Non-pregnant women are turning to the suped-up vitamin for longer and stronger hair and nails. But is it safe?

By Cassie Shortsleeve
Updated Dec 18, 2019 @ 5:00 pm
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Chances are, you know someone whose hair went from flat to bombshell and their nails from flimsy to Herculean when they were pregnant.

This isn’t an uncommon side-effect of building a baby. During pregnancy, there’s an increase in estrogen that causes hair to remain in its “growth” phase and some experience longer, stronger nails from the added hormones, too.

But then there’s the whole business of prenatal vitamins — supplements filled with specific nutrients that pregnant women need more of, including folic acid, iron, and calcium. Some also pack good-for-your-hair-and-skin B vitamins including biotin, which is perhaps the reason why they’ve earned a bit of a reputation as a suped up beauty supplement — even for those who aren’t growing a human. (Celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow and Mindy Kaling have credited prenatals for helping them grow longer, thicker hair.)

But are prenatals really worth popping for good hair days, glowy skin, and a long-lasting manicure (and are they that different from your regular old multivitamin?), or are these supplements best reserved for those with a baby on the way?

We asked experts to help us parse through what we need to know about prenatals and their potential beauty benefits.

First, should you take a prenatal vitamin if you’re not pregnant?

Well, that’s actually kind of a complicated question. In part, it depends on whether or not you’re trying to get pregnant.

“Women who are pregnant, trying, or even not actively preventing should take prenatal vitamins,” says Katherine A. Sauder, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatric nutrition at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “This is because the nutrients in a woman’s body around the time of conception dictate the kind of environment the baby will develop in.”

So much critical development happens very early on, Sauder says, even before you might know you’re pregnant, so it’s important to have those good nutrients “on board” before, so to speak.

Specifically, prenatals are packed with folic acid (the synthetic form of folate), a B vitamin that’s responsible for healthy cell growth (which includes skin, hair, and nails!). Most prenatal supplements contain 600 micrograms of it; the amount recommended per day for pregnant women.

Why is it so important? There’s been a good amount of research showing that lower amounts of folic acid in your diet is linked with neural tube defects in baby (birth defects of the spine, spinal cord, or brain), explains Veronique Tache, M.D., a UC Davis maternal-fetal medicine physician. These defects generally occur in the first month of pregnancy (again, usually before you’d even know you were pregnant).

Birth defects are rare. “The baseline risk for any type of birth defect the minute you get pregnant whether you’re on vitamins or not is 3 to 5 percent,” Dr. Tache says. The chances of having a child with a neural tube defect if you don’t have a family history are about 1/500 to 1/1,000 (0.1 to 0.2 percent). But a prenatal loads you up on folic acid, reducing your risk.

Okay, but what if I’m actively avoiding pregnancy?

Well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that all women of reproductive age should aim to get 400 micrograms of folic acid every day — whether that’s from food or a supplement. After all, the unintended pregnancy rate is almost 50 percent, Dr. Tache notes, which means about half of women who have babies weren’t, well, planning to.

But that doesn’t mean you need to get your folate in the form of a prenatal vitamin. A lot of food is either naturally high in folate (dark leafy greens such as spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, avocados, black-eyed peas) or fortified with folic acid (breakfast cereals).

If you’re eating a well-rounded diet and not pregnant or trying, you’re likely to be getting those 400 micrograms through diet alone, says Dr. Tache.

In fact, if a baby is not in your future, taking a prenatal carries some health risks.

While you don’t *really* have to worry about overdoing it with folic acid (you don’t absorb all of the folic acid in the prenatal anyway), prenatals are also high in iron (which pregnant women need more of). And, although rare, accumulating too much iron can become toxic, notes Dr. Tache. It can also come with some unpleasant side-effects like stomach pain, a lack of energy, or weight loss and weakness.

In a prenatal, you’d also be getting extra calcium, which — if you’re not pregnant — could increase your risk of issues such as kidney stones, Dr. Tache notes.

“The question to ask yourself is: ‘are you spending extra money on something that you don’t need — and are there risks of getting too much?’,” she says. “I would say the answer is probably ‘yes.’”

So what should you do for super healthy hair and nails?

If you’re really just after the supposed skin or hair perks, the prenatal isn’t your wonder drug.

As Sauder notes, “prenatals generally contain the same nutrients as non-prenatal multivitamins, just in higher amounts. If you’re not growing a baby, and don’t have any other health condition that requires extra nutrients, you don’t need those higher amounts.” In fact, it’s probably a waste of money. “Your body can only process so much of these vitamins in a day, and what it doesn’t use literally goes down the drain,” she adds.

And while you could take a regular multivitamin to help you get optimal amounts of nutrients or even supplement with biotin, a lack of biotin is actually rare, per the Mayo Clinic, and supplementing with it hasn’t been proven to help with hair loss or hair thinning. (Plus, you can get biotin naturally through your diet, with foods like eggs, salmon, and sunflower seeds.)

But ultimately? “Taking care to eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, limit caffeine and alcohol, and stay physically active is going to do much more for your health — including your hair and skin — than taking suped-up vitamins,” says Sauder.