Shaking That Baldness Stigma

If your crowning glory isn’t so glorious anymore, don’t panic. You can look to new and better treatments to give hair loss the heave-ho.

stbsABOUT 40 PERCENT OF WOMEN over 50 suffer the demoralization of thinning hair, according to the American Hair Loss Council. “By the time you’re 50, you have roughly 50 percent of the hair you started with,” says John E. Wolf Jr., M.D., chief of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. While men experience receding hairlines and bald spots, for women it’s diffuse thinning all over the scalp, usually the result of declining estrogen levels and other normal changes of aging. Here’s what to do if you notice a thinning pate:

GET EXPERT HELP See a dermatologist who’s treated plenty of cases of thinning hair. “Women tend to consult a doctor very early, so most of the therapies are very effective,” says Patricia Wexler, M.D., a New York City cosmetic dermatologist.

The doctor will take a medical history. Pregnancy, childbirth, birth-control pills and menopause can cause shedding, as can diseases of the scalp and some medications, especially blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, anticoagulants and thyroid medications. Stressful events, including surgery, can also play a role.

The next step is a blood test to check for excess testosterone. Iron-deficiency anemia, thyroid conditions, diabetes and lupus also need to be ruled out, as does alopecia areata, believed to be an auto-immune disease, which can bring on partial or complete hair loss. Fortunately, many of these conditions are reversible.

REWRITE YOUR GENETIC LEGACY Androgenic alopecia, a hereditary form of hair loss, accounts for 95 percent of balding in men and women. But a family tradition of hair loss doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. Minoxidil, available over the counter as Rogaine, among others, is an excellent line of defense against hair loss, says Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, Ph.D., author of Hair Savers for Women: A Complete Guide to Preventing and Treating Hair Loss (Three Rivers Press/Crown, $14; to order, call Books Now at 800-962-6651). It can take up to four months to see results from a twice-a-day scalp treatment using 2 percent minoxidil, and you must use it for the rest of your life. The data on hair regrowth with minoxidil, however, are much less encouraging, making early intervention crucial. Another drug option for some women may be Aldactone (spironolactone), a diuretic used to treat high blood pressure. While it isn’t approved for use in regrowing hair, some dermatologists prescribe the drug, particularly if a patient is allergic to minoxidil and has a hormone imbalance (the drug decreases testosterone levels).

TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS Avoid submitting your tresses to aggressive styling techniques, harsh chemicals, and the perils of sun and wind. “Use a gentle shampoo, then a protein conditioner,” says Dr. Wolf. And stick to natural products whenever possible, suggests Jennie Ann Freiman, M.D., a gynecologist in New York who embarked on a search for a better treatment–to the point where she concocted her own–when she continued to lose her hair long after the birth of her second child. “Sprays and gels can clog the pores of the scalp” she says, “so use a mild herbal shampoo on a daily basis.”

Supplements may help, too, but the evidence is sketchy. Stinging-nettle extract (Urtica dioica) has a long tradition as a hair grower, but to date no scientific data back up that claim. Dr. Wolf says there’s a possibility that biotin, an amino-acid supplement, may help hair and nails grow.

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