Baldness. It’s something that most men dread, whether through fear of losing their looks, or – perhaps – from saying goodbye to their youth. However much we may fear it, however, there is very little we can actually do to stop it happening in the first place, or reverse the process once it’s begun.
Just because we’re relatively powerless, however, doesn’t stop us from worrying about hair loss. We all hope desperately that it won’t happen to us, even though the statistics are against us in this respect. The clear majority of men will suffer from hair loss during their lives: 25% by the time they’re 21, two-thirds by the age of 35, and a hefty 85% by 50.
In this article, we want to answer some of the questions you’ve almost certainly asked yourself: what causes baldness in the first place, when might you start going bald, how can you tell if it’s happening, and is there anything you can actually do about it? To help aid your understanding of the entire process, we’ll also include a breakdown of how hair growth actually works.
This certainly isn’t a comforting topic to talk about, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided. Let’s dive straight in.
Understanding Hair Growth
In order to understand baldness, we believe that it’s useful to know the specifics of how hair grows in the first place. (Something that we also talked about in the past on our article on how long it takes for a beard to grow)
The hair on your head – terminal hair – is actually significantly different to that which grows on your face (androgenic hair), and the extremely fine hair which grows on much of your body (vellus hair).
The difference between head hair and facial hair is particularly striking, given that they grow in such close proximity to each other. Despite this, they have different textures – with facial hair being coarser – and growth cycles of different durations (even if the actual stages are the same).
Let’s take a closer look at the mechanics of how head hair actually grows.
On the top of your head, you have around 100,000 hair follicles (or papillas). Every single hair you grow begins at the very base of one of those follicles. Blood flows into the root, giving the hair the nutrients it needs to grow.
Once it gets to a certain length, the hair will emerge up through the skin. As it does so, it’ll pass through a sebaceous gland, which will subsequently coat the hair with sebum oil that nourishes it. By the time it actually passes through the skin, the hair is actually already dead.
Hair doesn’t grow continuously. Instead, it happens in three distinct stages.
The first is called anagen. This is the true growth stage, when the magic really happens, with roughly 85% of a hair’s growth occurring during this time. This stage only continues for a year at most with your facial hair, but – when it comes to the hair on your head – it can last for anywhere from two to eight years.
Next comes the catagen phase, which is far less interesting. This is a transitional stage, during which the hair stops growing and the hair follicle can begin to renew itself. This is much briefer than the anagen phase, lasting only 4-6 weeks.
Finally, there’s the telogen phase. The party is really over by this point. The hair will have completely stopped growing now, and won’t do so again for up to two months. When this phase ends, the anagen phase begins all over again, and the new hair will push the old one out.
What Causes Baldness?
Everyone loses some hair, regardless of gender or age. Typically, people will lose between 50-100 hairs every day. That may sound like a lot, but firstly, you’ve got some 100,000 hair follicles on your head, and secondly, it’s simply part of the aforementioned hair growth cycle.
Genuine hair loss is a different matter entirely, though. Baldness occurs when the hair follicles shrink, and the hair growth cycle becomes gradually shorter. New hairs that do grow are thinner and shorter than their forebears, and – eventually – the follicle ceases entirely to produce new hairs.
There are a few main factors which cause baldness. Unfortunately, most of them are out of your hands.
One of the more common, and frustrating, examples of this is simple genetics. If your family predecessors lost their hair, then unfortunately you’re naturally more likely to lose your hair too. You will also likely follow the pattern of hair loss that they did, in terms of the age and speed at which it happens.
Another reason for baldness is hormonal changes. You’ve probably already heard that men with higher levels of testosterone are more predispositioned to lose their hair.
This is because cells in your scalp will automatically convert the testosterone into another hormone – called dihydrotestosterone – which shrinks the follicles. This, in turn, will lead to a gradual thinning of the hair which does grow, and – eventually – to baldness. On the flip-side of that coin, higher testosterone levels do also lead to stronger facial hair growth; you might lose the hair on your head, but you can still look forward to enjoying a full, impressive grown beard!
Simple age also plays a big part in hair loss. As we mentioned earlier on, the vast majority of men will experience it as they grow older, and the follicles naturally start to decrease in number. A few lucky guys may benefit from excellent genetics, and enjoy a healthy head of hair throughout their lives, but the chances are certainly against it.
So, those are the main natural reasons why men suffer from hair loss. Now, let’s look at some of the more common environmental causes.
Over time, scientists have become increasingly convinced that a man’s lifestyle will have an effect on his hair loss. One of the most common causes of this type of hair loss is heavy stress, which can be brought on by some kind of trauma, whether physical or emotional. Fortunately, however, this is only temporary, and your hair should recover in tandem with your mental state.
Other lifestyle factors which may play a role in baldness include excessive alcohol consumption or smoking, and a poor diet. Your hair needs protein to grow long and strong, after all; if you’re not getting enough protein through your food, then your hair will suffer.
When Might You Start Going Bald?
As you might expect, it’s extremely difficult to put a specific figure on when you may start to lose your hair. Quite random factors – like genetics and testosterone levels – play such a large role, after all.
At a basic level, it’s true that as you get older, the chances will increase. Some men will start to see signs of male pattern baldness as soon as their late teens, or early twenties. Most – if they are going to suffer from it – will begin experiencing the symptoms in their mid-to-late twenties.
By the time you’re reaching middle age, you’ll almost certainly have noticed thinning hair, or a receding hairline.
Signs That You May Be Going Bald
Technically, there are some things you can do which might help to slow the balding process. Because of this, it’s useful to be able to recognise when you’re starting to go bald, so that you can take action as soon as possible.
We touched on this earlier, but if you notice some hairs on your pillow in the morning, or in the shower after you’ve washed your hair, it does not necessarily mean that you’re going bald. Everybody loses dozens of hairs each day, as a natural part of their hair’s growth cycle.
For true balding, the first place you should look is the crown of your head. This is the most common area in which hair loss begins. Use two mirrors, your phone’s camera or a friend to check. If the hair up there seems thinner than it is elsewhere on your head, the balding process may have begun.
Along with the crown, the other most common place where balding begins is the hairline, at the front of your head. It can be difficult to spot a receding hairline, simply because you see yourself in the mirror every day. If the hairline is forming a clear “M” shape, however, then this can be considered a sign.
Finally, some people do experience their hair falling out in clumps. Whilst this is obviously unpleasant, it tends to be a symptom of stress, or even a side effect of medication, rather than an indicator of actual balding.
How Long Does It Take to Go Bald?
Generally speaking, this is another question to which there’s no fixed answer. Again, it will depend in large part on factors like genetics and hormone levels.
That being said, there is an (admittedly broad) timeline for male pattern baldness to go through its process. It typically takes between five and 25 years for the first signs of hair loss to progress into baldness.
At the lower end of the scale, that’s still obviously a decent period of time. Even five years is long enough to try out a range of products which may slow the process, or simply come to terms with your hair loss.
Whatever happens – however unfortunate your genetics may be – you’re not simply going to go bald overnight.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
This is very much a grey area, to say the least. There are a huge range of opportunistic companies and salespeople out there who recognise just how much men would like to stop the balding process, and market products to them accordingly.
Many of these products, unfortunately, are little more than proverbial snake oil. They will have little to no effect on your hair loss. Before spending any money whatsoever on hair loss products – particularly if they’re not well-known – we’d recommend thoroughly researching the ingredients, and seeing whether the medical community believes they actually have any effect.
With that said, there are a few popular products which do enjoy a good reputation.
Minoxidil – which you may know by its branded name as Rogaine – is the most publicised product. Minoxidil is a form of medication which you can buy over the counter, that has been known to slow hair loss and even promote hair growth. It typically takes between four months and a year of usage before you see results, and its effects will wear off if you stop taking it.
Another popular medication is finasteride (you may know it as Propecia), which also slows the rate of hair loss. Finasteride works by actually suppressing the production of the hormones which cause balding. Again, its positive effects will cease when you stop taking it.
You can also try a range of hair loss shampoos as these normally have the lowest risk factor when it comes to your health and also when it comes to hurting your pocket.
These options are at the cheaper end of the spectrum. If you’re willing to shell out, of course, then there are some more heavy-duty solutions you can try.
The best-known example of this is hair transplants; a favourite amongst celebrities who are thinning on top. Hair transplants work by taking hair from a more productive area of your scalp, and inserting it into a bald or balding patch. This requires multiple treatments, and a hefty cash outlay, but it’s probably the most effective way to reverse the balding process.
Balding is one of those uncomfortable facts of life, which men simply must confront. However much we hope it won’t happen to us, the chances are that most of us will experience hair loss during our lives.
How you respond to it is, of course, up to you. Some men change their hairstyle as time goes by, to ensure they look great whilst also adapting to their thinning hair. Others use products, or implement lifestyle changes, to try and slow the balding process. Finally, there are many out there who take a more stoic view, and simply accept the reality of the situation.
We hope that by reading this article, you’ve got a much deeper view of the actual mechanics of hair loss, and how long the process takes. The extent and speed of each man’s hair loss is largely determined by random factors, but lifestyle does play a part, and crucially – if you want to increase your chances of slowing or avoiding hair loss – there are certainly things you can try.
Main image courtesy: Yastremska/BigStock.com