Hair loss: the bald truth

by gabeatkinson / 27 November, 2012
Science has come a long way since the days of egg-yolk massages, so what are the options – and dangers – if you find you’re losing your hair?
Bust of Aeschylus, photo/Thinkstock

Going bald can be a killer. Just consider the plight of ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. Apocryphal as it might be, the “Father of Greek Tragedy” is said to have met his own tragic end when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. Ouch! The eagle got its reward of fresh tortoise flesh. Poor old Aeschylus met his maker. For men nowadays, androgenic alopecia, or male pattern baldness, might not be as dangerous, but it’s still pretty damn depressing. According to clinical psychologist Duncan Thomson, whether we like it or not, our hair affects how others perceive us. “Our hair sends messages to other people about our gender, our individuality, and affects perceptions of our age and attractiveness.

Research suggests we see men with more hair as more dominant, masculine and aggressive. “Losing hair can make men feel old and unattractive and make them think they will be at a disadvantage in both their social and working lives. It can cause genuine distress, especially in younger men who are at an age when they are heavily invested in feeling young and attractive and are at a critical stage in forming relationships, both privately and at work.”

Thomson says men seem to react to losing their hair in one of three main ways: compensation, avoidance or acceptance. “I used to work with a guy who had a ‘weave’ hair transplant and the subject was totally off-limits. He was a nice guy with a sense of humour – but not when it came to comments about his hair. This was especially problematic as it would go a bit strange in strong direct sunlight. He also wore good suits and expensive glasses. I think he was compensating and avoiding.”

Acceptance, on the other hand, is the ability to view the loss of hair as something positive, says Thomson, by appreciating it as a sign of maturity rather than of impending decrepitude. “Men who are able to come to accept hair loss have come to the conclusion that most of the rest of us share: that it might be upsetting for the individual but it just isn’t that important to the rest of us.” For those who do think it’s important, however, there are now DNA tests that can supposedly discover whether you are likely to lose your hair. According to manufacturers of the test, men who are found to have a certain genetic marker have a 70% chance of being “significantly bald” by the time they turn 40.

The test is being marketed as a way of taking preventive action as early as possible. Meanwhile, scientists believe they have made a breakthrough in discovering what causes baldness. Earlier this year, US-based dermatologists announced that a protein, prostaglandin D2, appeared to play a “major role” in instructing follicles to stop producing hair. The scientists, working at Pennsylvania University, are now talking to several drug firms about creating an anti baldness product, and it has been reported it could be on the shelves within two years.


Historian Bronwyn Dalley, who has conducted research into men’s hair, says the search for a cure for baldness is nothing new. “Men have always searched for a cure for their thinning or balding hair and searched for ways to cover it up.” Take the dreaded comb-over, an unsightly fashion that appeared as far back as the 19th century. “Look at Charles Dickens. Even if men were not balding, they would part it way over on one side then comb it over the head. It was a fashion statement – a look that was in vogue.

“Fast forward to the 1970s when the comb-over was an accepted way of compensating for hair loss. No one did a double take on a man with a decent comb-over back then, either. Now we scream running from it. “The comb-over was as common as walk shorts. It was the way of dealing with baldness. Either you let it go or you comb it over, slicking it down with some sort of cream. I’ve seen some pretty terrible ones in Wellington, with men running along in the wind with this big long flop of hair hanging down.”

But the comb-over took a hell of a lot of work to get into place with all the Brylcreem guys had to slap on to make it stick, she says. “It goes against this overwhelming view of New Zealand men in the past that they didn’t care about their appearance, that they were hard men.” Throughout history, a full head of hair has been a sign of health and virility, Dalley says. “In the 18th century, the flouncy, over-the-top wigs that rich men wore – powdered and elaborate – were a statement of wealth and your social class.

“Hair in Western culture has always had a connection with a man’s manhood and virility and vitality. A man with a good bushy head of hair has always been connected with good genes. “Look at the biblical fable of Samson and Delilah. When Delilah cut off Samson’s hair, gone were his virility, his vitality, his strength.”

No wonder, then, that men have been willing to try just about anything to get their locks back, even though you’d have to be pretty desperate to try some of the ancient “remedies” that were touted: oil and chicken pooh, snake oil, an onion rub, a honey and egg-yolk massage. “Even though men are now shaving their heads, I still think for a lot of them, when they start to go bald, it’s something to be ashamed of or feel ostracised for,” Dalley says.

“There was a real pisstake when [former NZ cricketer] Martin Crowe got his hair transplant. It was regarded as a bit of a pansy thing to do.” That stigma of seeking treatment for hair loss still prevails now, she adds. “A lot of guys won’t talk about it. It’s bordering on beauty treatment – perhaps a sign of vanity. There’s something in our society where people say, ‘Just get on with it. What’s the matter with you?’”

Trying to discreetly reclaim what nature had taken away proved the downfall of former New Zealand tennis player Mark Nielsen, who started losing his golden mane in his early twenties. He kept secret that he was taking anti-balding medication, failing to mention it on a drugs declaration at the Australian Open in January 2006. When urine tests revealed finasteride, an active ingredient in some male pattern baldness medication – but prohibited as a potential masking agent for doping – he was banned from tennis for two years.



Despairing men who can’t face cutting their losses and shaving off what remains of their hair have been turning to the pharmaceutical and medical professions to try to reverse nature’s cruelty. There’s an abundance of sprays, solutions, pills, supplements and vitamins that are claimed to restore hair. And if you have the money and fortitude, there’s always the hair transplant route.

Many treatments should be approached with caution, however, and may lead to a loss of money in addition to the loss of hair. Before desperately grasping at expensive treatments, anyone losing their hair should first consider consulting a specialist to ensure their hair loss is properly diagnosed, warns Wellington dermatologist Dr Ian Coutts.

Coutts takes issue with hair treatment clinics that don’t give the patient a proper diagnosis before recommending treatment. Often it will be a skin condition that, if treated, will r
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