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Survey: Most Baldness Treatments Don't Work

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Updated: 4/01 10:34 am

April 6, 2010 -- Most baldness cures just don’t cut it, according to a new Consumer Reports magazine survey of more than 8,000 men and women who have personal experience with hair loss.

Of the respondents, nearly 40% of women and 27% of men said they had tried a treatment or product to help stop or reverse their hair loss. More than half of the men polled said that the benefits of the baldness remedies were overplayed. Most of them said they reached for over-the-counter baldness remedies, but 20% of men opted for Propecia, a prescription pill for men only.

In the survey, 27% of the men who used Propecia said it was “very” effective. Propecia is a member of the class of medications called 5-alpha reductase inhibitors, which block the body's production of a male hormone. This drug is also used to treat enlarged prostate glands.

Alternatives to Propecia for Hair Loss

Other remedies did not fare quite as well. Over-the-counter minoxidil (Rogaine) is applied directly to the scalp and is the only hair regrowth drug approved for use by women.

Just 4% of respondents said it was very effective, with 43% of users saying it was not effective at all.

Dietary and herbal supplements touted as baldness cures were rated very effective by 6% of those polled. When medications that target the underlying cause of the hair loss were used, 12% of the respondents thought they were very effective.

Only 2% of men surveyed underwent hair transplants; but of these, 49% were either very or completely satisfied with the results of their surgery, the poll shows.

Accepting Hair Loss

It may be time to adopt the mantra that bald is beautiful, the editors say. The available treatments -- even those that were viewed as very effective -- do have pronounced downsides.

“It’s a deeply personal, devastating issue to many who desperately want to believe that there’s a panacea out there. Sadly, there is no magic bullet.  At the end of the day, the best remedy may actually be acceptance,” Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports, says in a news release.

Close to 60% of women and 67% of men said they sought treatment for their hair loss because they had nothing to lose, but that may not be true, according to the survey.

For example, Propecia needs to be taken for at least three months, and when you stop using it, it may stop working. It can only be used by men, and infrequent side effects may include depression and impotence. Minoxidil also stops working after you stop taking it, and side effects include dry, itchy, or irritated scalp and increased facial hair.  Hair transplants can be pricey, and sometimes the procedure must be repeated.

So what is a balding man or woman to do?

Men were also asked about ways to help mask their baldness, and 65% said wearing a wig or toupee was a very or somewhat effective technique. In addition, 46% said shaving their head works, 46% said dressing better was a good strategy, and 44% said exercising to improve their body helped keep eyes off of their heads.

For now, “the best advice is to use proven entities for hair loss,” Neil Sadick, MD, a dermatologist in private practice at Sadick Dermatology in New York City, tells WebMD. “This includes Propecia, minoxidil, and hair transplantation.”

Advances in Hair Loss Treatment

Stay tuned, Sadick says. Basic science is revealing new ways to address -- and potentially reverse -- hair loss. Some research is pointing toward an inflammatory process that underlies hair loss, suggesting that anti-inflammatory therapies such as steroids may help.

Sadick wrote a book on this topic 10 years ago: Your Hair: Helping to Keep It. What has changed since then?

“Propecia was introduced along with advances in hair transplantation and the use of light sources to stimulate hair growth,” he says. Today’s hair transplants are much more natural looking than the bulky hair plugs of yesteryear, he says. Surgeons can now use individual hair micrografts as opposed to clumps of hair.

“Some men are also looking more positively at baldness,” he says. 

Then and now, “the best bet to prevent getting taken advantage of is to see a doctor who specializes in hair loss, and who will do a thorough evaluation to determine the cause of the hair loss before recommending a treatment,” he says.

Some doctors who are on the front lines of the war against hair loss are surprised by the survey results.

“Our experience continues to show minoxidil to be the most effective medication,” says Robert V. Mandraccia, MD, a plastic surgeon in Fort Myers, Fla.

It is not a quick fix, he says. “It takes time; we suggest nine months to a year to see if it works.”

Manufacturers Speak Out

WebMD contacted Merck & Co., the makers of Propecia, regarding the new survey findings.

“The survey conducted by Consumer Reports, which showed Propecia was the most successful with respondents, supports what has been shown in clinical trials,” says Pamela L. Eisele, a spokeswoman for Merck. “Men who are experiencing male pattern hair loss should talk with a doctor, who can help separate fact from fiction when it comes to hair loss products.”

Joy Pasqualoni, a spokeswoman for Rogaine, which is manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, tells WebMD, “In clinical testing of men’s Rogaine foam, we know it regrew hair in 85% of men after four months of twice daily use."

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