MSM, a sulfur-based supplement, is often used as a way to enhance hair growth.
The question is:
Is there research back up the experiences of many?
In this article, we’ll explore what MSM is, if it truly works to promote hair growth, the benefits for hair loss sufferers, and how to find the best MSM supplements for hair growth.
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What Is MSM?
MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, is a sulfur compound.
Marine algae uptake sulfur compounds in the ocean and metabolize them into a compound called dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) (1). Then, this is released into the atmosphere and oxidized to create sulfur dioxide.
Sulfur dioxide contributes to the formation of clouds and is brought back into the soil by rain. Once the sulfur reaches the ground, it can convert into MSM. Plants absorb this sulfur from the soil to retain sulfur in fruits and vegetables.
MSM is also created in labs by treating sulfur dioxide with hydrogen peroxide. The product of the chemical reaction is MSM.
The synthetic form and naturally-occurring form in foods are virtually identical. This allows us to obtain lots of MSM without consuming an excessive amount of food.
- MSM is a sulfur compound created through natural chemical reactions in the ocean and the atmosphere.
- MSM accumulates in the soil following rainfall where it is absorbed and retained by fruits and vegetables.
- MSM can also be synthesized through a chemical reaction of sulfur dioxide with hydrogen peroxide. The synthetic and naturally-occurring form are bioidentical.
- Supplementing with the synthetic form allows you to obtain much more than you would by consuming food alone.
The Beneficial Properties of MSM: Does It Promote Hair Growth?
Sulfur compounds like MSM are essential to various processes in the human body. Some of these may have implications in hair growth.
These functions are discussed in the following sections.
MSM has been shown to lower inflammation (1).
MSM accomplishes this by inhibiting the activation of a transcription factor called NF-κB. Transcription factors are molecules in the body that essentially code for genes to be created.
In the case of NF-κB, when activated, it codes for the production of inflammatory genes (2). For example, it increases the expression of enzymes that convert fatty acids into pro-inflammatory proteins.
By targeting and inhibiting NF-κB, MSM can lower inflammation by preventing the expression of these enzymes.
But, what does this have to do with hair loss?
- Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA; pattern hair loss);
- Alopecia Areata (AA; an autoimmune hair loss); and
- Telogen Effluvium (TE; where many hairs transition from the anagen growing phase to the resting telogen phase at once).
In AGA, this is because chronic inflammation can cause uncontrolled tissue damage. When this happens, the body needs to repair itself.
It does this by upregulating the production of a growth factor called TGF-β1, a molecule that controls the production of scar tissue. If too much of this scar tissue is produced, it can begin to build up excessively.
As a result, it can close in on the hair follicle, shutting off the blood supply and restricting the space that hair has to grow. This manifests as reduced hair growth and hair loss.
These are classic characteristics that can be observed in the scalps of AGA patients.
When it comes to AA and TE, inflammation might have a different impact.
AA is believed to be a result of the immune response shifting from a Th1/Th2 balance to a predominantly Th1 immune response (6). The Th1 arm of the immune system produces inflammatory proteins like IFN-γ, IL-12, and TNF-α. On the other hand, the TH2 arm produces anti-inflammatory molecules like IL-4, IL-5, and IL-10.
IFN-γ is known to be one of the most powerful inhibitors of hair growth (7). It works by rapidly shifting the hair follicle cycle from the anagen growth phase to the catagen shedding phase.
This is further supported by observations of AA patients successfully treated with a chemical called diphenylcyclopropenone (DCP) (8). In patients who experienced hair regrowth, researchers were able to identify that they had increased levels of the Th2 anti-inflammatory IL-10.
Here’s how it connects to MSM:
One of the ways NF-κB works is by upregulating the production of Th1 inflammatory immune cells (9). By inhibiting NF-κB activation, MSM can prevent the immune system from polarizing to Th1, a major factor in AA.
As for TE, the most widely recognized contributor to this form of hair loss is stress (10). You might have noticed that following a stressful life event, your hair starts to fall out. This is TE in action.
Psychological stress increases inflammation and stimulates the secretion of an anti-inflammatory stress hormone called cortisol (11). Cortisol helps regulate this inflammation by downregulating NF-κB (12).
However, when stress becomes chronic, the body downregulates the expression of cortisol receptors in response (13). When this happens, cortisol doesn’t have as many receptors to bind to and regulate inflammation. This means inflammation can start to get out of control.
Researchers have only just recently explored this as it relates to TE (5). In a pilot study on women under exam stress, researchers noticed a shift from a balanced Th1/Th2 production to a Th1 polarization. This shift was associated with a decrease in the number of hairs in the anagen growth phase.
But, researchers in the study also note that this change in hair growth was temporary and reversible.
These results indicate that stress and inflammation certainly might play a role in TE hair loss.
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. From this research, we can see that inflammation, which is mediated by NF-κB, is most definitely involved in various forms of hair loss.
So, by incorporating an anti-inflammatory supplement which inhibits NF-κB, like MSM, you may be able to combat the root cause of your hair loss.
It should be noted, though, that there is very little research as it relates to MSM for hair growth. There is only one study that includes MSM. (More on this later.)
So, although it seems promising, there is no hard data to back up the possible mechanisms.
- MSM inhibits the activation of NF-κB, a transcription factor that controls inflammation.
- Inflammation is involved in AGA, AA, and TE.
- In AGA, chronic inflammation causes tissue damage which requires the formation of scar tissue. If the inflammation persists, excessive scarring can cut off the blood supply and restrict the growth space of the hair follicle. This results in hair thinning and hair loss.
- In AA, the immune response shifts from a Th1/Th2 balance to a predominant Th1 response. This leads to the production of pro-inflammatory compounds that are known to inhibit hair growth. NF-κB activation is involved in this shift to the Th1 response.
- In TE, stress plays a key role. Stress stimulates inflammation and the release of an anti-inflammatory stress hormone to regulate it. Chronic stress leads to constant cortisol release which downregulates the expression of cortisol receptors in the body. If cortisol doesn’t have any receptors to act on, it can’t reduce inflammation properly. As a result, inflammation can get out of hand and inhibit hair growth.
- We know this because a pilot study suggests that a Th1 immune response is associated with a temporary decrease in the amount of anagen hairs.
- By inhibiting the activation of NF-κB, MSM may help to combat the inflammation that is associated with AGA, AA, and TE. However, the data on this is very limited.
MSM also acts as an antioxidant (1).
Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are dangerous molecules that oxidize cells and their components. This can lead to cell dysfunction and cell death.
The sum of all the free radical damage in the body is referred to as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress and hair health are intricately connected by a group of cells called the dermal papilla cells (DPCs) (14).
DPCs are the cells in the hair follicle responsible for signaling hair growth. If these cells are dysfunctional, they can’t properly signal hair to grow.
DPCs can, without a doubt, become dysfunctional due to oxidative stress. This is an interesting finding because AGA and AA patients seem to have elevated markers of oxidative stress in their bodies (15, 16).
MSM, interestingly, doesn’t work as a direct antioxidant. Instead, it activates Nrf2, the natural cellular antioxidant system. Nrf2 produces powerful antioxidants like superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione to help reduce oxidative stress.
Some researchers have hypothesized that activating Nrf2 could be a possible solution for hair loss (17). In hair follicle cell culture, oxidative stress stunts hair growth. However, Nrf2 activation reverses it.
Because MSM is known to activate Nrf2, and Nrf2 is a possible target for treating hair loss, MSM may promote increased hair growth in this way.
However, as previously mentioned, there aren’t a whole lot of human studies to support the use of MSM for hair growth or loss.
- MSM is antioxidant. It activates Nrf2, the body’s natural cellular antioxidant system. This allows for reduction of oxidative stress.
- DPCs, the cells responsible for signaling hair growth, are susceptible to oxidative damage. If damaged, they can’t properly signal hair growth.
- Both AA and AGA patients have elevated levels of oxidative stress.
- In cell culture studies, activation of Nrf2 reverses hair stunted hair growth caused by free radical damage.
- Because MSM activates Nrf2, it may promote hair growth in this way. However, there aren’t a whole lot of human studies to support the use of MSM for hair growth or loss.
Enhances Proteoglycan Production
One of the other ways MSM could promote hair growth is through enhanced proteoglycan production.
Proteoglycans are proteins that have been glycosylated, i.e. they’ve had a carbohydrate structure added to them. They are produced by cells called chondrocytes found in the skin (18).
Proteoglycans have been shown to play a clear role in hair growth (19). Versican, a type of proteoglycan, is critical for the maintenance of DPCs and their ability to signal hair growth. Decorin is another proteoglycan that is known to block TGF-β1, the growth factor that causes excessive scarring in AGA. This proteoglycan is located in the fluid around the DPCs called the extracellular matrix.
Because of decorin’s ability to block TGF-β1 and versican’s DPC-preserving properties, maintaining proteoglycan production is important for hair growth.
MSM might be able to do just this.
Chondrocytes, the cells that produce proteoglycans, are susceptible to degradation by inflammatory molecules. So, it makes sense that anti-inflammatory nutrients could help preserve proteoglycan production.
Researchers have looked at just this. In fact, MSM is known to specifically target chondrocytes and reduce NF-κB signaling (20). In this way, MSM protects proteoglycan production by reducing the synthesis of damaging inflammatory molecules in chondrocytes.
MSM could prove to be a helpful tool in promoting hair growth through the maintenance of proteoglycans. But, more research is warranted to confirm whether these findings have a significant effect on the hair growth rate.
- Two proteoglycans, decorin and versican, play key roles in hair growth. Decorin blocks TGF-β1, a main contributor to AGA, while versican is important for maintaining DPC signaling required for hair growth.
- Proteoglycans are produced by chrondrocytes. These cells are susceptible to damage by inflammatory molecules. In this sense, anti-inflammatory nutrients could preserve chondrocyte function and, thus, proteoglycan production.
- MSM has been known to reduce inflammatory damage to chondrocytes by reducing NF-κB signaling that leads to inflammatory molecule production.
Possible Detox Support
Sulfur amino acids, specifically methionine, play a key role in detoxification of harmful foreign chemicals (21).
Methionine is important for the production of SAMe, a sulfur compound which is a methyl donor. Put simply, methyl donors donate a methyl group to circulating toxins in a process called methylation. When these methyl groups bind to toxins, they change the toxin from a dangerous substance to a harmless substance.
Metallothionein, another methionine-based protein, is an essential heavy metal detoxifier.
Toxins in the body can contribute to the oxidative stress load on the body, especially heavy metals. So, methionine plays a key role in preventing oxidative stress.
However, methionine is also needed for other sulfur reactions in the body (22). If there isn’t enough sulfur in the diet, researchers believe that methionine could be used for these sulfur reactions and become depleted. As a result, detox could be impaired.
However, if there is enough sulfur in the diet, methionine could be preferentially used for its role in detoxification.
MSM, whether in food or supplement form, could provide the sulfur required to fulfill the need for sulfur reactions. This, in theory, would allow methionine to be used for detox.
However, no studies have been designed to look at whether MSM supplementation increases metallothionein or SAMe levels.
- Methionine, a sulfur-based amino acid, is the precursor for SAMe and metallothionein. These are two compounds responsible for detoxifying toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
- Methionine is also used for other unrelated sulfur reactions in the body. Researchers believe that if there isn’t enough sulfur in the diet, methionine would be used for these reactions. This would decrease its availability for the production of SAMe and metallothionein.
- In theory, adding sulfur to the diet through food that contains MSM or supplementation, it could provide sulfur for these sulfur reactions. Then, methionine could be exclusively conserved for detox. However, no studies have been designed to investigate if this theory is correct.
MSM for Hair Growth Study
There is currently only one study on the effects of MSM for hair growth (23).
Rats with alopecia were used to test the effects of magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP), a form of vitamin C, and MSM on hair growth. MAP is known to enhance hair growth.
Researchers wanted to see whether MSM could enhance hair growth results when used in conjunction with MAP. They also compared the results of this solution to the effectiveness of minoxidil.
The results of the study tell us this:
- The MAP 7.5% and MSM 10% solution was as or more effective as minoxidil 5% in promoting hair growth.
- When comparing solutions with 1%, 5% or 10% MSM, researchers found that MSM enhanced the hair-growing abilities of MAP in a dose-dependent relationship. This means that the more MSM was present, the better the solution promoted hair growth.
- These results could be attributed to the fact that MSM significantly enhanced MAP absorption into the skin. 10% MSM increased MAP absorption by 200-fold.
They concluded that a solution containing both MAP and MSM could be a possible treatment for hair loss.
These findings are interesting, however, it doesn’t tell us whether MSM would be effective alone. In fact, researchers didn’t attribute the results of this study to MSM itself, but the ability for it to increase MAP penetration.
More studies are warranted to understand exactly how MSM works when applied topically.
- In one animal study, MAP and MSM were used together to analyze its effects on hair growth promotion.
- Researchers found that the MAP 7.5% and MSM 10% solution was as or more effective as minoxidil 5% in promoting hair growth.
- MSM enhances MAP’s ability to promote hair growth in a dose dependent relationship. This means that the more MSM was present, the better the solution promoted hair growth.
- MSM enhances the absorption of MAP 200-fold.
- These results don’t tell us if MSM is effective for hair growth when used alone. Researchers didn’t attribute the results of this study to MSM itself, but the ability for it to increase MAP penetration. More studies are warranted to understand exactly how MSM works when applied topically.
Topical MSM for Hair Loss: Does It Work?
So, knowing what we know, is topical MSM effective for hair loss?
The only animal study we have is on topical MSM for hair growth included with MAP.
Whether or not topical MSM is effective for hair growth alone remains to be seen. However, MSM used with MAP seems to be effective in animals for hair growth.
- MSM used with MAP seems to be effective for hair growth in animals.
- Whether or not topical MSM is effective for hair growth alone remains to be seen.
How to Find the Best MSM for Hair Growth
Supplements aren’t well-regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). So, it’s easy for them to be contaminated with nasty things like heavy metals, mold, and other impurities.
For this reason, you want to make sure you’re getting the purest MSM supplement possible. The gold standard is a multi-step distillation process to remove impurities.
Look for certifications like gluten-free and non-GMO, with extensive certificates of analysis so you know exactly what’s in your product. Certificates of analysis are lab reports that show readings for contaminants like heavy metals, bacteria, mold, solvents, and pesticides.
If companies don’t display their certificates of analysis on their website, you can usually email the company to obtain a report. If a company doesn’t provide these, you’re taking a risk with the purity of the product when you purchase it.
- Supplements aren’t well-regulated and can be contaminated.
- To ensure you’re getting a pure product, buy an MSM supplement that uses a multi-step distillation process to remove impurities.
- Look for gluten-free and non-GMO certifications.
- Try to obtain a certificate of analysis which will give you readings on contaminants. Companies may display this on their websites or will usually provide them by email.
- If you can’t verify a certificate of analysis, you’ll always be taking a risk with the purity of the product you’re purchasing.
The Big Picture: Is MSM for Hair Growth Really Effective?
So, what’s the verdict? Is MSM for hair growth the real deal?
We don’t have any studies on MSM alone or studies on MSM for hair growth in humans.
But, the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, proteoglycan-maintaining, detox-boosting properties of MSM make it a promising candidate for more research.
Do you plan on taking MSM for hair growth? Have you taken it before? What was your experience? Leave a comment below!