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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Human hair can be really tricky to grow. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with androgenetic alopecia or another form of hair loss, we’re guessing you already know this and are curious if stem cell therapies might be your pathway to new hair follicles.
Stem cell research — specifically, stem cell hair restoration research — is a growing and complicated field. While its potential for hair regeneration is seemingly endless, the reality of anything resembling a proven pathway is still in the proverbial test tube phase.
Below, we’ll share some basics about stem cell treatments and their effectiveness, along with the potential risks, costs and controversies associated with trying to treat hair loss this way.
Stem cells aren’t science fiction — though SciFi might be what introduces many of us to the idea. And while hair cloning seems like a cool and plausible way to treat baldness, it’s not exactly the “next big thing” in the world of hair loss.
Why not? The answer lies in some of the facts Marvel and DC left on the cutting room floor.
Though the last few decades have hosted much discussion about the ethics of stem cell use, the modern reality is far from controversial.
Stem cells from the human body exist in both adults and embryos. Harvesting them from fetal tissues isn’t really how things are done anymore.
Stem cells are essentially any cells that haven’t been assigned a purpose yet. These cells exist in various tissues and can develop into any cell type of an organism. They can also self-renew.
If you’re thinking of superheroes who can regenerate, you’re not exactly missing the mark. One way to explain the abilities of SciFi characters like Wolverine or Captain America would be to say they have really, really active stem cells that can develop at super speeds.
Stem cell hair transplants can happen in several ways. But generally, stem cells are harvested from autologous tissues — tissues from your own body.
In any case, they’re typically harvested under local anesthesia using a circular blade. The “punch biopsy” is a puncture procedure that accesses the subcutaneous fascia layer of the skin — where your hair follicles live.
After the cells are harvested, a centrifuge separates unneeded parts of the sample from the stem cells to create a cell suspension.
The solution is then injected into areas of the scalp where the stem cells will be converted into follicular cells, theoretically stimulating new hair growth.
The good news for stem cell treatments is that the recovery time is often quite quick.
A traditional hair transplant that takes skin grafts can require days or weeks of healing in the donor area. But there’s very little cutting or surgical damage to the harvest site or the area of hair loss with stem cells.
Hair transplant surgery also means a risk of scarring. This may not happen with stem cell harvesting, but it can leave bruises similar to what a liposuction surgery does when removing adipose tissue (fat cells).
In fact, fat cells have been used as a source of stem cells in several procedures, so lipo is more than a close comparison — it’s the same procedure.
In other words, the procedure will generally heal leaving little to no sign it ever happened. Healing time is likely quick for this type of procedure, as it’s not super invasive. However, depending on the exact retrieval technique, recovery time may be a little longer.
Most stem cell treatments aren’t FDA-approved. This means any stem cell hair transplants will be considered cosmetic treatments, investigational therapies or clinical trials — and not covered by your insurance.
The price of stem cell hair transplant varies greatly. The best way to find out how much these treatment options cost is to talk to a hair transplant specialist with a free online consultation.
The reality is, there’s simply not enough data to give you an idea of the success rate of stem cell injections for hair loss — regardless of whether the condition is due to androgenic alopecia or something else. Most of the data is anecdotal at this point and will remain that way for some time.
We’ll share a number of positive study results with you. But bear in mind the potential of stem cells is far from proven, and the studies thus far have been small.
Here are a couple of promising studies:
One study of 11 individuals aged 38 to 61 reported a 29 percent increase in hair density with stem cell treatment.
In a study with 22 participants (half men, half women), those who got stem cell treatment reported significant increases in hair growth compared to a placebo. But some adverse events were noted, including post-procedural pain.
Modern stem cell therapy isn’t really concerned with ethical questions surrounding embryonic stem cells — especially since the types of cells used in things like hair treatment are usually harvested from your own body.
That’s a relief for anyone who doesn’t want to touch the question of when personhood begins with a 10-foot pole.
That said, there are other concerns about this type of procedure. For one, it’s not FDA-approved for most of the ways it’s used today. Also, huge risks are associated with going through untrustworthy purveyors.
The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) warns: “Some patients may be vulnerable to stem cell treatments that are illegal and potentially harmful.”
Of course, there are pros and cons to any hair loss treatment, procedure or surgery. Still, it’s always best to speak with a licensed health professional when weighing your options.
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Since research is ongoing, we can’t give you a thorough list of side effects or risks. However, complications from the harvesting and injection procedures could include pain, infection or serious tissue injury if they aren’t performed poorly.
If you’re considering a stem cell hair treatment, it’s best to discuss the individual risks associated with your provider’s procedure ahead of time so you’re informed when you make your decision.
Or maybe you’ll go with another approach to hair loss treatment.
Your best hair loss solution might not involve surgery or potentially painful procedures.
Androgenetic alopecia goes by many names: male pattern hair loss, female pattern baldness and about a dozen others. It affects everyone — men and women, young and old — and despite advancements in medical science, there’s no cure.
But several treatment approaches actually work.
Various hair loss treatments are available. They include:
Many hair loss treatments are available online from Hims, making it easy to explore and access various options.
Generic for Rogaine®, this FDA-approved over-the-counter version of topical minoxidil is used for regrowth on the crown of the head.
This is the FDA-approved dynamic duo. When used together, men saw better results in clinical trials compared to using either alone.
If you’re looking for something effective but don’t want too many steps in your routine, this once-a-day pill could be right for you.
Clinically proven to regrow hair in 3-6 months, no pills required.
Your hairline may not look like it used to. Whether that’s due to thinning hair associated with male pattern baldness or another type of alopecia like telogen effluvium or alopecia areata, stem cell therapies might help.
Or they might not.
Figuring out the right way to deal with hair loss is about finding a treatment that suits your unique needs.
Here’s what to know (and what to do):
Stem cell hair therapies may offer hair loss solutions for men who haven’t responded to other treatment types.
However, they’re not FDA-approved and haven’t been substantially demonstrated to work…yet.
If stem cell hair transplant or hair restoration doesn’t sound like the right choice for you right now, numerous other treatments are available both over-the-counter and by prescription.
Your best bet is to consult a healthcare professional or hair loss expert to learn more about treatments like minoxidil and discuss what might be best for you.
Ready to do something about male pattern baldness? We can help with telehealth treatments, education and more. Reach out today.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.