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The Sweet Hair After

Future Hair-Loss Treatments Promise What's not Hair Today will Be Hair Tomorrow.
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WebMD Feature

Hair today, gone tomorrow. Hair again soon? Maybe, thanks to breakthroughs in hair- loss treatments.

There's been a revolution in biology. Armed with powerful new tools, scientists are learning how to read the complex chemical languages of the body, including how to coin new treatments for hair loss.

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Like the cure for cancer, those new treatments aren't nearly ready for prime time. But they're coming, promises George Cotsarelis, MD, director of the Hair and Scalp Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

"In the last 5 to 7 years there has been a boom in the understanding of hair loss," Cotsarelis tells WebMD. "We've made great strides at the level of basic research. Now the question is how we can convert these findings into clinical benefits. Those kinds of leaps really take decades."

The great leap would be to grow new hair on bald heads. But smaller steps aren't that far away.

Why do we care about a cure for baldness? Look around you. Hair loss is extremely common, it usually happens when the normal process of hair growth gets disrupted.

What We Know About Hair

"The hair is real. It's the head that's a fake."

-Steve Allen

Until it's gone, hair is easy to take for granted. But a close look reveals the hair follicle to be one of the most interesting organs of the body. It's most unusual feature: It is self-regenerating.

Hair follicles live just below the top layer of the skin. You have them all over your body except, fortunately, on your lips, palms, and soles.

At the base of the follicle is the hair bulb, where wildly growing matrix cells become hair.

A little farther up the follicle is the mysterious feature called the bulge. That's where follicle stem cells live. When they get the right set of chemical signals, these self-renewing cells divide. They don't divide like normal cells, in which both halves become new cells that keep splitting and developing. Only one half of the follicle stem cell does that. The other half becomes a new stem cell, and stays put for future regeneration.

Hair growth goes through several distinct stages:

  • Anagen. The growth phase of hair. An unknown signal tells follicle stem cells to do their thing. Next, the permanent part of the follicle -- the dermal papilla -- gives the "go" signal to hair matrix cells. Those cells grow wildly and become pigmented, creating a new hair shaft. At any given time, 90% of hair cells are in this stage.
  • Exogen. The new hair shaft pushes the old, dead hair shaft out of the skin. The old hair falls out.
  • Anagen finished. The new hair extends beyond the surface of the skin and keeps growing. The hair shaft fully matures.
  • Catagen. The lower two-thirds of the follicle shrivels up and is destroyed. The dermal papilla remains attached to the regressing follicle.
  • Telogen. The withered follicle rests. It waits for a signal telling it to start all over again.

Losing hair is part of a normal cycle of growth and replacement. Hair follicles go through the growth and resting cycle in a nonsynchronized fashion. But sometimes things go wrong.

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