Retirement: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

July 22, 2010

We are hairy creatures: we humans have about 100,000 hair follicles on the top of our heads and about 5 million more on the rest our bodies. We are born with all the follicles we will ever have.

We begin to grow tiny hairs called lanugo while we are still in the womb. After birth we grow very fine uncolored hair called vellus. As we grow older our vellus hair turns into longer, stronger and colored hair called terminal hair on the tops of our heads and on our eyebrows and eyelashes. When we reach puberty, we add more terminal hair in our armpit and pubic areas.

Early humans had terminal hair over most of their bodies. Why we evolved to lose most of that hair is not known for certain but theories include:
• helping our bodies regulate body temperature when we emerged from the forest and began to hunt on the plains of Africa;
• removing a breeding ground for ticks, lice and other vermin.

Perhaps a more interesting question is why we retained hair in our armpits and in our pubic area. One obvious benefit is that the hair in these areas helps reduce friction as the skin of our arms and legs rubs against our torsos. Another is that the hair in these areas picks up a lot of olfactory information about who we are from our sweat glands and thus assists in the mating process.

Certainly the hair on our heads, in addition to helping to keep us warm, frames our faces and contributes to the visual impression we make on others. Thus we spend lots of money on shampoos, conditioners, stylists, colorists, extensions and decorative items as well as combs, brushes, rollers, dryers, straighteners, curlers and the like.

As we get older several things tend to happen to our head hair:
• the individual stands of hair become thinner;
• some follicles begin to cease production of terminal hair (we have fewer hairs);
• hair begins to lose its natural pigmentation and appears to turn grey or white.

Why do these things happen and what can we do about it?

Hair grows from follicles located beneath the surface of our skin. Cells inside the follicle divide and multiply. As things get crowded in the follicle, old cells are pushed out as hair. Hair is composed mostly of a protein called keratin. A single hair has a normal “life” expectancy of four to five years with a growth rate of about one half of an inch per month. Eventually the hair stops growing, falls out and is replaced by a new hair in six months or so. We lose an average of about 100 hairs a day.

Hair thinning is part of the normal aging process. The rate of hair growth slows and stops completely in many follicles. In men, overall hair loss can be seen as early as age 30 and is apparent in most men by age 60. Men tend to see in particular a receding hairline and a thinning crown as part of the normal process. Women on the other hand tend to experience an overall thinning of hair. How much this happens and at what speed is largely dependent on genetics and hormones, but it affects just about everyone.

Changes in hair color are also part of the normal aging process. Cells at the base of the hair follicles produce other cells that provide pigment (color) to our hair. As these cells age they cease contributing pigment and our hair grows out gray/white. This process typically begins in the mid-thirties for Caucasians, in the late thirties for Asians and the late forties for people of darker complexion. Body and facial hair follow the same process but usually a bit later on than head hair.

So, if hair loss and graying are part of the normal aging process, what can we do about them?

For hair loss prevention:
• Be nice to your hair. Avoid chemical processes such as hair coloring if possible, but if you really need to use them, use them as infrequently as possible. Avoid, if possible, anything that pulls on your hair (braids, weaves, tight rollers) and creates stress on your follicles.
• Practice good nutrition.
• For women, Minoxidil may low hair loss and perhaps encourage new growth. Estrogen-dominant birth control pills may also slow hair loss.
• For men, Minoxidil and/or Finasteride (which slows testosterone production) may be helpful.

For hair that is already gone, there isn’t much that can be done to bring it back. Minoxidil may be helpful in some cases. Other alternatives to disguise the hair loss include a new hair style to take advantage of the hair that remains (think Donald Trump), thickeners, hair weaving, hair pieces or hair transplants (this consists of taking plugs of hair from other parts of your body where hair is still growing and inserting the plugs into your scalp – you too can look like Joe Biden).

For hair that is going gray you can simply choose to let it do its thing naturally or abolish the cover the gray through a coloring process. Most coloring that simply coats the hair with color lasts perhaps 6 to 12 washings. More “permanent” coloring requires the use of peroxide or ammonia to help the coloring penetrate the hair. With permanent coloring touch ups are needed every 4-6 weeks to color the new hair which has emerged from the follicles during that time frame.

There are some “gradual” coloring products designed for men that gradually build up color. However, many of these also contain lead acetate so read the box well and reflect on whether you really want lead in your hair. Or consider using a product/process that has generally been directed at women but will probably work just fine on you as well.

Certainly an option is also to just let it be. Thinning and graying hair is part of the natural aging process. Unless it clearly gets in the way of your work or self image, you might consider just living with the hair your genetics and hormones have given you.

Finally, it is interesting to note that while head hair is diminishing and going gray, many older adults begin to grow more coarse hair elsewhere. Men in particular see this occurring with ear, nose and eyebrow hair. This is not new hair; the follicles were always there, it is just that the type of hair they are producing changes. Why this happens is unclear, but it is entirely normal and natural. A good quality trimmer designed for this type of hair makes an excellent investment. (Yes, you could just let it grow naturally, but why would you want to do that?)

“How can I control my life when I cannot control my hair?” – Unknown

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2010 R.K. Price