Study Weighs In on Hair Growth Remedy

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Nov. 19, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's always been the big question behind hair loss remedies -- prescription and otherwise -- do they really work?

In the past, that assessment was made by the rather painstaking process of counting hairs. But a new study finds there may be a more reliable way to check for regrowth: weighing the hair. And doing that, researchers have found one hair loss product that has a significant and possibly long-term effect on hair loss -- minoxidil.

The study, which appears in the latest issue of The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, was supported by a grant from Pharmacia & Upjohn, makers of the Rogaine brand of minoxidil.

Three groups of men aged 18-40 were assigned to use a minoxidil 2% solution, a 5% solution, or a placebo. A fourth group used no treatment whatsoever. Beginning at week six and continuing every six weeks thereafter, the researchers used a piece of plastic with a hole in the center, laid over the thinning spot, to sort out new growth. The growth was then carefully cut and weighed. This continued for another 90 weeks, at which point all the men stopped using the treatments.

The results prove two things about minoxidil: It regrows hair, and the 5% solution works better than the 2%. In fact, the researchers found a 35% gain in hair, by weight, in the 5% treatment group, and a 25% gain in the 2% group.

The bad news is, as soon as the minoxidil treatments were stopped hair loss accelerated -- and within six months the treated men were about on par with those using a placebo or nothing at all.

And more bad news: The effect of minoxidil apparently dulls over time. The researchers found a slight but steady drop-off in hair weight as the minoxidil treatments continued past a year -- though they still remained well above what was achieved with placebo or no treatment at all.

Still, one clinician says the study brings up a key point often obscured by hair-loss remedy advertising: the importance of volume over number of hairs. "The most important part of this study is that it finally addresses that hair weight is more important than hair content," says Gary Hitzig, MD, the author of Help and Hope for Hair Loss. "The best way of comparing it is like having 130 twigs or 100 trees. They're all trees -- but which is going to give you more volume in the forest?"

"The bottom line with minoxidil is, it does work -- but it only works in the minority of people, and it probably doesn't work forever," says Jean-Claude Bystryn, MD, professor of dermatology at New York University's School of Medicine. "It does help. Are you going to get a permanent effect -- are you gonna keep the hair forever -- probably not. But if you're 20% better than you would have been, are you better off? For some guys, yes."

The problem, Bystryn suggests, is that they haven't found a drug yet to keep people from getting older. "The minoxidil may have a good benefit many, many years down the road," he says. "But there's the aging process. These things are retarding a change that is inevitable. If you retard it, you haven't stopped hair loss. But you are still ahead of the game."

Of course, there is a way to stay ahead of the hair game without doing anything about it: It's called acceptance -- also known as the gospel according to the Bald Headed Men of America. "We don't have room for drugs, plugs, or rugs," says John Capps, spokesperson for the Morehead City, N.C. group. "Life is an aging process. Our schools don't prepare us for the aging the good Lord has placed on our bodies."

Capps charges drug companies and others with "preying" on those losing their hair -- specifically targeting an age group that has money to spend. "The challenge is, however old we are, there's somebody out there telling us we ought to be younger," Capps says. But, he adds, "It's the attitude inside that makes the difference."

Vital Information:

  • A new study shows that the hair loss product, minoxidil, not only regrows hair but increases the thickness of individual hairs.
  • The effects of minoxidil are mitigated over time, and once the medication is stopped, the amount of hair loss returns to its original condition.
  • One group argues that one way to deal with hair loss is acceptance, and criticizes drug companies for taking advantage of people who are losing their hair.
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