Should we swallow the supplements craze?
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Health and beauty supplements have outgrown their fusty digs in health stores and high-street pharmacies. A new generation of pills, powders and gels promising “beauty from within” in seductive typography is propelling an industry expected to reach $216bn by 2026. Liberty’s beauty hall looks like an apothecary, with glass jars of Aime’s plant-based Urban Glow Capsules next to stacks of The Beauty Chef’s Body Inner Beauty Support biofermented wellness powder. At Net-a-Porter, Elle Macpherson’s WelleCo “Super Elixirs” and Anatomē’s vegan botanical wellbeing blends are dropping into baskets alongside the season’s must-have sandals.
“Ten years ago, wellness was still quite niche,” says Lisa Payne, senior beauty editor at trend-forecasting agency Stylus, which in May completed a global overview of the vitamins and supplements market. “Indie brands have completely changed the scene,” she says. “They look sexier; it’s considered cool to be taking them.” But it’s not just about “aspirational wellness”. There’s another group – the “health hackers” – coming to the fore. “They see food as the primary source of wellness, and supplements as nutrient gap-fillers – with beauty being a side benefit.”
In a sense, they’re right. Dr Paul Clayton, one of the world’s foremost authorities in pharmaco-nutrition, cites the extraordinary statistic that 80 per cent of us are, in fact, malnourished, due to our still heavily processed diets, which is massively impacting on immunity, chronic inflammation and more. To say that there are gaps (just ask him about vitamin D) is an understatement. But, Clayton says, there’s still a huge regulatory grey area in terms of how supplement brands market their products, which means there’s lots of “borrowed science” floating around about ingredients and, crucially, delivery systems that haven’t undergone independent peer-review.
With the benefits of even classic multivitamins and fish oils still hotly disputed, and regular reports debunking this or that super-ingredient, you would think the more singing-and-dancing claims would be hard to swallow. But “disparaging headlines haven’t discouraged consumers,” says Payne. “Despite a lack of assurances, they see supplements as ‘wellness insurance’ – a way to tick every box without resorting to pharmaceuticals.”
Feeding this, she says, is the “millennial mindset that you are the CEO of your own health”. The fastest-growing group of users, they are “intent on assessing for themselves what’s right for their bodies”, far less likely to listen to their doctors, and more wary of prescription drugs. They are incorporating supplements into “personally crafted health protocols” with everything from Ayurveda to adaptogens.
Newby Hands, global beauty director at Net-a-Porter, agrees that the health and beauty overlap is bringing new consumer opportunities: “I think the ‘from within’ concept gives greater value to beauty – that it’s all-encompassing, not just built on aesthetics. In recent months it has been a form of self-care: we’ve seen interest in sleep and how some ingestibles may support the body in fighting certain infections. But there are multiple factors at play, such as exercise and, of course, diet.” Personally, she rates Lumity, an “anti-ageing and immunity-boosting” skin and hair supplement. One of a clutch of doctor-led brands gaining traction, Lumity is also endorsed by super-facialist Nichola Joss, who says, “It helps to boost the health, thickness and growth of my hair, and aids sleep and energy levels.”
Dusseldorf-based Dr Barbara Sturm, known for her age-defying skincare remedies, is another. “As a doctor working in ingredients science, when you develop something that has extraordinary results, you want to get it into every cell,” she says. Sturm has “translated” ingredients such as purslane and a host of powerful antioxidants into her Skin Food, Anti-Pollution Food and Sleep Food formulas, and says that supplements offer incredible opportunities for inside-out innovation. “If you give your body what it needs to build from within, it’s like a firework. For me, it was never just about skincare. It’s about an integrated anti-inflammatory approach to living better.”
Covid-19 is expected to accelerate momentum around supplements as we prioritise our health over the state of our pores. Even before the pandemic there had been an uptick in immunity claims in beauty products – see the rise of probiotic skincare – and the focus of supplements is shifting from catch-all multivitamins to specific wellness claims. “Targeting benefits such as immunity, sleep or stress relief really resonates now,” says Payne.
But it’s a rabbit hole, no question. Dr Sturm takes issue with the hype around “organic” on labels. “So much of it is marketing, when it should come down to ingredients science,” she says. “While it all comes from nature, it needs to be synthesised, not only to make it the right concentration and form – for effective digestion and absorption – but also for safety. Lots of organic ingredients aren’t tolerable for the body.”
Transparency is where brands can shine, and some are stepping up. “Ultimately, I would hope it forces a higher standard,” says Payne, mentioning vitamin-brand Ritual, self-described as “for sceptics, by sceptics”. One of the most accessible approaches comes from Care/of, a brand in the growing “personalised supplements” domain, which classifies each product based on a review of existing research, with criteria including number of studies, consistency of results, magnitude of results and methodology.
Meanwhile, experts are queuing up to praise Lyma, an ultra-sophisticated “balance restoring” regimen boasting patented, peer-reviewed ingredients and delivery systems that address everything from immune support to mental focus, whole-body inflammation, stress, the skin, hair, nails, heart, vision and bones. It was developed with help from Dr Clayton, who has never lent his expertise to a supplement with a beauty aspect before, but was impressed with the founders’ diligence: “Their evidence-based approach to health and anti-ageing is a sign of things to come,” he says. Then there’s Symprove, a liquid formula launched in 2002 that works on the gut microbiome, which is experiencing a resurgence. While the packaging is less style-conscious, the science is sound, and consumers are voting with their wallets. Proof that it may not always look amazing on the outside – but it’s what’s inside that counts.