Are Personal Care Products Making Men Bald?

Are Personal Care Products Making Men Bald?
Has this man overdone the shampoo?

This was a question posed to me by a journalist on the Daily Telegraph.  The answer is of course no, but I’ll get onto that later.  First this is quite an interesting example of how stories like this originate.  Here is the full text of the e-mail I was sent.

“We’re running a piece today that looks at the potential danger of male hair care products after a survey revealed that 22 per cent of all men are worried that the gels, waxes and sprays they expose their hair to may be causing them to go bald. We were wondering if we could shoot a couple of questions across to you about the safety standards of haircare products?”

I get a lot of enquiries like this from journalists of various types.  I usually try to help them.  Most of them seem to be freelancers and it doesn’t take too much time to respond to an e-mail.  They don’t often use what I give them so it all feels like a bit of a waste of time.  I don’t get contacted directly by the lizard creatures who actually make the editorial decisions so I try to be polite.  But I have to say that I loathe the print press and I really don’t enjoy helping them.

I am particularly disappointed by the Telegraph. The Telegraph used to be a substantial read.  I can remember back in the eighties picking it as a paper that could be relied upon to have enough interesting material to sustain a two hour train journey.  It used to have the best science coverage by far.  I had a look at it today following this enquiry and found it to be appalling. If you are genuinely interested in being informed about what is and isn’t good for you I think you’ll find that there is much better information available for free online than you’ll get even from the so called quality press.  I think it is now a misnomer in the case of the Telegraph.

It is a great shame because quality is something that people will always pay for, and if the newspapers concentrated on creating stuff worth reading I for one would much prefer to read it on paper and would happily pay for it.   As it is I regard Fleet Street as a national embarrassment and I am just hoping that they all go bust as soon as possible.

In that spirit, to avoid anyone having to buy a copy here are my verbatim replies to this enquiry. You will see that there was a clear agenda to the questions – but you can make your own mind up.

– Is it possible that hair products on the market are causing damage to men’s scalps, and their hair-growing facilities?
It is very unlikely indeed.  There are are only a handful of chemicals that are used in cosmetics that are even likely to penetrate the skin in the first place.  Affecting hair growth positively or negatively is a tough challenge and even hard line pharmaceuticals like Minoxidil don’t have dramatic effects.
– In your experience, have you ever come across any waxes, gels or hairsprays that contain potentially dangerous compounds?
No.  Since the early nineties all cosmetic products have had to have a written assessment by a suitably qualified person so it would be quite unlikely for something to slip through.  In general despite what the marketing would have you believe men’s hair product formulations are pretty conservative and there are not many new chemicals introduced into this sector.
– How could worrying chemicals affect men’s hair? What particular compounds would you be alarmed by finding in a hair product?
I’d predict the most likely culprit in men’s hair products would be lead.  Lead acetate used to be used as a hair dye but was banned in Europe.  It is steadily being banned around the world but is still legal in some countries.  The logic for banning it was that it was dangerous for people obliged to handle it occupationally like factory workers and hairdressers.  But it worked well so I wouldn’t be surprised to see people trying to import it now we are much more global.
There have been issues with lead based synthetic dyes being passed off as henna.  This was something that Trading Standards Officers picked up and put a stop to, but it was small scale and didn’t involve mainstream cosmetic distributors.
– Would it be possible that dangerous products have ‘slipped through the net, so to speak? Or is it unlikely that any products on the market could detrimentally affect men’s hair-growing abilities?
I can’t really see any incentive to use anything dangerous, with the possible exception of lead acetate.  There might be somebody somewhere who is simultaneously clever enough to come up with a great product but ignorant enough not to realise the risks.
– Are there any products that may be damaging if more than the recommended amount is applied to hair regularly?
Continually re-dying your hair might make you more likely to develop an allergic reaction to the chemicals used in them.  But the risk would still be pretty low.
– If you can think of anything else pertinent to this subject, please feel free to add it here.
I’m a chemist and I don’t find chemicals particularly scary in general.  But hair products in any case represent a pretty low level of exposure to chemicals compared to what we eat and what we breathe.
In fact the article when it came out was a very fair representation of what I had said and was a model of fair and objective journalism.  That was good, though it spoiled my plan of tearing strips off the sensationalism of the press.


But to answer the big question this enquiry posed, it would be really surprising to discover that any commonly used cosmetic ingredient was having any effect at all on hair growth either stimulating it or inhibiting it.   Hair growth is something that is controlled by the body’s endocrine system which is controlled by the brain.  The hair growth process itself occurs deep down in the skin.  It is hard work to have any effect on it from the outside.
It isn’t totally impossible.  There is a pharmaceutical active called minoxidil that has been proven to be effective, though I think that it is still not as effective as most of its users would like.   I have seen data for a couple of natural products that seem to have some beneficial effects on hair growth too.  Preventing hair growth is just as difficult and I have not seen anything at all that has convinced me that it works for this application.
This is something that might well change in the near future.  As the human genome gets decoded, studied and understood I think there is a good chance that hair loss might become something that can be easily treated at home.  But for now I have to confess that the cosmetic industry has little to offer that will do any good.  But it is pretty unlikely it has done any harm either.

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