Plantur 39 Phyto-Caffeine Shampoo is being heavily advertised on UK television at the moment. The advert is well made but it made my eyebrow raise a little when I first saw it. Surely they weren’t claiming that their product could promote hair growth? It didn’t take long for the advert to come around again. This time I paid attention, and on second viewing I realised that they didn’t actually make that claim at all.
However, they were describing it as a caffeine shampoo. Or rather, it is a phyto-caffeine shampoo. Phyto as a prefix simply means plant derived. As everyone knows, caffeine comes from coffee beans. So yes, it is phyto-caffeine. Chemists can synthesise caffeine in the laboratory, though it is much harder and more expensive than to simply extracting it from coffee beans. So drawing attention to its origin hardly seems much of a deal.
But the reason I misunderstood the intention of the advert when I originally watched it is that caffeine shampoos are believed by a great many people to prevent or even reverse hair loss. If you go online you’ll soon find people talking about this. So the makers of this product are promoting the fact that this shampoo contains caffeine to take advantage of this perception. They have done it completely legally of course, because they are not making any claim.
They are a bit less coy on their website. Here they point out that hair loss is due to hormonal imbalance. They state that caffeine can affect hormones. And they refer to a test carried out that shows that caffeine is retained in hair follicles up to 24 hours after the shampoo has been applied. Again, they stop short of actually suggesting that the shampoo can affect hair growth. None of the facts presented are untrue – the study isn’t actually published but it isn’t saying anything that is hard to believe. Caffeine does penetrate the skin easily and hair follicles do hold on to things so that is all plausible enough.
But they don’t mention having done any tests for the shampoo that show it affects hair growth and don’t claim that it will have this effect. So they are on the right side of the law. They aren’t making a claim for which they have no evidence. But they are dropping a bit of a hint. And judging by online reviews, it is the effect on hair growth that interests users. Reviewers on the Boots website and Amazon all focus on hair loss. Many find the product beneficial and give it high ratings. It doesn’t work for others, and they mark it down accordingly. It may not be directly marketed as a shampoo for hair loss but that seems to be what consumers are treating it as.
So does it work? Can it work? Caffeine drinking has been linked to hair loss – though to causing it rather than curing it. There has been a lot of work on caffeine’s penetration into the skin, but this is largely because it is a convenient model drug rather than because there is that much interest in actually delivering it across the skin. Indeed there is even a paper that looks very similar to the unpublished study the Plantur 39 website describes. There are also a lot of papers that look at its interactions with hormones.
What I haven’t been able to find is any actual clinical evidence that caffeine in a shampoo can have any effect – one way or the other – on hair loss. If any work has been done on this it has been done very discretely. Given how profitable a product that could genuinely claim to promote hair growth would be it is rather surprising that nobody has done a proper trial.
Some of the testimonials online are very convincing. But there is no real way of knowing whether these people are typical of the population as a whole. Caffeine might work really well in only 1% of the population for all we know. Or the people reporting the good results might just have had a strong dose of placebo effect. It isn’t totally impossible that they are simply lying – it’s not as if we know them personally.
So whether or not it actually works is pretty much a much a matter of opinion. Maybe it does. But there is certainly no proof. In the absence of any strong evidence my opinion is worth no more than anybody else’s. I’ll keep an open mind. But if I had to place a bet I’d bet against it working.
Plast Reconstr Surg. 2013 May;131(5):794e-801e. The contribution of endogenous and exogenous factors to male alopecia: a study of identical twins. Gatherwright J, Liu MT, Amirlak B, Gliniak C, Totonchi A, Guyuron B.