capsules are just another kitchen-cupboard fad.
First, What Are They?
Despite their Instagram-worthy bottles and packaging, these “beauty supplements” (as most brands refer to them) are essentially just...gussied-up vitamins. And you can find them virtually everywhere, with labels boasting benefits like “clear skin,” a “healthy glow,” and the ability to “remedy” dark circles. Sephora, for example, currently offers 106 of these ingestible products with prices ranging from $10 to $210, making it possible for virtually anyone to get in on the trend.
But if you look at the ingredients list for most of the best-sellers, they aren’t filled with super-secret sprinkles of magic—they’re high in all of the usual suspects, like magnesium, zinc, calcium, and vitamins C, A, and E. “Most of these trendy supplements are really just modified versions of daily multivitamins,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale University. “And though it’s true that vitamins play an important role in your skin health, most people already get the nutrients beneficial to skin from the foods they’re eating.”
So, What’s the Point?
Theoretically, that these beauty supplements would offer something you can’t or don’t get in the standard American diet or via a daily multivitamin: skin-boosting ingredients like collagen, alpha lipoic acids, milk thistle extract, and selenium, just to name a few of the hundreds of “obscure” natural ingredients across beauty supplements. But there’s a reason your multivitamin doesn’t contain the same ingredients: Your skin—and, for that matter, your body—probably doesn’t need them.
“There’s no real evidence that shows a multivitamin or a beauty supplement plays a role in your skin’s health when you’re an otherwise healthy person with no vitamin deficiencies,” says Dr. Gohara, adding that unless you’ve been tested for a deficiency, “they probably won’t do much for you.”
Plus, your body absorbs nutrients better from food than it does from pills, she says, which means even if you do ingest a bunch of, say, collagen or milk thistle, it’s unlikely that those nutrients—which haven't even been proven to help your skin when taken orally—will survive digestion in high enough quantities to then travel through your bloodstream and make an impact on your skin.
Then, Do They Really Work?
Despite all of the above, it’s still tough to definitively say. “Nobody’s diet is perfect every day of their life, and not everyone’s gut absorbs vitamins and nutrients the way it should, so you can put all of the best things in your body and still have low vitamin levels, and, in turn, skin conditions,” says dermatologist Rebecca Tung, M.D., associate professor of dermatology at Loyola University in Chicago.
“You may absorb things great in your 20s, but not as well in your 30s, which is why supplements can actually be really helpful at filling in the ‘gaps’ of your diet,” says Dr. Tung. “Vitamins, at a basic level, help regulate the immune system, which helps minimize inflammatory conditions, like acne, rosacea, and dermatitises. So it’s possible that some of these supplements can improve your skin if you have low vitamin levels.”
Of course, unless you get tested by a physician, you’ll never know if you’re truly deficient—and it’s not a good idea to start popping a bunch of supplements before talking to your doctor. They can have negative effects.
“Some vitamins, like B and C, are water-soluble, meaning your body will pee out the excess it doesn’t need,” says Dr. Tung. “But other vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, are fat-soluble, meaning they can accumulate in the liver and cause damage if you take too much.” So if you do plan to try a beauty supplement, make sure you test only one brand at a time, especially if it contains similar ingredients as your multivitamin.
When Will the Results Kick In?
“Vitamins are only work for as long as you take them, so you need it look at this as a long-term commitment,” says Dr. Tung, noting that you should start to see results within 4–6 months of continual, daily use—that is, if you end up seeing results at all. (I know, I’m sorry, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health and skin, and your results will definitely vary.)
Still, as long as you’re not going overboard with the doses, “it can’t really hurt to try,” says Dr. Tung. “I don’t think a supplement pill will be a messiah for your skin, but it’s a pretty harmless option to explore.” Of course, because supplements aren’t FDA-regulated, I urge you to choose a reputable, well-known, review-backed brand (like the four best-sellers at the top of this story) for the sake of your health. Sure, they may end up not working, but at least they won’t hurt your insides while you test them out, right?