For the millions of people suffering from androgenic alopecia, hair loss medication can offer welcome assistance, halting the balding process and, in some cases, encouraging new growth. But do they provide a cure or a temporary reprieve?

How does hair loss medication work?

In the UK, there are two medications available on prescription from the NHS: minoxidil and finasteride. It is not entirely clear how minoxidil works but it appears to widen the hair follicle, thereby producing a thicker strand of hair. It also prolongs the growing (anagen) phase of the hair cycle, resulting in more hairs grown. It was originally used to treat very high blood pressure as, taken orally, it dilates small arteries. One of the side effects was hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth). Drug manufacturers spotted the potential for an alternative use and created the topical lotion that is used for hair loss today. Similarly, finasteride started its journey with a different purpose: a treatment for an enlarged prostate. It works by inhibiting the action of an enzyme that converts testosterone into the hormone DHT which, in men with a certain genetic susceptibility, tends to miniaturise the hair follicles.

And when you stop taking hair loss drugs…?

Both drugs can produce impressive results but these do not last beyond the course of the medication. If your hair loss is a result of pregnancy, or after a general anaesthetic as happens in some people, then it is usually a temporary loss; in these cases, minoxidil can speed up the regrowth and you will not lose your hair again once you stop. However, if you are using minoxidil or finasteride to counter the progress of male or female pattern baldness, you should be aware that once you stop using your hair loss medication you will begin to notice the thinning process once more.

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By Ian Watson

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