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Do Hair Loss Treatments Actually Work?

Hair loss treatment products are a $3.6 billion industry, but do they actually work?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #297

There are a few drugs marketed toward recovering hair lost due to male or female pattern baldness. Minoxidil, a drug used to treat high blood pressure but also the drug used in Rogaine, can be applied topically to the scalp and works to stimulate hair growth by activating hair follicles to keep them in the growth cycle longer. The drug is shown to increase hair density and at least moderate hair regrowth in women and men. However, for women with hair loss due to an autoimmune disorder, minoxidil may only maintain existing hair without any benefits of regrowth. Some clinical trials suggest higher concentrations (i.e. 5% over 2%) are more effective but others do not. Continued use is required to maintain the drug’s benefits.

The drug finasteride (marketed under the name Propecia) works by blocking the creation of certain hormones or enzymes that can cause male pattern baldness and is approved only for use by men. Trials show that it noticeably thickens hair in ~50-60% of patients and in some cases may even lead to regrowth, but the medication must be taken continuously to maintain these results.

For alopecia areata, injections of corticosteroids at the bald patch are often used successfully to stimulate hair regrowth. Studies suggest that regrowth is possible, particularly in patients who have had limited scalp hair loss over shorter periods of time, but the literature so far lacks randomized controlled trials.

In hair transplant surgery, doctors remove hair follicles from parts of the scalp that are still actively growing hair and implant them in areas that are sensitive to hair loss. The procedure can be successful at reducing the appearance of bald patches but if the reason for hair loss is genetic, the hair’s return is usually only temporary.

New therapies, like those that use lasers to stimulate hair thickening show promising anecdotal evidence but not enough clinical trial data yet exists to verify their effectiveness or to know the long-term effects of such treatment.

Do Supplements Work to Treat Hair Loss?

There are many, many vitamins and supplements that claim to help regenerate lost or thinning hair, whether they are taken orally or contained within shampoos. They typically include vitamins A, C, or E, biotin, manganese, selenium, fish oil, or flaxseed oil. In general, the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. does not monitor the effectiveness of such supplements. So FDA approval for a supplement does not actually mean the supplement does what it claims to do. (And current leaders in the FDA want to move more and more drugs and other products into this less monitored category.)

According to a study conducted by Consumer Reports, there is little to no evidence that supplements make a difference in hair regrowth. The few supplement success stories usually involve people who have a measured deficiency in one of the vitamins, like biotin, but such deficiencies are rare and usually arise from long-term antibiotics use or from taking anti-seizure drugs.

Hair loss treatments are an active area of research given the large fraction of the global population that are affected by hair loss. Some recent studies have seen success in identifying specific proteins that are linked to hair loss or using platelet-rich plasma injections of a patient’s own blood and others have even linked a chemical used to cook fast food fries to hair follicle production. So although we may not have figured out a straightforward fix yet, one may be on the horizon. 

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.