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By Jody McCutcheon
Here’s a shocking fact: About 30% of all women will experience hair loss (alopecia) at some time in their lives; among postmenopausal women, as many as 2 out of 3 will suffer hair thinning or bald spots. Even though it’s increasingly common, hair loss in women often has a greater impact than on men, because women directly associate long, lustrous hair with beauty.
The main type of hair loss in both sexes is androgenetic alopecia, or female (or male) pattern hair loss. In men, hair loss usually begins above the temples, and the receding hairline eventually forms a characteristic “M” shape; hair at the top of the head also thins, often progressing to baldness. In women, androgenetic alopecia begins with gradual thinning at the part line, followed by increasing diffuse hair loss radiating from the top of the head. A woman’s hairline rarely recedes, and women rarely become fully bald.
There are many possible causes of hair loss, including medical conditions such as thyroid imbalances, pregnancy, medications, and physical or emotional stress, but one of the most common is sensitivity dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, a byproduct of testosterone breakdown that causes the hair follicles to shrink and eventually disappear. Both men and women with this genetic sensitivity can eventually experience hair loss, but to really get to the root of the problem (no pun intended!) it’s important to see your doctor or dermatologist to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
Hair loss can be frustrating, but recent years have seen an increase in resources for coping with the problem, such as laboratory created solutions and potions such as Minoxidil, (also called Rogaine or Regaine), Neogenic and Propacia. The market for these has been mainly aimed at men, but just how safe is Minoxidil for women? And what about all those other hair loss drugs?
How Safe is Regaine? (Minoxidil)
Minoxidil has only been proven as safe in studies funded by the manufacturer of the drug. Far from objective, right? There have also been several side effects reported, ranging from mild ones like alcohol related skin irritation, to more serious ones, like migraine headaches and irregular heart beats. Other side effects include new hair differing in colour and texture from surrounding hair, and most commonly for women is the appearance of strange hairs on the cheeks, forehead and upper lip, called hypertrichosis (This problem is more likely with the stronger 5% solution.)
Regaine is not the only Minoxidil based product around. Now that the patent has expired, there are several others that contain added herbal extracts and various added ingredients, some of which may cause irritation. Furthermore, while short term studies determine Minoxidil is safe, it has to be used for the rest of your life in order to maintain any gains in hair growth, and no studies over a period of longer than 15 years have been done on the longer term effects yet, meaning, in effect, no one knows much about the long term safety of this drug.
How Safe are Spironolactone and Finasteride?
These two androgen inhibitors, Spironolactone (Aldactone) and Finasteride (Propecia) are not approved for the treatment of female pattern hair loss, and there is little reliable evidence that they are effective anyway. That being said, some doctors claim that women who have a poor reaction to minoxidil could benefit from taking spironolactone too. In the relatively uncommon cases where a woman is producing an excess of androgen, doctors may prescribe 100-200 mg of an androgen receptor blocking drug daily, together with an oral contraceptive for women of reproductive age, but this isn’t the safest drug combo: a woman taking even one of these drugs shouldn’t become pregnant, as these drugs can n cause genital abnormalities in a male fetus. Other possible side effects include weight gain, loss of libido, depression, and fatigue. No wonder these are not recommended for women!
How Safe is Stemoxydine?
L’Oreal, Vichy and Kerastase have all come up with a product that claims to generate hair growth through stem cell usage. The French discovery of Stemoxydine (also called Neogenic), a synthetic substance that is said to increase hair density by 4 percent, is now widely sold throughout Europe. The active ingredient is diethylpyrideine-2, 4-dicarboxylate, is being sold with minimal testing and at maximum expense. Although no serious side effects have been noted and the product boasts it contains no parabens, some have reported headaches after use, and the fact that it has not been subject to long term, in vitro tests means we are the guinea pigs here.
The Bottom Line
Whilst loads of studies have been undertaken in the creation of hair loss formulae for men, women are rarely the focus of these products, so tests for their health are not usually done extensively. The truth is that female physiology is much different than men’s and how men react to a drug – especially one that is changing the body’s hormonal reactions – will be quite different to how women respond.