Why does hair loss happen?
Stress, tight hairstyles, malnutrition or vitamin deficiency, and aging are some of the main reasons hair loss happens.
If you’re experiencing hair loss or thinning, talk to a doctor if possible to rule out any health conditions that may be contributing to the problem. Depending on the cause, your hair loss could be reversed by lifestyle changes or other treatments that aren’t specifically for hair loss.
Do women lose hair with age as well?
Many do, yes. Often, the cause is actually the same: it’s called androgenetic alopecia, and it has to do with hormonal activity.
Androgens, like testosterone, are the sex hormones associated with male sexual development and functioning but are present in everyone, not just men. Excesses of testosterone may be converted by the body into another, more potent androgen called DHT, which is believed to cause hair follicles to shrink.
Many of the active ingredients used in hair growth products work by inhibiting your body’s production of DHT, including FDA-approved active ingredients minoxidil and finasteride, as well as a type of palm called saw palmetto, and a newer ingredient called Procapil.
Will any products give me more hair follicles?
Unfortunately, no – there’s nothing out there (yet) that will dramatically make your hair thick and dense if it’s naturally finer or more sparse. What they will do is support the health of the hair follicles you do have, generally by increasing blood flow and inhibiting the deleterious effects of certain sex hormones.
“Healthy blood flow and nutrients moving to the follicle are essential for normal hair growth,” Dr. Dendy Engelman, a dermatologist, and dermatologic surgeon told Insider. “Healthy hair may appear shinier and fuller, and will be more resistant to breakage.”
Some products also or instead contain vitamins and other ingredients that are meant to support the growth of strong, healthy hair, or mitigate conditions like dandruff that can worsen hair loss.
Can women use products aimed at men, and vice-versa?
For topical products, gendered labels are typically little more than marketing tactics. Dr. Colombo explains: “One common example is Rogaine foam for women or men. They both contain 5% minoxidil in a foam formulation and are basically the same.
As for the Rogaine solution, the only difference is the percentage of minoxidil, with the female solution containing 2% minoxidil and the male version 5%. The male version is perfectly fine in women and actually preferred.”
When it comes to treatments in the form of prescription pills to be taken orally, sex does matter. Doctors typically will not prescribe premenopausal women oral finasteride, dutasteride, or saw palmetto, and for men, they won’t prescribe spironolactone, as these medications all affect the endocrine system and can cause unwanted side effects.
What about hair vitamins?
There are plenty of vitamins and supplements that can help support healthy hair growth, and it’s also the case that vitamin and mineral deficiency can be a cause of hair loss for some people. Drugstores and beauty supply stores tend to stock multivitamins and supplements that are expressly designed to improve hair health (and sometimes skin and nail health, too).
Many of these contain ingredients like collagen or biotin, for both of which the jury is still out as to whether or not they can actually support hair growth when taken orally. But vitamins D, A, and iron can support hair growth as well as lots of other bodily functions. Dr. Friedler recommends taking a multivitamin that includes iron, vitamins D and A, and biotin.
It’s also important to note that more does not always equal better when it comes to supplementation: you’ll likely find some hyped-up supplements that contain hundreds of micrograms of biotin.
An excess of biotin won’t hurt you, but it won’t help either – your body just won’t be able to absorb it. You’re probably better off getting a supplement blend that includes less biotin and more of other vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
Are there any risks of using hair growth products?
Ultimately, it depends on the kind of product. Dr. Friedler cautioned that because minoxidil and finasteride products work on hormone production, they may cause hormone-related side effects like increased hair growth on other parts of the body. Ideally, anyone thinking of using any product that may interfere with hormone production should consult with their doctor first to make sure it’s appropriate for them.
Iron, vitamin D, vitamin A, and biotin supplements, however, come with virtually no side effects and can support other bodily functions in addition to hair growth. For this reason, Dr. Friedler recommends starting with supplements as your first line of defense in DIY hair loss treatment.
It is possible (though rare) for the body to contain too much iron, vitamin D, and vitamin A, so avoid taking more than the daily recommended dose of any supplement that contains one or more of these.
What’s the difference between prescription and OTC hair growth treatments?
There’s often overlap between Rx and OTC hair growth products. Minoxidil is often found in both, though Rx products may sometimes contain a higher concentration. Finasteride tends to be Rx-only. For the purpose of this article, I focused on products that are available to purchase without a prescription. When it comes to prescription-only treatments, your doctor can best guide you through your options.
Is there anything people should avoid when shopping for hair growth products?
Dr. Colombo advised folks to avoid using products with heavy oils, not just in hair growth products but in any kind of hair care products, as they can aggravate dandruff and worsen hair loss.
Also, patience is a virtue. You’ll notice that all of the products in our roundup estimate that it will take at least a few months for results to be visible. Dr. Engelman cautioned shoppers to be skeptical of any product that makes fantastical claims.
“Always be aware of anything claiming to have miraculous or fast results,” she told Insider. “Healthy and sustainable results take time, especially when it comes to hair growth.”
What about shampoos, conditioners, and other types of products that claim to help with hair thickness?
Lots of those certainly exist. For the sake of fair comparison in this article, I stuck to products for which the primary purpose is to support hair growth and prevent hair loss, rather than something like shampoo which is primarily meant to clean hair but may also have ingredients that, as a secondary function, support hair growth.
But as Dr. Engelman said, “hair growth and health starts with the scalp,” so shampoos and other products that encourage healthy cell turnover and prevent product or cell buildup are a good tool for fighting hair loss.
See the “what else we considered” slide for other doctor-recommended scalp health buys.