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Iron and Other Nutrients

Protein isn't the only nutrient needed to maintain healthy hair. You also need iron, vitamin E, and trace minerals such as selenium, copper, and magnesium to help keep your hair in good shape. "These are all involved in the production of the various proteins that make up your hair," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokeswoman for  the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly called the American Dietetic Association).

Not getting enough iron can cause hair loss.

"The best source of iron in your diet is meat," Gerbstadt says. Clams, oysters, and organ meat top the list "But there are problems with eating a lot of organ meat," Gerbstadt says. "Lean meat, though -- pork, beef, and fish -- are all good sources."

Good vegetarian sources of iron include fortified cereals, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, lentils, and spinach. The problem with iron from non-animal sources is that the body absorbs iron less efficiently from plants. "It's possible to eat a vegetarian diet paying attention to iron and still not get enough," Gerbstadt says.

Her advice: Talk with your doctor about your diet and ask for an iron test so your doctor can check on whether you should consider taking an iron supplement.

Vitamin D and Your Hair

Though the evidence still isn't clear, some studies suggest that vitamin D may play a role in the hair cycle. "We can get vitamin D from the sun," Mirmirani says. "But dermatologists don't recommend a lot of sun exposure."

You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and cereals. But, Mirmirani says, according to some studies, many Americans don't get enough vitamin D, "and the actual recommended dosage is controversial." She recommends talking with your doctor about your vitamin D needs and whether or not you should take a supplement.

Are Hair Supplements Necessary?

"Any vitamin deficiency will cause hair loss. All the vitamins are important -- B, C, E," says Carolyn Jacob, MD, founder and medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology.

But that doesn't mean, as she and other experts point out, that you need to buy special supplements for your hair.

"The best source for the nutrients you need," Jacob says, "is a true, well-balanced diet." 

Mirmirani says she is often asked about adding zinc or biotin supplements to a diet. "I don't check the zinc or biotin levels in patients," she says. "It's very hard in an American diet for those things to become deficient. And there hasn't been any good evidence that taking zinc or biotin supplements actually offers any benefits for hair."

Extra biotin probably won't hurt, "but it's not clear it does much good, either," Mirmirani says. 

If you take a supplement, Jacob says, tell your doctor so it's part of your health records. Your health care providers should know about everything you take, even if it's natural or didn't need a prescription.