What is male-pattern baldness?
The medical term for hair loss is alopecia with male pattern baldness being the most common form, occurring in around 50% of men over the age of 50. Typically it starts with a receding hairline followed by thinning of the hair on the crown and temples. Occasionally it can lead to complete baldness, although this is rare.
Is male-pattern baldness caused by too much testosterone?
Male-pattern baldness has a genetic link due to the inheritance of hair follicles that are oversensitive to a natural substance found in the body called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). When the male hormone, testosterone, is converted into DHT it shrinks the hair follicles resulting in shorter and finer hair until, eventually, hair growth stops altogether. The good news is that the hair follicles don't die off, so hair growth may still be possible.
The role of testosterone in premature balding has led to the myth that going bald is a sign of virility. However, men with male pattern baldness do not in fact have higher levels of testosterone than other men. Their hair follicles are simply more sensitive to DHT.
Can hair loss occur in women?
Female-pattern baldness can sometimes be seen in women too. However the hair usually thins only on the top of the head. The causes of female-pattern baldness are not as clearly understood as in men, although it typically occurs in women who have been through the menopause. So there may be a hormonal link.
How is hair loss treated?
The first thing to point out is that male or female pattern baldness can be slowed down but, unfortunately, it cannot be cured. The two treatments available are minoxidil (Regaine) and finasteride (Propecia). Neither is available on the NHS. It should be noted that if Regaine or Propecia prove to be successful they have to be used indefinitely. Hair loss will return if the treatments are stopped.
Regaine can be used by both men and women. It comes as a solution or foam that is rubbed into the scalp and does not require a prescription. Regaine helps to promote hair growth by stimulating the follicles thus slowing down hair loss and, in some cases, even reversing it. It generally shows signs of working in two to three weeks but will need to be used continuously for three to four months before a decision can be made on its effectiveness.
Propecia is a prescription only product, available in tablet form, but must only be taken by men due to its effect on hormones. It blocks the conversion of testosterone to DHT thus reducing the amount of DHT in the scalp. As a result the hair follicles start to enlarge and the hairs become thicker. However it takes time for this process to happen and a trial of at least three months will be necessary before any improvement will be seen. The balding process will resume within six to twelve months if treatment is stopped.