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Beauty in a pill

The market for OTC anti-ageing ‘beauty’ nutritional supplements is growing but can you really expect to pop a pill and see the results in the mirror? All beauty pills contain active ingredients that they say have a positive effect on the skin. Ones you may expect to work – like those containing collagen for example – are actually pretty useless when taken by mouth since they don’t survive the digestive process. Others may surprise you, like those which have lycopene in their ingredients list, which is quite effective. Experts can’t agree perfect dosages and individual response to these supplements is very variable.

The main ones to look out for are:

Vitamin C: This is a powerful antioxidant which is known to help protect the skin and may be involved in promoting new collagen production, but there is some debate how much of the active ingredient in a pill makes it to the skin at all. “Vitamin C can be very unstable and break down easily, for example in the presence of ultraviolet light,” says Dr Thomas Ha, a consultant dermatologist at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge and a spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists. “It needs a stabiliser, like Vitamin E, which is why you often see these two vitamins together.”It has been shown that taking vitamin C at 500-1000mg (all known antioxidants) can protect against harmful UV rays which does most of the damage in skin.

Fish oils/proteins: Omega 3, an essential fatty acid, is one of the most popular health supplements and is vital for the effective functioning of all cells in the body, including the skin. Fatty acids not manufactured by the body so have to be taken via the diet. Omega 3 helps keep the membrane of the cell working optimally, allowing wastes to leave and nutrients to enter. The claim that fish oils help to boost collagen levels in the skin are not proven.

Vitamin D: This vitamin, specifically D3, has been getting quite a lot of attention because of its ability to reduce inflammation in the skin, which can hasten the effects of ageing. Vitamin D is made by the body in the presence of sunlight, but many people are actually deficient in this vitamin. A study carried out by researchers at Kings College London has found that people with higher levels of Vitamin D appeared to age more slowly. Doctors do recommend that people, especially in northern climates, take between 400 to 1,000 mg. of Vitamin D, especially during the winter.

Antioxidants: These are potent substances which help to mop up damaging free radicals in the blood, and hence reduce the signs of wrinkles and premature ageing. Lycopene, extracted from tomatoes is considered one of the most promising antioxidants for skin, although the jury is still out whether it has any rejuvenating effect. 14 mg three times a day has been shown to reduce effects from sun damage.

Controversial supplements

Hyaluronic acid: This powerful humectant, which attracts and keeps moisture in the skin, is already used in lots of topical creams, and in supplement pills. Most experts agree that, when taken orally, hyaluronic acid supplements may not be readily absorbed by the body. “There is no proven value of oral hyaluronic acid,” says Dr Nicholas Lowe, consultant dermatologist based in London.

Collagen: ‘Taking collagen pills is probably completely ineffective, since the collagen, which helps maintain skin suppleness and elasticity, will be broken down in the stomach and intestines and will never reach the skin itself,’ says Dr Ha.

Vitamin A: This vitamin, in various forms, is known to work as a cream and helps to boost the skin’s ability to make its own collagen. However, taken as an oral supplement, it has too many side effects and can even be toxic to the liver and the brain. Safe levels of Vitamin A vary by age and pregnant women should avoid taking Vitamin A supplements altogether since too much can harm the developing baby.

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