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Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

If you’ve browsed the supplement aisle recently, you may have noticed capsules, chews, powders and liquids that claim to firm up your skin, strengthen your nails and restore thin hair.

Ingestible “beauty” products, or nutricosmetics, promise to promote beauty from the inside out. But can taking a daily supplement really change how you look?

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Before opening my wallet, I decided to review the evidence.

Relatively new to Canada, many nutricosmetic products are based on a combination of ingredients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, hydrolyzed collagen, herbs and fish oil.

Some, however, contain only one ingredient such as biotin, a B vitamin touted to improve nails and hair, or hydrolyzed collagen, small proteins thought to increase collagen production in the skin. (Collagen provides skin elasticity and tone. As we age, the body produces less of it, which leads to wrinkles and slower wound healing.)

Your skin, nails and hair rely on a steady influx of nutrients and antioxidants to maintain structure and function. Healthy skin provides a barrier against outside toxins and damage caused by sun exposure.

Protein-rich foods, for example, provide amino acids used to build protein structures in skin, hair and nails. Vitamin C and certain fatty acids play a key role in forming and maintaining collagen.

Antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, selenium, beta-carotene and flavonoids have been shown to help prevent sun-induced skin damage.

Do beauty supplements work?

Since nutrients found in foods are needed to maintain healthy skin, can higher doses found in a supplement make you look younger?

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So far, the evidence is largely anecdotal. That said, there are some promising, albeit preliminary, research findings to support the effectiveness of hydrolyzed collagen.

Lab studies have shown that hydrolyzed collagen increases collagen production in the skin. Three recent randomized controlled trials, involving 120 participants or fewer, demonstrated that, compared to a placebo, those taking hydrolyzed collagen daily for four to 12 weeks had fewer eye wrinkles and/or improved skin elasticity.

Sounds promising, but these studies are too small to draw sweeping conclusions. And most are industry-sponsored (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the findings should be disregarded).

It’s also not known how well a supplement can shuttle nutrients directly to your skin. Nor has it been established if taking such a supplement is as beneficial, or more so, than eating a healthy, balanced diet.

What’s more, certain vitamin or mineral supplements may not impact the health of your skin, hair or nails unless you are deficient in that nutrient.

Case in point: biotin, promoted for healthier nails and hair.

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Two very small studies conducted in the 1990s found that taking a biotin supplement decreased nail splitting in people with brittle nails. However, a review published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology concluded that there is limited evidence to show that biotin improves nails or hair in people who are not deficient in the vitamin.

Eat your skin nutrients

Dermatologists contend that the best way to help keep your skin healthy as you age is, first and foremost, to eat a nutrient- and antioxidant-rich diet. The following skin-protective nutrients and phytochemicals should be a part of your regular diet.

Water. Drink 2.2 litres (women) or 3 litres (men) of water daily, and more if you exercise. Water helps keep your skin moist, delivers nutrients to your skin and flushes out toxins.

Linoleic acid. An essential fatty acid abundant in nuts and seeds, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and canola oil, linoleic acid is used to make ceramides, fats that help build a strong skin barrier. Research also suggests that higher intakes may reduce skin aging.

Vitamin C. The nutrient is used to build collagen in the skin and helps prevent skin damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Exceptional sources include bell peppers, citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwifruit, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and tomato juice.

Vitamin E. As with vitamin C, this antioxidant helps neutralize free radicals generated from sun exposure. Sunflower seeds, almonds, avocado, wheat germ, sunflower oil and grapeseed oil are good sources.

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Selenium. The mineral, found in Brazil nuts, mushrooms, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, turkey and seafood, protects against free radical damage in skin cells and is also thought to guard against skin cancer.

Omega-3 fats. Eating fatty fish such as salmon, trout and sardines at least twice a week provides omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to preserve collagen and reduce inflammation caused by ultraviolet rays.

Flavonoids. Research suggests that flavonoids in green tea and cocoa powder help guard against sun-induced skin aging by reducing inflammation, improving skin elasticity and reducing wrinkles.

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