Biotin, a naturally occurring and essential enzyme in our bodies, has been touted as the latest magical supplement for its beauty-enhancing attributes. The supplement is another name for B7, a complex vitamin that helps your body regulate glucose as well as process and metabolize carbs, fats and proteins from foods into actual energy.
That all sounds good, and celebrities ranging from Jennifer Aniston to Kylie Jenner are singing biotin’s praises. But should you be taking biotin, and what’s the deal with the recent batch of headlines about it causing false positives? Here’s what you need to know about this trending beauty supplement.
What is biotin?
As we mentioned a few paragraphs back, biotin is an enzyme that helps break down fats, carbs and other substances. It’s water-soluble, meaning it can dissolve in water and leave your body naturally.
Biotin is thought to play a role in maintaining a normal nervous system and the expression of genes and cell signaling—or, in non-science speak, the communication between cells that dictates all their actions. But recently, it’s been used for a host of beauty benefits, too.
As its message is proliferated to the public via celebrity endorsements and ambitious beauty claims, use has sky-rocketed—before an official Recommended Dietary Allowance for biotin has even been established. The Mayo Clinic recommends adults and teens take anywhere between 30 and 100 micrograms of biotin daily, while the National Institute of Health pegs the recommended dosage somewhere between 35 to 70 micrograms daily. But these numbers are dwarfed by the amounts carried in most common biotin supplements, with gummies and pills promising anywhere between 10,000-20,000 micrograms in each serving.
While a biotin overdose is near impossible, the supplement is rarely recommended by doctors ,because a biotin deficiency is extremely rare in the U.S. A rare genetic disorder exists called “biotinidase deficiency”, but more commonly, it’s heavy alcoholism that prevents individuals from receiving enough biotin. Pregnant and nursing mothers also require higher levels of the vitamin. But at the end of the day, biotin is naturally found in a variety of foods—from pork chops and fish to vegan options like spinach, broccoli and nuts—and thus, a true deficiency is pretty rare.
Higher doses of biotin could be prescribed for alleviating nerve damage related to diabetes or encouraging fetal growth, although the majority of public demand has more to do with biotin’s promise to thicken thinning hair and leave skin glowing. And that’s where the controversy lies.
The “false positives” controversy
Since the body simply flushes out excess levels of biotin, it seems odd that so much controversy would surround this relatively cheap supplement. But the danger of biotin has more to do with the false positives the vitamin can cause than its actual side effects.
Even in small amounts, biotin can cause a false positive or misdiagnosis in lab test results. One patient’s use of biotin led to the misdiagnosis of a non-existent testosterone-producing tumor, unnecessary radiology and further lab testing. All of this climaxed with the patient almost undergoing an invasive surgery that was entirely unneeded. Eek.
Another case ended in death because of falsely reported low levels of cardiac troponin—again, due to a biotin-based interference. It’s extremely important to communicate with physicians as to exactly what supplements you’re taking, and biotin is no exception. Whether the miscommunication leads to a false positive or an overlooked problem, these cases are extremely serious. There’s no full-proof, universal timeframe for biotin leaving the body. But because the vitamin is water soluble, most of us need less than a week for it to be flushed out.
Lack of evidence for beauty claims
While biotin’s greatest threat is its interference with your body’s signals, it should also be noted that most of its cosmetic promises aren’t backed up by any scientific evidence. Dramatic results from taking biotin supplements aren’t typically seen in people already following a varied diet.
According to Kimbre Zahn, M.D., family medicine physician at Indiana University Health, “While there are some preliminary studies that may suggest a benefit [to taking biotin supplements], overall there is a lack of evidence to support these claims.”
Some studies saw an increased nail thickness in people with thin, brittle nails who were taking biotin supplements. Doctors have also concluded that in a few cases, a rare hair disorder and skin rash in infants was cured with high levels of biotin. But the mass market for trendy biotin supplements is not with infants suffering from rare rashes; instead, these supplements are marketed to women looking to improve their appearance. For that demographic, doctors and scientists agree that more research is needed to back up claims.
Biotin doesn’t carry scary side effects, as long as you let your doctor know you’re taking it. But it also hasn’t yet been proven to deliver on its major beauty claims. So if you feel the need to jump on the biotin bandwagon, take it with the knowledge that you might not see results. And if you’re getting any other tests, tell your doctor you’re taking biotin so you don’t wind up getting treatments you don’t need.