Drugs and topical treatments for hair loss
- One obvious solution is to attack the very chemical that destroys human hair growth – dihydrotestosterone (DHT). Preventing this chemical being produced or appearing in the scalp of hair loss sufferers will stop them losing their hair. There are currently only two hair loss drugs available over the counter in the UK that use this strategy and have some physical effect. They are called Finasteride and Minoxidil, but often also have other brand names. These drugs can help to prolong the life of intact hair follicles. However, it’s simply impossible to reanimate dead cells. Both drugs have been configured to block DHT, a metabolite of the hormone testosterone, or, where possible, to counteract its effects (check out our explanation of what causes male pattern baldness to find out more about this).
- Products which contain these drugs (e.g. the brand known as Propecia – other products are available) can have a range of serious side effects. And, most importantly, they will only work as long as you keep taking them. Once you stop using these drugs, your hair loss will continue as before. Any hair that you retained with the help of the drug will simply fall out once its effect has worn off.
- Please note that Finasteride and Minoxidil don’t only come in the form of pills but can also be an ingredient in certain lotions or creams.
- IMPORTANT NOTE: The makers of these products clearly list the various side effects on the packaging. Please always read these carefully before taking any drug, so that if health problems do occur, you can recognise them quickly and prevent any further damage to your health. It is also important to be aware of the fact that the effect of any drug you take will depend on your general state of health, any pre-existing health issues and other medications you take, so long term health issues should be considered before you decide to start using this drug.
Listed side effects
- Minoxidil: In some cases Minoxidil can cause cardiac problems, tiredness, redness, itching, unwanted hair growth elsewhere on the body, severe allergic reactions (rash, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue), chest pain, dizziness, fainting, fast heartbeat, sudden, unexplained weight gain, swollen hands or feet and hair loss.
- Finasteride (Propecia): This drug can cause a sudden loss of libido, erectile dysfunction and the growth of breast tissue. In some cases the side effects persisted even after men had stopped taking Finasteride.
Below we have included other prescription drugs (used in combatting hair loss, often for more specialised causes such as Alopecia) available mainly in the USA, but some can be obtained in the UK.
Cyclosporine is used to suppress the immune system in psoriasis and other immune-mediated skin conditions. Although cyclosporine helps hair regrowth in alopecia areata, the risks of using it may outweigh the benefits, as oral cyclosporine can suppress the immune system and increase the risk of serious infection. Other common adverse effects are hypertension and renal impairment, but these are usually reversible.
Spironolactone is an aldosterone antagonist and a potassium-sparing diuretic used to treat high blood pressure. Spironolactone is FDA-approved as a diuretic but has not been approved as a treatment for alopecia. It has an “off label” use in alopecia, more often for female pattern baldness. It inhibits the production of androgens and also blocks the action of androgens at the receptor sites.
Spironolactone can cause decreased libido, impotence and gynecomastia (excessive development of breast tissue in men) and is therefore used mainly in women. It can also cause accumulation of potassium in the body (hyperkalemia), which can lead to other serious health problems.
Common side effects in women are breast tenderness, irregular periods, and mood swings. Women of childbearing age should use effective contraception as there is a possible risk of feminisation of the male foetus, should they become pregnant while taking spironolactone.
Cimetidine is a histamine blocker which is mainly used to treat gastrointestinal problems, such as reflux and gastric ulcers. Cimetidine is also known to act as an anti-androgen. It has been used to treat hirsutism in women and studies have shown promising results in treating androgenetic alopecia in women. However, it is not recommended for men as the high doses of cimetidine required to achieve hair growth can cause feminising effects and sexual side effects.
- Returning to the most common products available here in the UK, Minoxidil and Finasteride, the prices for these types of drugs and lotions vary. They generally cost somewhere between £60 and £100 per month. As stated by the manufacturers, the products only have an effect if taken continuously month after month, so companies supplying them often require a one-year contract that commits customers to the product, whatever the result.
- Low to poor. These drugs stop hair loss, but can’t reverse it. The hair that is retained is usually short and thin, strong and full hair rarely returns. This means that customers may achieve more ‘fluff’ than hair. Many websites and adverts show customers who have used the products to achieve less visible scalp skin. Parts of the scalp that are already bald when customers start taking the drug will not re-grow any hair.