Hair loss can be a traumatic experience no matter why or when it happens. The most common cause of thinning hair in men and women is androgenetic alopecia, also known as pattern hair loss. It’s a hereditary condition resulting in gradual hair loss starting any time after puberty, either with thinning at the hairline and top of the head or with a widening of the part..
There are several ways to treat hair loss, including topical treatments, medications, and even surgical hair transplants. But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a helmet lined with LED lights that I learned about this over-the-counter option to stimulate hair growth.
As mentioned in my health tech product predictions for 2023the market for at-home LED light therapy in skincare is continuing to expand this year. The same sort of therapy is also being used in scalp treatments intended for hair regrowth.
Back in 2013, Dr. Raymond Lanzafame, a laser surgeon with his own practice in Rochester, New York, contributed to studies on the effectiveness of visible red light lasers and LED sources in hair growth for men and women with androgenetic alopecia.
Both studies, which were funded and conducted by the manufacturer of one of these devices, found an increase in hair growth after red light treatment. (Lanzafame has consulted in the past for companies that make such devices and for others in the laser and photonic fields.)
“Androgenic alopecia is a fancy way of saying male pattern baldness that’s genetic and hormone responsive,” he said. And while he has seen promising results from light therapy in treating it, he noted that there is variation across individuals and how much they will benefit — not everyone will be responsive.
A 2021 study of human hair-producing cells grown in a laboratory found that red light seemed to promote human hair growth and inhibited hair follicles from entering the catagen phase, which signals the end of active hair growth. While it’s not clear how these results translate into real-world success, they do support the use of low-level laser or light therapy in treating androgenetic alopecia specifically.
Lanzafame, who is also executive director and chairman of the Society of Laparoscopic and Robotic Surgeons, explained to BuzzFeed News that applying light at specific wavelengths and doses can stimulate the growth of non-pigmented skin cells in the scalp. The light essentially helps to stimulate mitochondria, or the energy engines, in these cells. On a tissue level, the light treatment can also have anti-inflammatory effects that help with hair regrowth.
When it comes to which of these red light laser or LED treatments to try, there are both active and passive devices to consider, he said. The helmet is a passive device, and there are also red light combs that require more active control.
You should understand your specific situation, since the causes and potential results for everyone are different, and know exactly what you’re buying, Lanzafame said. He also suggested looking out for FDA clearance, which many of these technologies on the market have.
The FDA treats over-the-counter devices differently from medications. While FDAapproved drugs need to demonstrate efficacy before they can be sold, that’s not so for these types of cosmetic devices. They generally can get clearance if they can show they are at least functionally equivalent to something that’s already on the market.
They are cleared for use by people with lighter skin types, he said; Studies haven’t included enough people with darker skin tones to get FDA clearance. They also may not work for other types of hair loss — like alopecia due to an autoimmune condition or chemotherapy — or for those who are already completely bald, he said.
He also advised against LED treatments for anyone with a metabolic condition like porphyria that makes you more sensitive to light, particularly red light. Some drugs can cause photosensitivity as well, so if you’re taking any of those, this is not the route for you.
While a bit of tingling has been reported, devices should not make you feel like your scalp is heating up, and they also shouldn’t cause rashes. It’s common to combine this technology with topical agents, like minoxidil (sold under the brand name Rogaine), to enhance the effect.
As with any potential treatment or new product, he said, people need to manage their expectations and know that a helmet or comb won’t result in instant growth. In the studies he conducted, the biggest difference between treated and non-treated people occurred over the course of three months. Once you get beyond six months, you’ve probably seen the maximum possible results, he said. From there, you should continue using the product once or twice a week to maintain the new growth, but the improvement will likely plateau.
“The short story for readers is yes, it [red light therapy] can be helpful,” said Lanzafame. “Active or passive, the light has to get to your scalp. You do have to keep doing it, you do want to make sure that the devices have a [FDA] clearance.”
HairMax Laser Hair Growth Comb