Looking for a solution to thinning hair? If so, you’re not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 50% of men and a large number of women start showing signs of hair loss by age 40. While pattern baldness (or pattern hair loss), isn’t a medical issue that’s hazardous to one’s health, it can cause a great deal of emotional pain and distress.
In an effort to reverse hair loss and boost self-esteem, Americans spend millions of dollars a year on various products and treatments. Unfortunately, many of those so-called hair loss cures don't deliver the results they promise. By understanding the causes of hair loss, you can determine which hair loss treatments are actually worth the money and plan out the best strategy for combating pattern baldness.
Identifying the Cause of Hair Loss
For years, many victims of male pattern baldness assumed that the fault lay with a relative on the mother’s side of the family. However, new research suggests that pattern baldness stems from genes inherited from both the mother and the father, as well as numerous environmental factors. The following factors have all been shown to increase a person’s risk of hair loss:
- Radiation exposure
- Certain medications
- Hormone disorders
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Physical and emotional stress
- Sudden weight loss
If you don’t know what’s causing your hair loss, or if hair thinning progresses rapidly and bald spots appear suddenly, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for an examination.
The Most Common Type of Hair Loss
The most common type of hair loss is pattern baldness, known as male pattern baldness when it affects men and female pattern baldness when it affects women. This type of hair loss primarily affects hair growing on the top of the head and front of the scalp.
The exact pattern of hair loss varies between the sexes and from individual to individual. The first sign of hair loss for men tends to be a receding hairline while women are more likely to experience overall thinning of the hair.
Male Pattern Baldness
Male pattern baldness (medically referred to as androgenetic alopecia or androgenic alopecia) impacts approximately half of all men by the age of 50 and more than 80% by the age of 70. For most men with this condition, hair loss begins near the temples and on the crown of the head. Experts believe this process occurs as the growth phase of each hair becomes shorter while the resting phase becomes longer.
Research indicates that male pattern hair baldness results from a combination of genetics and changes to the levels of male sex hormones including:
- Dihydrotestosterone (DHT)
- Sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG)
- Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)
Female Pattern Baldness
Although hair loss among women doesn't get the same degree of attention as hair loss among men, it's not that uncommon of a problem. Severe female pattern baldness (sometimes called female pattern hair loss) affects 20% of women while more than 50% of women suffer mild hair loss. According to the American Hair Loss Association, hair loss is a serious condition that can have a profoundly negative effect on a woman’s quality of life.
At this time, researchers know less about the risk factors for female pattern baldness than they do about likely causes of male pattern baldness. Both stress and sleep deprivation have been hypothesized to cause hair loss in women, and certain medical conditions, including low thyroid levels, may play their part as well.
How to Treat Hair Loss
First things first, there's no need to seek medical treatment for hair loss—unless that hair loss is the result of an underlying medical condition. As touched on earlier, if hair loss occurs suddenly or in smooth, round patches characteristic of alopecia areata, a rare autoimmune disorder, you should consult a health care professional.
In most cases, however, the adverse consequences of hair loss will be limited to the emotional realm. That doesn't mean you need to simply accept the condition. There are numerous treatment options available to help prevent further hair loss as well as to stimulate hair growth. Finding an effective hair loss treatment can improve your overall quality of life.
The right hair loss treatment for you depends both on the underlying cause of hair loss as well as the degree of hair loss you’re experiencing. Doctors may recommend medicated shampoos, drugs, supplements, or more invasive treatments such as hair transplants. Let's go over the pros and cons of six current hair loss treatment options.
Perhaps the best known hair regrowth treatment out there, this brand name minoxidil solution and foam was the first drug approved by the FDA for the treatment of pattern baldness.
Minoxidil belongs to a a class of drugs known as vasodilators. In pill form, it was originally developed and used to treat high blood pressure. Researchers began to notice an interesting side effect—hair growth. Some visionaries decided to test whether applying minoxidil directly to balding areas of the scalp might stimulate hair regrowth, and the rest is history.
Research consistently shows that Rogaine can help both women and men regrow lost hair. According to one study, 13% of female Rogaine users saw moderate hair regrowth and a full 50% reported at least minimal growth. Another study recorded even higher figures: 60% of users saw new hair growth on the medicine.
While Rogaine is a proven and popular treatment for hair loss, there are some instances in which it should not be used, such as:
- Sudden or patchy hair loss
- Unexplained hair loss (e.g., no family history of hair loss)
- Hair loss after giving birth
While Rogaine may be the best known treatment for hair loss, and one with clinical backing, most experts see it as marginally effective at best. Scientific advances in terms of understanding the root cause of hair loss have informed different and more effective treatment approaches.
That said, the American Hair Loss Association still recommends this hair loss treatment, especially for individuals who have not responded favorably to other treatments or for whom those treatments are not an option.
2. Increased Iron Intake
Did you know that an iron deficiency can be an underlying cause of hair loss, particularly for women? According to a study published in the European Journal of Dermatology, 59% of women experiencing excessive hair loss also had low iron levels.
The link between iron and hair loss has to do with a type of protein called ferritin. Ferritin serves as an iron repository so your body has some on hand when it needs it. If you have low ferritin levels, you also have an iron deficiency.
One of the places your body stores ferritin is in your hair follicles. So, the fewer hair follicles you have, the less stored ferritin. Plus, when your iron levels drop, your body leeches the ferritin from your follicles and other less vital places to deliver it where it's needed most.
As you may be able to predict, the best way to treat hair loss caused by low ferritin is to increase your iron intake. Eating iron-rich foods like liver, beef, nuts, and legumes can help, as can eating more vitamin C-rich foods, which help your body better absorb iron. In some cases, it can also be beneficial to add an iron supplement.
Once the underlying iron deficiency has been corrected, you hair should begin to regrow. The hair regrowth process may take several months, however.
If you are suffering from male pattern baldness, your doctor may also prescribe the prescription drug Propecia (generic name: finasteride). This drug was initially developed to treat enlarged prostate glands, but as with minoxidil, researchers found during trials that it lead to increased hair growth. Propecia has also been approved by the FDA for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia.
Unlike Rogaine, Propecia is taken orally. It works by specifically inhibiting 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme responsible for converting testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Scientists have found that DHT causes hair follicles to shrink, which can lead to complete baldness over time. Studies have shown that taking 1 milligram of Propecia daily can lower DHT levels in the scalp by up to 60%, which in turn prevents or slows further hair loss for 86% of men. Furthermore, 65% of study participants experienced significant hair regrowth.
At this time, the American Hair Loss Association recommends Propecia as the first-line hair loss treatment option for male pattern baldness.
It's important to note that Propecia can come with side effects. Some men who take this drug report a lowered sex drive as well as erectile dysfunction and decreased ejaculatory volume.
Propecia is not currently approved as a hair loss treatment for women in the United States, so any use by women would be considered off-label. Some physicians believe there are no circumstances under which it should be prescribed to women. Some will prescribe it only to post-menopausal women, while others will prescribe it to pre-menopausal women too, but only with extensive counseling.
The bulk of the concerns surrounding Propecia use in pre-menopausal women has to do with the serious risks it carries when used during pregnancy. Propecia belongs to Category X, a group of drugs that women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant should never take.
Some doctors also worry that Propecia can increase a woman's risk of cancer, but the evidence supporting that is scant.
Furthermore, some of the first studies of the use of Propecia to treat hair loss in women found that it did not help. More recent studies, however, indicate that it can be an effective treatment for female pattern hair loss. A study published by an Italian research team showed that 62% of female participants experienced improved hair density. Propecia stabilized hair loss for another 30%, meaning they experienced no hair regrowth but also no further hair loss. So, it appears that despite the risks, Propecia can be a valuable hair loss treatment for some women after all.
4. Low-Level Laser Therapy
Some people see great results from low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also called red light therapy and cold laser therapy. This hair loss treatment irradiates photons into scalp tissue and uses heat and light to stimulate new hair growth. You can undergo clinical laser treatment for hair loss or purchase a home-use LLLT device.
Studies show that low-power, coherent, monochromatic red light can stimulate hair growth in both men and women. The exact mechanism behind its effects have yet to be pinpointed, but researchers believe it produces results by stimulating epidermal stem cells in the hair follicle bulge and shifting the follicles into the anagen phase—the growth phase of the hair cycle.
The FDA approved the use of LLLT mediated by a laser comb as safe treatment for male pattern hair loss in 2007 and female pattern hair loss in 2011.
Some benefits of laser treatment for hair loss are that it's noninvasive, pain free, has no known side effects, and can increase hair strength. However, there are drawbacks too. Treatment typically requires you to commit to several sessions weekly for multiple months. If you go with clinical laster treatments, it can cost thousands of dollars, and the long-term safety and efficacy of laser hair growth devices has yet to be established. Plus, the procedure appears to be less effective for those in the advanced stages of hair loss.
If you're considering laser treatment for hair loss, be sure to consult a trusted medical professional about the risks and benefits.
5. Hair Transplantation
If you have advanced hair loss that's resistant or unresponsive to other forms of treatment, you may want to look into hair transplantation. According to the American Society for Dermatological Surgery, hair transplantation has a high success rate and no long-term or major side effects. First attempted more than 60 years ago, this surgical procedure involves excising naturally occurring units of one to four hairs—called follicular units—and transplanting them to the area (or areas) hair has thinned.
There are two methods that can be used to do this: follicular unit transplantation (FUT) and follicular unit extraction (FUE). Follicular unit transplantation involves extracting a strip of skin, then dissecting it into individual follicular unit grafts. With follicular unit extraction, individual hairs are removed manually or robotically and then implanted into the recipient site(s).
As those descriptions indicate, this hair loss treatment is quite invasive. It also requires that you have an area on your head where hair growth is thick enough for a transplant to be possible. The ultimate success of the procedure will be determined by how many hair follicles remain healthy after being transplanted. In most cases, multiple surgeries will be required with several months of healing time between each surgery. There can also be short-term side effects such as folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles).
Taking all that into consideration, if you are a good candidate for hair transplantation, it can be an effective way to address hair loss.
6. Amino Acid Supplementation
Healthy hair growth requires two amino-acid built proteins: keratin and collagen. Analysis has shown that keratin, a tough, fibrous protein, makes up 90% of each strand of hair on the human head. Formed from long chains of amino acids, keratin keeps your hair strong and elastic. Collagen, another amino-acid based protein, is vital not only for the health of your hair, but also your skin, bones, connective tissues, blood cells, and teeth.
When it comes to using amino acids for hair loss, the focus should be on increasing your intake of the amino acids that form these crucial proteins. Doing so can help stimulate hair growth and prevent hair loss. Four amino acids are required to form keratin:
Collagen is also formed from four amino acids:
When you fail to provide your body with an adequate supply of these amino acids, your hair is likely to feel dry and brittle and your risk of hair loss increases. However, taking hair loss supplements that target a specific nutrient can backfire. For instance, too much vitamin A or C can actually cause hair loss. A complete and balanced essential amino acid supplement, however, does not carry that same risk and ensures your body has the materials it needs to grow strong, healthy hair.