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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.

Losing Hair Differently

The best candidates for hair transplants are those who have common male-pattern or female-pattern baldness, a genetic condition. Hair loss also can be caused by variety of factors, including thyroid abnormalities, iron deficiencies, and autoimmune diseases. Childbirth can cause hair loss as well. But the most common reason people lose their hair is heredity. And, contrary to common myth, the trait is not passed from your maternal grandfather. Nor does it skip a generation. The propensity is passed down from all your relatives.

"The more bald people in your family, the greater your chances of going bald. If you look at a family of ten siblings -- there will be variations in amount of hair and its distribution," says James Arnold, MD, a dermatologist and hair transplant specialist in San Jose, California.

Women lose hair differently than men. Where men have bald spots in the front or back of their heads, women tend more toward diffuse thinning. They lose hair gradually, and after awhile, they get that "see-through" scalp of which Laurie complained.

Arnold, who limits his practice exclusively to hair transplants, also treats women. But he has not seen such dramatic increases. Partly, he says, because he hasn't advertised to women. "Women are more challenging to treat than men. Their expectations are higher. You treat a man, he sees he has a little more on top -- maybe he looks a few years younger -- and he's satisfied. Women want thick hair."

Laurie agrees that women may be tougher clients. After all, she's had three transplants. But she says hair transplants may be actually simpler for women because they're better able to hide them. "A woman can easily wear a scarf, and because women's hair is generally longer, it's harder to see the incision." Plus, when new hair comes in, the effect on a woman's scalp is more subtle. "People notice your hair looks better but they're not quite sure why."

A Hair-Raising Price Tag

Nature's cure for baldness isn't cheap. Despite improvements, transplants are still labor-intensive and require the skill of a trained hair transplant surgeon -- whether a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

"Mega-megasessions" that are capable of delivering 3,000-4,000 grafts (these can take 10 hours and involve the work of several technicians) can cost $10,000 or more. The more typical two-to-three-hour session, where 400-500 grafts are removed, runs about $5,000.

Add in the cost of drugs that augment hair growth. Propecia is routinely prescribed after transplants to prevent further hair loss in cases of male pattern baldness. The drug, which costs about $50 a month, is often combined with extra strength minoxidil, an over-the-counter baldness remedy. (Minoxidil should not be used by women of childbearing age as it can cause abnormalities in the growth and development of a fetus.) Other drugs to treat hair loss include Retin-A for male pattern baldness used in combination with minoxidil or Xandrox, which combine various doses of minoxidil, Retin-A, and azeliaic acid.

Are hair transplants for everyone? "Absolutely not," says Laurie. "But for me, it's been wonderful. It's changed my life. Some people might say, $15,000 -- are you crazy? But you can't imagine what it's like to be able to go into a swimming pool, play water sports, shake your head, and not be embarrassed. I feel so much more comfortable with myself."

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Reviewed on June 27, 2003

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