Let's Separate Fact
Myths About the Causes of Baldness
We have heard so many myths and stories about the causes of baldness that it is sometimes hard to know where to start discrediting them. People will blame anything. Since it’s impossible to cover every possible misconception regarding hair loss, we will identify the four major myths.
Mental Stress and Physical Trauma
It is a common, yet mistaken, belief that physical trauma and mental stress, including anguish and fear, cause hair loss. Men are constantly telling us that they didn’t start balding until a daughter started dating, or they began feeling the pressure of financial strain, or they were going through a divorce. Still others swear that their hair loss began after receiving some type of physical blow or trauma to the head, typically the result of an accident. Are these reasons valid? No. Although stress can speed up hair loss, especially in women, it is not the root cause.
From a psychological standpoint, what these people believe has caused their hair loss is actually a delayed reaction to a process that had already begun. In other words, their hair began to thin before the accident or before their daughter started dating. Only afterwards, in a state of heightened awareness from the trauma or stress, did the men start to focus on their thinning hair—and this is a typical psychological reaction.
The Faulty Freeway System
The myth we refer to as the “faulty freeway system” is one of the most prevalent misconceptions about hair loss, and one that is still taught in some barber and beauty schools. This theory is based on the observation that there is less blood flow to the very top of the head compared to the lower portions of the scalp. Because of this supposed “flaw” in the circulatory system—the faulty freeway system—the hair follicles are deprived of necessary nutrients, allowing “toxins” to accumulate. Subsequently, the hair starves and falls out. The theory further proposes that wearing a hat or headgear, which is required by certain occupations, restricts circulation to the head, worsening the already decreased supply of blood. The result? Hair loss.
The blood supply to the scalp is provided by branches of the left and right carotid arteries, which extend upward from the heart, curve around the ears, and continue upward like the branches of a tree to the very top of the head. Therefore, if the circulatory system determined baldness, it would follow that all men and all women would begin to bald in a center line that starts at the top of the head, runs to the frontal hairline, and gradually widens toward the ears. Obviously, this is not how it happens. On the contrary, the earliest sign of common baldness in the majority of men is the thinning of the hair just above the temples. This forms the familiar triangular or “V” recessions on the sides of the hairline called temporal recessions. This area, however, has a greater blood supply than the very top of the head, and yet common baldness begins here.
There are other facts that refute the proposed connection between the circulatory system and hair loss. For instance, as people approach middle age—thirty-five to fifty-five—they tend to develop unwanted hair growth in the eyebrows, ears, and nostrils. How could the circulatory system cause this phenomenon? Is it possible that suddenly in the middle years, without noticeable cause, the blood supply to the ears, nose, and eyebrows increases in all men? It’s possible, but not likely.
One final blow to the reduced blood supply theory is seen in the experiment performed by Dr. Norman Orentreich in 1955. He took a 4-millimeter hair-bearing graft with intact follicles from the back of a patient’s head and a 4-millimeter bald graft from the top of the same patient’s head where extensive hair loss had occurred. Then Dr. Orentreich switched the two grafts, putting the hair-bearing graft in the hole left by the bald graft and vice versa. After observing these grafts over a period of several months, Dr. Orentreich noted that the “hairy” graft flourished in the vast space of baldness, and the bald one remained naked in the sea of hair that surrounded it! If blood supply affects hair loss and/or growth, the hair should have fallen out of the graft on the top of the head. Conversely, hair should have grown in the bald graft placed in the back of the head.
Cleanliness Is Next to Hairiness
According to this theory, a fatal cocktail of excess oil, air pollutants, sebum, and dead cells becomes lodged around the hair shaft, chokes off the hair, and renders it incapable of growth. The obvious question then is, “Why does the hair on the other areas of the head—specifically the sides and back—continue to flourish?” The trichologist, or hair-clinic expert, may explain that these hairs grow in a downward direction, causing the deadly accumulation to slide down the hairs away from the shaft and follicle, thus protecting the hair. But this is simply not true.
The theory that hair loss is caused by a dirty scalp fails to account for both the legions of clean yet bald men, and the multitudes of slovenly men with grimy yet full heads of hair. If this theory were true, populations in countries where the opportunity and resources for personal hygiene are scarce would experience rapid hair loss in both male and female inhabitants. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If the whole scalp is dirty, wouldn’t the entire scalp bald at the same time?
Developing good scalp and hair hygiene, including daily shampooing, is a desirable grooming habit that will make your existing hair more attractive. However, it will neither prevent hair fallout nor cause it to regrow.
You Are What You Eat
The “you are what you eat” or “vitamin supplement” theory proposes that the hair follicles of men who experience hair loss are deprived of essential nutrients, causing the follicles to die. This theory focuses on dietary supplements of vitamins and trace minerals, such as zinc, the amino acid cystine, and the B-complex vitamin biotin, as the best means of combating baldness.
The trichologist at a hair studio, as well as misleading advertisements, will say that laboratory research has shown hair, which is composed primarily of protein, must be fed certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids for growth. Typically, the argument states that the average American male’s diet is sorely lacking in these critical nutrients. Consequently, he suffers from baldness.
Is it possible for a nutritional deficiency to cause hair loss? Yes, but this deficiency must be so severe that the person is literally dying from lack of food. The nutritional deficiencies occasionally found in the average, healthy American citizen, such as short-term low levels of magnesium or zinc, is not the same as acute clinical starvation. Furthermore, clinical starvation does not and cannot cause hair loss in the patterns recognized as common male pattern baldness. Instead, it causes a general or diffuse hair loss all over the entire scalp. Moreover, hair loss is never the only symptom of clinical malnutrition and it is usually one of the last. Other symptoms include but are not limited to conditions or diseases of the internal organs, teeth, gums, skin, and nails. Therefore, if you have diffuse unpatterned hair loss, but no other signs of acute clinical starvation, it is safe to assume that a nutritional deficiency is not the cause of your hair loss.
Learning From the Inuit
Perhaps the Inuit people who inhabit the Arctic regions provide the best example of a culture that negates the common baldness myths. Inuit males rarely wash their hair and wear hats most of the time. They also frequently apply whale and fish oils to their hair for sheen, which is considered pleasing in their culture. In addition, their restricted diet, consisting of mostly protein and fat, lacks the variety of foods to qualify as balanced. This is evidenced by the relatively low life expectancy of the culture, in which the average Inuit male lives to sixty years of age.
Subject to every mythic cause of baldness, the Inuit male is a victim of poor circulation due to cold temperature, further decreased blood supply resulting from the wearing of hats, a sebum-clogged scalp, and a diet lacking in essential vitamins—all of which, according to the myths, should produce an unusually high rate of baldness. However, like others with similar racial characteristics, the Inuit have much less chance of experiencing baldness than the average Caucasian male.
From The Hair Replacement Revolution by Dr. James Harris and Dr. Emanuel Merritt (Square One Publishers). Reprinted by permission.