Some people can make the bald look work. Actor Yul Brynner made a shiny scalp seem dashing. Basketball dynamo Michael Jordan's hairless head looked great both on and off the court. And pop star Moby has turned a bald dome into a striking fashion statement. But for many, the loss of one's hair is a devastating sign of encroaching old age. Male pattern baldness affects 40 million adult males in the United States. But men aren't the only ones losing their hair: Approximately 20 million American women suffer from some type of hair loss. The causes vary widely—genetics, stress, diet and geography, among countless other factors, all play a part—and the so-called solutions are just as plentiful.
One thing is clear, however. The mainstream shampoos and conditioners that claim to be helpful to your hair and scalp are often not the most beneficial products. Indeed, they may even aggravate hair loss.
"I've routinely found that patients who use chemically based shampoos will often have hair-loss problems," says Christopher Deatherage, N.D., who runs a naturopathic practice in Drury, Mo. "The skin is an organ—a very large organ—and the absorption of any chemicals [into it] can have a very negative effect."
The effects these chemicals can have on healthy hair growth surprise even longtime hair care veterans. "I started looking into the ingredients that went into shampoos, into skin care products and makeup, and was shocked," says Peter Lamas, founder of Lamas Beauty International and a hair care professional for more than 40 years. "Your skin is basically like a sponge—it absorbs all kinds of things, both good and bad. If you look at the ingredients of mainstream shampoos and the ingredients of your dishwasher detergent, they're essentially the same. And even a lot of the better ones—they're mostly water."
Karen Ress, director of sales at Tampa, Fla.-based Aubrey Organics, agrees. "Every manufacturer produces a product that helps to cleanse the hair and the scalp," she says. "There are millions of them out there. On any shelf in any store you can buy a shampoo that's anywhere from $
But there are natural alternatives that can provide all of the cleansing benefits mainstream products claim to have, as well as encourage healthy hair growth—even slowing the process of hair loss.
"As long as you have hair in the follicle and it hasn't completely come out, you can use ingredients that will help to promote hair growth," Ress says. She stresses, however, that there is no miracle cure for hair loss. "[These ingredients won't] regrow hair, but they will promote hair growth. Once the follicle has closed and the root is gone, you can't regrow anything, I don't care how hard you try."
Many of the ingredients Ress speaks of come from China. "[He shou wu] is a Chinese herb that has energizing scalp benefits," she says. "The Chinese have been using it for years." A study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine in 1986 showed that the herb could slow several symptoms and signs associated with aging—including hair loss.
Deatherage says that he hasn't seen many clinical studies dealing with he shou wu, but that in his personal and clinical experience, he's seen its positive effects on people suffering from hair loss. "I'm a big fan of science, but I'm also a big fan of tradition," he says. "The fact that herbs like he shou wu have been used for hundreds of years can't be dismissed."
The herb—which literally translates as "Mr. He Hair Black"—is one of the primary ingredients in Aubrey's new Men's Stock line, which features shampoo, conditioner and hair gel.
Another ingredient included is biotin, which Ress says has been found to strengthen the hair shaft. "We also use ginseng, another ingredient that can stimulate the scalp," she says. "It acts more as a tonic on the scalp and helps with blood circulation. [Ingredients] that get the blood circulating help to stimulate anything, whether it be on the skin or the scalp."
A study published in 1996 in Phytotherapy Research found that ginseng promoted hair growth activity among test mice.
Lamas Beauty's Chinese Herb Hair and Scalp Stimulating Shampoo contains he shou wu, as well as a host of other Chinese herbs that have been used traditionally to encourage healthy hair growth.
"These Chinese herbs can get rid of fungus and dandruff and can help hair grow back, if there's a surviving hair follicle," Lamas says. "In order to have the healthiest hair, you need good blood circulation in your scalp and oxygen available. When your scalp is too dry or tight and starts to shed, that's because you're not getting enough oxygen and blood circulation to the roots. The herbs and certain amino acids we use stimulate the circulation system and in turn strengthen the roots of your hair. We've had a lot of testimonials from customers telling us that their hair has become thicker and healthier after they started using the product, which is great because that's exactly what I wanted to do."
Deatherage agrees that using natural shampoos and conditioners can help put the brakes on the hair-loss process. But he recommends that anyone suffering from hair loss get a diagnosis from a dermatologist or a naturopath. "If you're going to self-treat, it's important that you work off a diagnosis," he says. "That way, you can pinpoint the source of the problem and find out what treatments are best for you."
Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Next month: Herbs and supplements for healthy hair.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 38