Wondering about all those skin care “nutraceuticals” hitting the market? Me too! And be prepared for even more pills popping up in the cosmetics aisle. Market research company Kline Group reports that beauty supplement category growth is poised to grow to $2.5 billion by 2012.

So I was intrigued when I read a release issued by Dr. Joshua Fox, medical director of Advanced Dermatology and The Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery in New York, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, cautioning consumers to be wary of supplements.

My people (snort) phoned up his people and asked if we could have a chat (we did!), and now I have a big old Esthy crush on Dr. Fox.vitamins

My regular readers know that this is a very big deal, since I love to point out Dubious Docs almost as much as I love covering the beauty events at my local CVS. But any MD cautious enough not to jump on a billion-dollar-band-wagon has my undivided attention.

The FDA does not regulate cosmetics and nutritional supplements. As long as the manufacturer does not advertise or market the product like a drug, they are free from any FDA restrictions. These companies are within their legal right to use terms like “helps” or “promotes.” And this, Dr. Fox feels, is a huge source of concern, particularly when vitamins are mixed with additional substances like herbs, enzymes and botanicals. So the supplement market is a bit like the Wild West, and Dr. Fox urges caution.

“Supplements are being promoted with minimal data to back up the claims,” warns Dr. Fox. “They need better clinical studies.”

Dr. Fox shares an example of a research team that went to China and found what appeared to be a miracle herb that helped with atopic dermatitis, a particularly difficult to treat skin disorder. But several months down the road, further studies showed that the herb caused liver abnormalities.

“Herbs do not necessarily equal good,” cautions Dr. Fox. “ They may be more detrimental in the long run, even if they appear to ‘cure’ in the short term.”

Or they could have additional side effects not readily known, even if the herb or vitamin is a household name.  Dr. Fox points out that the herb Echinacea and Vitamin E both promote bleeding, so taking these supplements prior to surgery, for example, could be problematic.

Dr. Fox is a proponent of taking care of the skin (and body) through healthy eating and, when necessary, supplementation, but he urges consumers to pay attention to what they are ingesting. He is skeptical of any claims that have not been thoroughly and rigorously put through the research machine.

But most consumers aren’t as science-minded—even me! We were discussing a recent study about the effects of oral antioxidants. Initially the skin showed improvement in the first 6 -12 months. But by 24 months, the improvement stopped. So, what if we took antioxidant supplements for six months, stopped for a while and picked it up again, I asked. That’s where science trumped me!

Dr. Fox pointed out that I was basing my views on assumptions that if something was proven false then the opposite must be true. But in science, even the opposite cannot be proven true based on something simply being false. Scientists need more studies to say definitively. PHEW.

“The consumer’s first line of defense is to be a skeptic,” explains Dr. Fox. “Supplements do a have a role in skin care, but science still has a lot of catching up to do. I rely on seeing the results of controlled studies, published in reputable medical journals, before I make any recommendation.”

Topical applications of antioxidants do have a lot of data and research behind it, Dr. Fox points out.

So what’s the bottom line? Here’s your takeaway:

Just like doing your regular grocery shopping, take a closer look at the fine-print details. Check if the supplement has any added substances and do do your homework before adding it into your regimen.

If you have started supplements, watch for signs of skin irritation, including itching, rashes, acne flare-ups, skin discoloration, burning and hives.

Consult your doctor before starting a supplement regime to make certain the supplement will not interact with any medication you may be on or cause any potential problems given your medical history.

Visit Dr. Fox’s nifty New Age Skin Research Foundation, which provides free information to the public on skin health and conditions. The Foundation also provides funding for innovative research in dermatology.

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