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Hair Transplants Not Just for Men

Vin Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal, Mr. Clean -- the bald male is accepted, even celebrated, in todays society. But a bald woman? Hardly. Double standard aside, help is on the horizon.
By Carla Cantor
WebMD Feature

Laurie began to feel self-conscious about her fine "see-through" hair during high school. By 30, she was having hair extensions sewn into her natural hair. That worked for awhile, but the pressure on existing strands eventually led to bald spots.

"I knew what was in store for me," says Laurie (not her real name), a sales executive in her mid-40s. "My sisters both have thin hair. My mother wears a hairpiece. Baldness is in our family genes."

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She spotted a notice for a talk by a dermatologist who specialized in hair transplants for men and women. Laurie skipped the lecture and headed straight for a consult. "Getting a hair transplant had never occurred to me. I didn't even know a woman could have one." Not that a hair transplant seemed like a desirable thing -- all the men she'd ever seen with them looked "so, well, pluggy."

No More "Pluggy" Look

Gone are the days when a hair transplant made a middle-aged scalp look like a field of newly planted corn. New technology and improved surgical techniques are transforming the hair transplant industry.

"Large grafting procedures that gave transplants their plug-like appearance are a thing of the past," says Michael Reed, MD, who has been performing hair transplants at New York University Medical Center's hair clinic since the early 1970s.

The new methods allow for more hairs in each skin graft to be placed between existing hairs, promoting greater hair density, says Reed. At the same time, more precise instrumentation permits surgeons to work faster with less worry about tissue injury. This has turned hair transplants -- one of the most tedious and labor-intensive of cosmetic surgery procedures -- into minor day surgery. A typical session, or "megasession" (as dermatological surgeons call it), lasts two to three hours. Other techniques to reverse hair loss include laser surgery, scalp reduction, and scalp expansion and extension.

Quicker, more effective procedures have made hair transplants a more attractive option for women. In the 1990s, women made up less than 5% of Reed's hair transplant practice. Today, says Reed, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at New York University School of Medicine, women represent up to 30% of his clients.

Laurie was nervous when she had her first transplant in 1997 but was pleasantly surprised to find the procedure quite painless. "I was given a local anesthetic. It was no worse than the dentist's office. I hardly felt a thing," she says.

Next, her surgeon removed a tiny strip of skin (1 x 1.5 x 12 centimeters) from the back of her scalp, an area of relatively dense hair for even the baldest people called the "donor site." In one session, she was able to have about 400 grafts of skin -- containing two to four hairs each -- redistributed from the back of her head to the front and top. "It took awhile for regrowth, " Laurie says. (Typically, transplanted hair sheds within the first weeks or months and has to grow back). "But within four to six months, I saw a huge difference."

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