Photobiomodulation and Hair Loss

In my social circle ,there are a lot of bald guys. This is because I spend most of my free time with triathletes, and shaved heads are popular with a disproportionate subset of them. Why not? A shaved head makes it slightly easier to don or remove a bicycle helmet or swim cap. For people with heavy training schedules, a shaved head saves them the time of drying or combing a head of hair. And for those who like to win at all costs, there’s research that shows a shaved head makes you look more dominant. 

But I think for most bald men (and women, for that matter), baldness is not a choice, it’s an illness, and a very widespread one. Half of all men suffer from androgenetic alopecia — the most common type of hair loss — after the age of 40. It also affects 75% of women over 65. A June 2017 article at the site Medical News Today summarizes the most common attitude toward hair loss in its title: “Baldness: How Close Are We to a Cure?”

An overview at WebMD catalogued the existing treatments for hair loss. There are two drugs and a surgical procedure. The two drugs are minoxidil (Rogaine) and finasteride (Propecia). You take minoxidil by massaging it into your scalp twice a day. It works for both men and women. There are arguments over how effective it is, but there’s general agreement that its best use is to slow hair loss rather than reverse it. Finasteride is taken as a pill, and it affects the hormone cycle. It only works for men, and temporary loss of libido is among its side effects. The surgical procedure is hair transplant. It’s difficult to be very hopeful about hair transplant when the WebMD article quotes its expert as advising patients to have “realistic expectations of what can be done to give them a natural appearing hair line.”

There are promising possibilities on the horizon using stem cells and genetic engineering, but it is likely to be some time before treatments hit the market. Taking a different approach, a research team reported in April 2017 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery on using photobiomodulation (PBM). They treated breast cancer patients who had lost hair due to chemotherapy with something called the iGrow Hair Growth System, which is a helmet that shines infrared light on the scalp of the wearer. The patients were divided into two groups. Members of each group were given identical looking helmets, but the helmets of one group dispensed PBM via LEDs, while the helmets of the other group had ordinary incandescent lights. Patients used the helmets for 25 minutes every other day for 24 weeks. The patients with the PBM helmets had 2.6 times the hair growth of the patients who used placebo helmets. So it looks like there could be a “cure” for hair loss in the foreseeable future.

We don’t offer iGrow helmets at Peak Recovery & Health Center, only full-body PBM. Nor do we offer our PBM as a treatment for hair loss. But given the way the research is going, I think if you’re one of those triathletes who likes being bald, you may want to avoid booking too many sessions of it.

Image: “Bald Eagle Head 2” by Tony Hisgett. Creative Commons license. Yes, I know the bald eagle isn’t really bald, but its fierce demeanor may still be one of the reasons that research shows a shaved head makes you look more dominant 🙂