Alopecia, or hair loss, can occur in several forms. One of the most common is "male pattern hair loss," or androgenetic alopecia. As one might expect from the name, this type of hair loss occurs most commonly in men, where it appears as the well-known receding hairline. It can also occur in women, however, generally in the form of overall hair thinning ("diffuse hair loss"). Conventional treatment includes the drugs minoxidil and finasteride, as well as medical diagnostic techniques to rule out potential underlying problems (especially in women).
Hair loss that occurs in patchy areas is referred to as alopecia areata. It can strike both men and women at any age, but usually starts during childhood. Alopecia areata typically starts with one or more small, round, smooth patches in the scalp or beard area. Rarely, it causes total body hair loss, a condition called alopecia universalis. Alopecia areata has no medical cure. However, in many cases, hair grows back on its own without treatment. Widespread hair loss is less likely to reverse itself. Corticosteroids injected under the skin may promote some hair growth, but the results usually don’t last. An interesting approach to the treatment of alopecia areata involves inducing mild allergic reactions using either nickel sulfate or the leaves of the plant Primula obconica.1,2 It appears that when these substances irritate the skin they trigger new hair growth, but larger studies are needed to confirm the findings.
Other forms of hair loss include "anagen effluvium" and "telogen effluvium." Anagen effluvium is typically caused by chemotherapy, but may occur as a result of various medical conditions. Telogen effluvium is generally caused by severe physiological stress, such as major illness.
One study suggests that a combination of essential oils applied topically may stimulate hair growth in people with alopecia areata. In this double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 84 people massaged either essential oils or a non-treatment oil into their scalps each night for 7 months.3 The results showed that 44% of those in the treatment group experienced new hair growth compared to only 15% of the control group. The treatment oil contained essential oils of thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood, in a base of grape seed and jojoba oils.
Although there are no reported side effects associated with using thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood oils topically, essential oils can be toxic if taken internally. They can also cause allergic reactions, which may be severe, when applied topically. For more information, see the full Essential Oil article.
Very preliminary evidence suggests that topical khellin, an extract of the fruit of the Mediterranean plant khella ( Ammi visnaga), may promote new hair growth when combined with ultraviolet light (UVA) therapy in people with alopecia areata. Khellin selectively sensitizes the skin to UVA and is related to drugs used to treat psoriasis.4
A proprietary form of silicon (choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid) has shown some promise.8,9
1. Garcia-Bravo B, Rodriguez-Pichardo A, Sanchez-Pedreno P. Nickel sulphate in the treatment of alopecia areata. Contact Dermatitis. 1989;20:228-229.
2. Rhodes EL, Dolman W, Kennedy C, et al. Alopecia areata regrowth induced by Primula obconica. Br J Dermatol. 1981;104:339-340.
3. Hay IC, Jamieson M, Ormerod AD. Randomized trial of aromatherapy. Successful treatment for alopecia areata. Arch Dermatol. 1998;134:1349-1352.
4. Tritrungtasna O, Jerasutus S, Suvanprakorn P. Treatment of alopecia areata with khellin and UVA. Int J Dermatol. 1993;32:690.
5. Camacho FM, Garcia-Hernandez MJ. Zinc aspartate, biotin, and clobetasol propionate in the treatment of alopecia areata in childhood. Pediatr Dermatol. 1999;16:336-338.
6. Harrison PV, Stepanek P. Hypnotherapy for alopecia areata. Br J Dermatol. 1991;124:509-510.
7. Fischer TW, Burmeister G, Schmidt HW, Elsner P. Melatonin increases anagen hair rate in women with androgenetic alopecia or diffuse alopecia: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol. 2004;150:341-345.
8. Barel A, Calomme M, Timchenko A, et al. Effect of oral intake of choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid on skin, nails and hair in women with photodamaged skin. Arch Dermatol Res. 2005 Oct 5. [Epub ahead of print]
9. Wickett RR, Kossmann E, Barel A, et al. Effect of oral intake of choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid on hair tensile strength and morphology in women with fine hair. Arch Dermatol Res. 2007 Oct 25. [Epub ahead of print]
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board