Everything you need to know before delving into the world of drinkable collagen and biotin supplements.

By Maya Kachroo-Levine
June 11, 2021
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Clicking through the Hum Nutrition website, I'm prompted to Take The Quiz to find my ideal supplement plan. I answer questions about my diet (balanced), my mood (decidedly less balanced), and what I'd like to improve about my health (getting rid of some martini-fueled pandemic weight sounds appealing). Finally, I'm asked about my skin and overall beauty concerns on question 11 of 13-dark eye circles, brittle nails, hair loss, weight, and so on. I select all of them; I'm not in the position to turn down anything that could somehow rid me of dark circles. I get my initial recommendation-three supplements, Daily Cleanse, Calm Sweet Calm, and Here Comes the Sun-and I am matched with a Hum nutritionist who invites me to message her.

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"We connect consumers to nutritionists and registered dieticians to help them understand [their health concerns]," explained Walter Faulstroh, co-founder of Hum Nutrition. When he struggled with adult acne, his own skin journey started with education and discussions with experts, so he wanted the Hum online experience to mirror his. 

Edible beauty is rooted in holistic health and the interconnectedness of the body. That's why the Hum quiz doesn't lead with beauty concerns, but instead focuses more on overarching health questions. The reasoning behind the ingestible beauty trend is essentially that concerns with your skin can potentially be traced to an internal issue, and that improving yourself within can improve your outward appearance as well. 

Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, a functional medicine doctor and founder of The Morrison Center in New York City routinely considers diet and supplements-both important parts of the edible beauty trend-when evaluating patients. He is generally of the philosophy that many outward, cosmetic challenges are linked to internal issues, and that improving one's skin or appearance starts from within. 

"Whenever we're taking a person through a process to improve their overall health, we're always looking at their diet, their exercise, their mindset, and then possibly supplements to help improve what they're currently doing," he explained.

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Of course, navigating the world of edible beauty-be it shifting your diet or incorporating supplements into your routine-isn't as straightforward as one might hope. There is rarely a clear eat this to cure that equation.

"It's not a direct connection, which I think kind of confuses people," said registered dietician Meg Hagar, who helps clients change their diet to reduce acne and other skin concerns. Hagar suggests that, when it comes to shifting our eating habits, there's a lot more unseen cause and effect than we might think.

"It's not, like, if you eat olives, you'll have beautiful, glowing skin," said Hagar, who started her career as an esthetician before becoming a nutritionist. "It's more that olives are perhaps a food that could help lower inflammation, and high inflammation speeds up aging."

Hagar's treatment plans for clients with acne all draw from the understanding that nutrition and internal bodily health noticeably impacts your skin. On the other hand, Dr. Jenny Liu, a board certified dermatologist who runs an Instagram account dedicated to debunking skin care myths, pointed out that diet changes are not always proven to be effective.

"In fact, most people have come to me changing up their diet with no improvement [to their skin]," said Liu. "It's one of those things where, if you have an excessively bad diet, it may harm your skin, but changing to a healthy diet won't guarantee that you're not going to [encounter skin concerns]."

In general, Liu's concerns over edible beauty stem from the fact that most ingestible supplements aren't regulated. And she doesn't want her patients to ingest vitamins in excess that they don't need.

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"It can actually worsen what you're trying to improve. High doses of vitamins or types of vitamins can actually lead to hair loss, liver toxicity, and other issues that can be more harmful to your health," said Liu. 

However, Liu does flag certain triggering ingredients for her clients to be wary of, especially when they're curating a more mindful diet to improve skin health. "We know that if you eat a lot of junk food and high glycemic index foods that are more inflammatory-sugar is inflammatory, for example-those high inflammatory foods can lead to worsening of your acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and aging you faster," said Liu.

If we can identify what foods, vitamins, or nutrients might cause skin flare-ups, we can also conceivably find ingredients that have the reverse effect. Morrison tends toward recommending nutrients like silica and vitamin C (both of which are "basically the building blocks for connective tissue," he explained). Vitamin C, according to Morrison, when taken orally or intravenously, has helped a lot of women notice improvements in their skin.

The hesitancy for many dermatologists and dieticians is that, in general, these nutrition remedies can be overhyped. That doesn't negate their efficacy, it just requires consumers to be more engaged in the research and the practical application of supplements. This is also why before beginning any supplement regime you should talk to your doctor.

"I think a lot of things have been overappreciated," said Hagar. "Like the science behind biotin-which, everyone has heard biotin is a big thing for your hair, skin, and nails. But there's not any science behind it. I'm sure there's something out there, and that's probably where it came from, but I haven't seen studies that are convincing to me."

That's just one in a long list of examples of supplement ingredients whose benefits have been overblown. Hagar said there are certain vitamins with more compelling research behind them, but stresses the need for understanding proper usage before beginning a supplement regimen.

"There are a couple of studies on a group of women-I think the age group was 40 to 60-and they actually found that collagen supplements over six weeks did improve things like fine lines and wrinkles and elasticity in the skin," said Hagar. "And that's really cool, but we still have to be careful about what type of collagen we're using. It's not just, oh take any collagen and you'll be glowing. It's a very specific type of collagen."

Collagen powder in a spoon and a glass of water
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While some of the leading doctors clearly believe in supplements and dietary changes as a way to help remedy skin health, there is a genuine push in the industry to clarify how supplements can actually impact your health. Even the major nutrition companies want to be clear that supplements can only function as an integrative part of overall treatment.

Faulstroh now has the Hum team refer to their ingestible beauty supplements as "complements" (rather than supplements) to stress the necessity of pairing their ingestibles with holistic well-being. He specifically noted that Hum's products are "not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle, [they're] something that, when used correctly, can potentially enhance a healthy lifestyle."

"I kind of think about [supplements] like how you would add fertilizer to help improve the health of a plant and make sure it grows the healthiest and best-tasting fruit," said Morrison. 

So, what action item does this information-and the expert arguments for and against supplements and shifting diet to benefit skin health-leave me with? If I'm going to integrate one supplement into my routine, is it the Calm Sweet Calm gummy my Hum nutrition quiz recommended? Is there an edible beauty product that complements my lifestyle?

Hagar suggested edible beauty users start by looking into the research behind their chosen supplements. "Sometimes companies [behind the supplements or products] are the only ones that will pay for such research," she said. "But, if that happens to be the only piece of research that you've seen, then I think inherently you might have some biases."

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Liu, generally opposed to supplements, stressed lifestyle balance instead. "Holistically, eating healthy, you're going to feel better about yourself, you're less likely to be plagued by other health issues. But it's not one-directional-doing this won't guarantee that," she said. "I'm a big proponent of self-care, exercising, getting a massage, eating well, and sleeping well."

Faulstroh starts with a simple rule when choosing a supplement: target one concern.

"I would say the average consumer [when approaching edible beauty] has about nine concerns they want to address," said Faulstroh. "And that's really a bit much if you're dipping your toes into this inner wellness and inner beauty space. I would recommend to people, in addition to doing your research, [to] prioritize your most pressing concerns and [start] with those."

Personally, I'll start by fusing the advice of Faulstroh, Liu, Hagar, and Morrison: with working on my lifestyle first, then looking into supplements (or should I say complements?) that might align with my goals.