Taking vitamins has traditionally been thought of as just another step in your bathroom routine. But a new crop of companies like Ritual, Care/of and SugarBearHair are making big bucks reinventing the un-glamorous pills for the Instagram era.
These brands have made waves, thanks to for their sleek packaging, digital-only sales model and social media savvy. Major retailers like Walmart are even launching new products to capture a piece of the multi-billion dollar market, with the average American spending over $400 each year on vitamins and supplements, according to L.E.K. Consulting. But a lack of government oversight calls into question the idea that a single pill can improve your health, according to medical experts.
Online vitamin sales have grown over 40% in the last year alone according to market-research firm Rakuten Intelligence, and investors are taking note.
Ritual, a company started by former venture capitalist Katerina Schneider, has raised $41 million in venture funding since it was founded in 2015, according to Crunchbase. Another popular brand, Care/of, has raised $42 million since it was founded in 2016 by Craig Elbert and Akash Shah in New York City.
SugarBearHair, founded in 2015 by Florida couple Nicole Nightly and Dan Morris, sells pastel, gummy bear-shaped vitamins in versions meant for hair growth, sleep and overall health.
Ritual offers standard and prenatal multivitamins in sparkly capsules that the company claims are designed to prevent nausea when swallowing. Aiming for a more personalized experience, Care/of offers a quiz on its website that will recommend a combination of pills to be delivered, already divided into 30 daily packets.
The colorful packaging comes at a premium price: a one-month supply of vitamins from each of these companies will cost you at least $30. By contrast, a two-and-a-half-month supply of multivitamins are available for $9 on Amazon.
So why do customers pay up for these products when there are comparable options for much less? Millennial women drive online vitamin sales, according to market-research firm Rakuten Intelligence, and these digital-savvy brands are able to meet their potential customers where they are: Instagram.
Alongside traditional ads, companies have mastered the art of using Instagram effectively to attract customers, especially younger ones: 71% of adults ages 18 to 24 say they use Instagram, according to the Pew Research Center. Ritual and Care/of each have over 120,000 followers on the platform, while SugarBearHair has a massive audience of 2.5 million.
The brands' feeds are filled with a combination of smiling customers (many of them professional influencers) and artistic product shots perfectly tailored to the minimalist Instagram aesthetic. SugarBearHair even counts the Kardashian-Jenner clan as brand ambassadors, who reportedly command as much as $1 million for a single Instagram ad.
In a world where consumers can easily get overwhelmed by options and medical terminology, vitamins offer a seemingly straightforward solution. Care/of promises "no overwhelming aisles of fine print," while Ritual says its supplements contain "only essential nutrients a woman needs."
While these brands claim that their products can make consumers healthier in various ways, the fine print tells a different story. At the bottom of all of their websites is a disclaimer that says: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
Vitamins and supplements are not regulated in the same way as medicine. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 made it so that vitamin manufacturers can make marketing claims without FDA approval. But that doesn't mean that companies across the supplement industry have gone unnoticed for their marketing tactics. In September, Instagram introduced new guidelines that restrict users under 18 from seeing posts promoting weight loss products and ban any posts that promote "miraculous claims," according to a company statement first reported in the London Evening Standard.
Some medical professionals have actually pushed back against the idea that vitamins are a necessity for health. "You can get all the vitamins you need from a balanced diet. There is no added gain from taking a multivitamin," Erin Michos, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, told CNBC Make It. The Department of Health and Human Services defines a "healthy diet" as one that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, while limiting saturated fats, added sugars and sodium.
A decade-long study conducted by Harvard University found that taking a daily multivitamin had no effect on the probability of cardiovascular disease. Research has even shown that there can be negative long-term effects from taking supplements, since they usually provide vitamins in much higher doses than what is required by the body.
But the companies themselves view things differently. "Research shows that it can be difficult for your body to get all the nutrients it needs from food, all the time," Luke Bucci, vice president of research and development at Ritual, told CNBC Make It in an email. "Ritual conducted extensive research to identify what nutrients doctors and scientists generally agree most U.S. women are missing from diet alone, such as Vitamin D and Iron."
"At Care/of we would generally agree that everyone taking the same multivitamin is not really in the best interest of most people," said Care/of's medical director Maggie Luther, who specializes in a type of alternative medicine known as naturopathy. Luther emphasized that the company aims to correct customers' specific nutrient deficiencies, saying, "even those who eat a balanced diet may still have trouble reaching all of their nutrient needs in their diet alone."
SugarBearHair and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, more retailers are getting into the boutique vitamins and supplements space. In August, Walmart launched its own line of colorful gummy vitamins called Glow Habit, with four different versions for hair, skin, probiotics and sleep. Their vitamins mimic the cute, vibrant style of other brands, but at a cheaper price point: a 30-day serving costs just $9. "Glow Habit's gummies are one of the most cost effective offerings on the market," the company said in a press release.
"The allure of trying to find some easy solution for health," is what drives the industry's growth despite conflicting medical research, Michos of Johns Hopkins said. "Eating healthy and exercising is a little bit harder to sell."
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!