It's the ultimate bad hair day. Your hairline's disappearing, no matter how carefully you arrange your remaining strands. You have to face the mirror and admit you just can't hide it anymore. Then you go skulking around pharmacy aisles checking out Rogaine displays or considering spray-on hair in a can.
Everyone's looking for a magic potion to deal with their balding pate. Truth is, there are no miracle cures, just a few emerging treatments that help slow the process for some people. For others, there are transplants and wigs.
Most men and women lose some hair as they get older. How much you lose depends on a combination of factors: aging, hormones and genetics. The most common form of baldness, androgenetic alopecia (more commonly known as male or female pattern baldness), affects more than half of all men and more than 30% of women over 50.
Male pattern baldness often results in the receding hairline. Female pattern baldness can cause thinning at the top or sides of the head as well as bald spots. While women suffer more overall thinning, men experience more pronounced hair loss.
The result, says Dr. Ronald Salvin, a New Haven, Conn., dermatologist specializing in hair loss, is an emotional problem as well as a physical one.
"The absence of a front hairline, for example, adds 10 years to someone's appearance. It affects how people feel about themselves," says Salvin, who is also a professor of clinical dermatology at Yale. "When hair loss reaches the point where it's getting to be an embarrassment is when people start hunting for a solution."
Too often, experts say, people look for remedies in all the wrong places. According to the American Hair Loss Council, the nation's 40 billion balding men and 20 million balding women spend $1.5 billion annually on drugs, rugs, plugs and other remedies to combat hair loss. More than $100 million of that goes toward unproven treatments, including vitamin supplements, topical solutions, specially formulated shampoos and conditioners.
So what are the bare facts about those quick-fix "cures" touted on late-night TV and on the Internet? Despite medical advances, no one knows how to prevent hair loss. Companies that promise cures for hair loss are selling romance, not medicine, and the public, who wants to believe there's a solution, gets confused, says Salvin.
"If you're looking for entertainment or a side show, tune in," he says. "If you're looking for credibility, see a physician who is familiar with hair-loss treatments."
So far, only the drug minoxidil has been judged by the Food and Drug Administration to be capable of regrowing hair and slowing further hair loss. The most well-known brand name is Rogaine, a topical treatment (now available over-the-counter) that is applied to the scalp twice a day.
The hitch is that the drug doesn't work for everybody. The company's own clinical studies show that Rogaine produces "meaningful" results in only about 25% of men and about 20% of women. Any hair saved through the drug's use falls out if applications stop.
Other options are surgical hair transplants and hair additions, including hair weavings and hair pieces. None is inexpensive. To create a natural-looking front hairline is going to take three surgical procedures at a cost of about $10,000 total, says Salvin. Hair weaves and hairpieces can range from $750 to $3,500.
But there are some budding developments. The FDA is expected to rule soon on a promising new drug, finasteride. Already on the market as a treatment for enlarged prostate glands, the drug, which can be taken in pill form, has been shown to regrow hair in two-thirds of men observed in studies.
For referrals to physicians treating hair loss in your area, or to order a free booklet, "Hair Loss," contact the American Academy of Dermatology at (888) 462-DERM.
The American Hair Loss Council in Chicago publishes online brochures on hair loss as well as lists of doctors and salon professionals who specialize in treating hair loss. For more information, call (312) 321-5128, or visit its Web site at www.ahlc.org