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Slaphead Science: A Brief History of Baldness Cures

Over 50% of men are bald or have significantly thinning hair by age 50. Whilst 20% of women are thinning and 5% are losing their hair in clumps around the crown by the same age. Baldness is a big deal. Acclaimed journalist Christopher Wanjeck guides us in a brief history of baldness cures.

by Christopher Wanjek

A quick scan on the Internet will reveal hundreds of products claiming to cure baldness. One of my favourites comes from an Ayurveda guru in India who recommends headstands to increase blood flow to the scalp, coupled with a herb called bhringaraj, which is supposed to counter some type of unbalance in one of the three Indian life forces. It is my favourite cure, I should add, because the guru is bald.

The history of baldness cures can be summed up rather succinctly. From prehistory to the late 1980s, nothing worked. All baldness cures were figuratively and often literally snake oil. Then came Minoxidil (marketed as Rogaine) followed quickly by Finasteride (marketed as Propecia or Proscar). These products don't grow new hair, but they prevent hair loss.

Mind you, I am not a Minoxidil salesman. I don't even view baldness as a disease that needs to be "cured." Never will you hear: "Shame about Bob. The doctors said it was the baldness that killed him. If only he kept his baldness under control." What is fascinating to me, however, is that in this age of enlightenment many continue to be lured by so-called natural ointments, massage techniques and even sillier baldness remedies all based on ageless superstitions and misconceptions about the root cause of baldness.

Blame It On Yahweh...

Baldness has always had a bad rap. Countless references in the Bible note that God will make Israel's enemies either bald and sterile, bald and confused, bald and feeble, or just plain bald. In Revelations, at the end of the world, God will render select groups of evil people bald.

You know about Samson, whose great strength was in his hair. The (bald) prophet Elisha no doubt took that story too personally, as relayed in the Second Book of Kings. On the road out of Jericho, a group of boys made fun of Elisha, shouting "Get out of here, baldy." Elisha cursed them so that "two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys to pieces." His ways are mysterious.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to develop treatments for baldness - rancid fat from snakes, geese, crocodiles, hippos, lions, and ibexes. These were serious topical ointments; no greasy kids' stuff. The bad smell was key, for it was proof that the concoctions were working. We're still fooled by this concept today, for everyone knows medicine is supposed to taste bad. Denorex, a dandruff shampoo, prided itself with the motto "it tingles."

The great Greek doctor Hippocrates treated his patients' baldness with pigeon droppings. Aristotle, as brilliant as he was, tried goats urine to remedy his own baldness. Julius Caesar was bald, which is ironic because the name Caesar, from the Latin "caesaries," means "abundant hair." His gal Cleopatra prepared pastes for him made of ground horse teeth and deer marrow. (Rancid hippo fat was apparently passe in the Egyptian courts by this time.)

Alas, Cleopatra's salves didn't work. Neither did Roman cures of sulfur, tar, and the finest samples of animal urine from around the Mediterranean. Julius caved in and simply tried to cover his bare head; he took to wearing wreaths of laurel. (He was known as the king of bad comb-overs, too, according to Roman scribe Pliny.) The mighty Hannibal was bald and didn't like it one bit. Like Captain Kirk in Star Trek, Hannibal was never in a fight scene without his toupee.

Based on an Everglades National Park Photo

A Crocodile reaches the end of his tether after teasing from fellow river dwellers about being a possible cure for baldness.

Baldness treatments such as urine and rancid fat survived the fall of the Roman Empire, unlike those worthless, pagan tomes on geometry and iambic pentameter. The Renaissance brought cow saliva. (Ah, cow saliva, not cow urine. Progress.) Meanwhile in China, treatments moved forward with the introduction of animal testes mixed with ground herbs. Meditation and headstands had long been a standard cure there and in India.

With the advent of modern technology in the late 1800s, baldness treatment entered the realm of the titillating: electric shock, vibrators, motorized scalp massagers, and suction devices.

Nice Try, But It's Wrong...

What do all these treatments have in common, aside from the potential of making you look foolish? They all work on three premises: increasing blood flow to the scalp, unclogging pores or hair follicles, and providing nutrients. Maybe these treatments really do that. These aren't the causes of baldness, though.

Baldness, for the most part, is genetic. You'd have to be literally starving to lose your hair due to poor nutrition. This is certainly possible, but far from likely. You don't need extra blood up there either. The head is already flush with blood. The brain kind of needs blood, and the body makes sure to deliver it through two massive arteries in your neck called the carotids.

The clogged pore idea is straight-out wrong, unless you're coating your scalp with sealing wax... or rancid hippo fat. You can lose your hair from stress, medication, or chemotherapy, but usually the hair grows back.

Genes are behind most of the bald and thinning heads out there, male and female. You can inherit baldness from your mother or your father. Baldness is not passed only through the mother's side. A quick look at the countless number of bald fathers and sons will nullify this myth.

How Hair Works...

How an astronaut could potentially look if they donned a purple wig

The head has about 100,000 hair follicles, little hair factories that continuously produce hair under normal conditions. When a hair falls out, a new one grows in that same follicle. Hair loss begins when a certain enzyme converts the hormone testosterone into another hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT).

DHT is critical in the male fetus development. The hormone also stimulates long, usually unwelcome rigid hair on the chin and cheeks, different from a beard. Later in life, for reasons unknown, DHT starts bugging the hair follicles on the top of the scalp. These follicles continue to produce hair, but it is very fine and short, a peach fuzz.

The hair follicles on the side of the head, also for reasons unknown, are not affected by DHT. They continue to produce thick hair, hence the "monk ring" of hair that is left when other hair falls out. The bald gene (actually, there may be many, researchers think) makes too much of the enzyme that makes DHT.

Minoxidil was introduced as Rogaine in 1988. This topical solution maintains thinning hair from falling out through, believe it or not, some unknown process. Minoxidil was first a blood pressure medication; hair growth in unwanted places was a side effect.

Finasteride entered the arena in the 1990s, marketed as a pill called Propecia or, in higher doses, Proscar. Taken orally, these pills maintain hair that would have been lost by inhibiting that enzyme responsible for balding. These drugs have to be taken continuously, or hair loss returns.

That's the state of hair loss and growth today. Rancid hippo fat and goat urine are not popular remedies anymore, but equally foolish and exotic Chinese and Far East herbal remedies are readily available for purchase through the Internet.

Many products claim to be secret formulas. I get a kick out of the implied conspiracy. "Dermatologists don't want you to know!" Yes they do. Doctors aren't interested in holding back baldness cures; they'd make more money selling cures that work. There's no worldwide plot to keep you, your husband, or your brother bald.

Closer to home, health-food stores market vitamin and minerals to promote hair growth. These are all worthless too. Rapid, unexpected hair loss is certainly a sign of deteriorating health. By all means, see a doctor if this is happening to you. But if you are bald or thinning, your hair loss is almost certainly not a result of your diet, your circulation, your clogged pores, your poor chi, your reliance on commercial shampoos, your yin, your yang, your repulsion of goat urine, or your fondness for McDonald's hamburgers. Rather, someone in your family - maybe a generation or two ago - was bald.

There is hope. Usually, hair follicles never "die" until very late in human life. Bald individuals have very tiny hairs in most of those 100,000 follicles. If the right drug comes along, those same hair follicles can start producing longer, thicker hair.

Hair transplants take hair, root at all, from the back and side of the scalp and move it up top. This works, no myth here, but the procedure can be painful and expensive. Having a skilled doctor is key to its success.

I say the word "hope" because baldness is a great concern to many people. Ladies, don't you snicker about the guys. This is no vain pursuit. Twenty percent of women have thinning hair and 5 percent loose it in clumps around the crown, just like men. And it's a real big deal for them, too.

Very soon, perhaps within a decade, scientists predict, there will be a drug that spurs head hair growth. At first it will likely have some ridiculous side effect, like impotency or hypertension. Then, after a few more years, the kinks in the drug will be worked out. Researchers know what causes hair to stop growing; and pharmaceutical companies are pouring millions of dollars into drug development because they know the anti-baldness pill will be as big as Viagra.

Now, Click Here for our Special Hair Fact File! for Twenty Great Hair Facts

Christopher takes great pleasure in de-bunking and de-mystifying medical 'wisdom' on such topics as vitamin O, magnets and oxygen in his new book 'Bad Medicine' published by Wiley.

Christopher Wanjek, MPH (Masters in Public Health, from Harvard) is a U.S.-based science journalist and author of the book "Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed" (Wiley, 2003). Of which Baldness is just one of over forty fun topics discussed!



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First Science 2014