Medical research over the past three decades has come a long way in understanding male pattern baldness. There now are medications available that stop the balding process and sometimes can stimulate barren hair follicles to grow new hair. These medications, most commonly finasteride, work as long as they are taken. In fact, they are designed for long-term multi-year use. Once discontinued though, the pattern baldness will continue its destructive work on the scalp.
However, a cure to baldness — in the sense that it would make pattern baldness disappear or even reverse the hair loss that already happened — doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least. Gene therapy is still in an early stage, but it holds some promise that one day the genetic structure of hair follicle stem cells can be changed. Thousands of stem cells (dermal papillae) sit at the bottom of each hair follicle (you have 80,000 to 120,000 follicles on your head) and all of them are responsible for growing a single strand of hair. So, a lot of cells would have to be fixed for each single hair.
Ultimately, the purpose of ongoing efforts is to create laboratory hair farms that use stem cells from blood and skin to grow hair follicles loaded with plenty of active dermal papillae. Those could then be implanted on the scalp. Many challenges will need to be resolved first before such a cure could ever become commercial. For example, getting implanted follicles to grow hair all in one direction is tricky, and the implanted cells may still fall victim to pattern baldness, just like their natural predecessors. Of course, at first such treatment would probably also be awfully expensive.
One day in the future human ingenuity will find a way to cure male pattern baldness. You may think now: good news for my grandsons but what about me?
Well, firstly, you are not alone. Around 80 percent of white males start losing hair after they’ve turned 50, and for many men that happens much earlier. For ethnicities other than Caucasians the prevalence of pattern hair loss in men is 50 percent.
Given how common androgenic alopecia is, it doesn’t surprise that the pharma industry has invested heavily into developing effective medications. There currently are two FDA-approved drugs in the United States that tackle pattern balding and have a pretty decent track record in terms of treatment success and side effects.
Finasteride, which is marketed by Merck & Co. as a prescription drug under the name of Propecia (also available in generic versions), is probably the most popular and extensively researched hair loss treatment. Finasteride is taken as a 1mg oral tablet once per day. Long-term clinical studies (some going as long as 10 years) have demonstrated that finasteride is effective and only has mild to moderate side effects. For some 85 percent of men using finasteride the balding will stop within a few months. Nearly 65 percent of them even experience new hair growth. Finasteride only protects your hair against androgenic alopecia as long as it’s taken.
Another drug, dutasteride, comes from the same family of pharmaceuticals as finasteride and has also proven to be effective against hair loss. However, dutasteride hasn’t yet received approval from the FDA for patter hair loss treatment. Perhaps it will sometime in the future.
The 2nd FDA-approved option to treat male pattern baldness is minoxidil, which more commonly is known under its proprietary name Rogaine. It’s available as a topical spray or liquid for direct use on the scalp and it accelerates your hair growth. So, it doesn’t stop pattern baldness but makes hair in healthy follicles grow faster. Minoxidil often can be prescribed together with finasteride, as the two medications complement each other well.
If you think finasteride or minoxidil could be right for you, seek more advice from a dermatologist or your regular doctor.