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Whether it's long, short, poker straight or bushy enough to be mistaken for a bird's nest, one thing's for sure - losing your hair packs an emotional wallop.

And that has spawned a $7-billion-a-year industry in North America as people shell out big bucks for hair transplants, a plethora of lotions, potions and clinically tested drugs that promise to restore their locks.

Scientists from around the world are meeting in Vancouver this week at the Fifth International Congress of Hair Research.

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Until Saturday, they'll discuss hair loss involving diet and stress, a disease that strips hair from men, women and children, chemotherapy-induced hair loss, stem cell therapy, hair surgery and even hirsutism or excessive hair growth.

People are willing to try just about anything because of their emotional attachment to their hair, says Dr. Kevin McElwee, a research scientist at the Hair Research Laboratory, part of Vancouver General Hospital's Skin Care Centre.

Dr. McElwee says while the causes of baldness remain a mystery, one thing's clear: It's becoming more common.

And that's leading scientists to believe environmental factors are involved, along with genetics from either side of a person's family.

"It's just so common, about 60 to 70 per cent of the world's population experiences pattern baldness," Dr. McElwee says. "It affects women as well - 40 per cent of women to some extent."

The hottest topic in hair research is tissue engineering, which involves the growth and culturing of stem cells from hair follicles. Studies are being conducted to change the cells into muscle and nerve cells because, compared with stem cells from other organs including the liver or kidney, those from hair follicles are easily accessible.

Scientists are also researching whether implanting the cells into bald heads can generate hair growth.

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But none of the currently available treatments is completely effective, Dr. McElwee says, although men who start using one of the two most common drugs early on seem to have the best results.

Side effects, such as sexual impotency, don't go over well for people who are trying to restore their youth and sexuality with a full head of hair.

Dr. McElwee says that while men may be more accepting of losing their hair, for women the very idea is so traumatic that some choose not to undergo chemotherapy when they're diagnosed with cancer so they can keep their crowning glory.

The doctor, who is also a professor in the University of British Columbia's dermatology and skin science department, focuses his research on alopecia areata, an auto immune disease - like rheumatoid arthritis - where the immune system targets hair follicles.

People with the disease - including men, women and children as young as 8 - sometimes have a few bald patches on their heads or can lose all their hair, including eyelashes.

Dr. McElwee's lab is focusing on stress as a factor in the disease, for which there are several support groups, including a summer camp for kids in the United States.

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