Hair: Form and Function
A full head of healthy, thick, flowy hair has traditionally been a sign of attractiveness and indicator of potency. Without healthy locks or burly mops on our heads, many people feel a loss of identity and lack of beauty. Hair loss is not entirely within our control, though, because it can often be linked to heredity, medical conditions, medications, or stressful events. Still, we do have control of a number of factors such as avoiding certain hairstyles and hair products, and maintaining a healthy diet. While some people regard hair loss as part of the natural order of life, others opt to get it treated. At the same time, hair on other parts of the body is often viewed with disdain. In fact, many people regularly remove hair from their bodies.
A typical human body is covered in hair, except for the palms of hands, soles of feet, and lips. Losing hair on the body and not the head, does not seem to have any negative affect. This is because many people consider bodily hair as inconvenient and unattractive. A study investigating the “hairlessness” norm of men and women, conducted by Marika Tiggemann and Christine Lewis, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, found that, “The vast majority (98 percent) of female participants regularly remove their leg and/or underarm hair, most frequently by shaving, and attribute this to femininity and attractiveness reasons… For the sample as a whole, negative attitudes toward body hair were related to disgust sensitivity.”
Despite this, the truth is that hair on our bodies serves multiple functions. Whether it is our tiny eyelashes which prevent dust and debris from irritating our eyes, or the hairs on our chests and backs which help regulate our body temperature by wicking away sweat in hot weather or trapping in heat when temperatures take a dip, hair serves as a protective barrier. Desmond Tobin, professor of cell biology and director of the Center for Skin Sciences at the University of Bradford—the largest academic center for skin and hair sciences in Britain, says, “Hair anywhere on the body is important for maintaining skin health… Each hair follicle is not just producing a hair fiber, but also has masses of blood vessels, nerves, and fat around it. Hair follicles are also rich in stem cells—cells that never lose the capacity to renew themselves—which help the skin heal.” In addition, hair protects the skin from bacteria while also providing a cushion against friction, which can cause rashes.
When it comes to hair loss and baldness, the most common cause is heredity. This occurs naturally based on aging, genetics, and fluctuating hormones. Nearly everyone will go through some degree of hair loss due to these factors. The area mainly affected with hair loss, is the scalp which contains about 100,000 hair follicles. For men, when the hair growth process slows down, it begins at the sides of the head, on the crown, or at the hairline. This is known as pattern baldness. According to Olivia Willis, a science and health reporter based in Australia, this is the most common type of baldness affecting about half of all men by the age of fifty and more than eighty percent by the age of seventy.
Hereditary hair loss is also the most common type of hair loss for women. Rather than resulting in patches of baldness, women tend to get thinning hair all over the scalp. For most women, this begins in midlife, around the age of forty-five. Willis found that over fifty percent of women have some mild hair loss as they age further, and about twenty percent develop moderate or severe hair loss by the age of eighty. Most experts agree that hair loss is just as common in women as it is in men, although less obvious in women because they are generally more conscientious about hiding it.
Another common cause for hair loss is medication and product use. Hair loss is often a side effect of certain medical drugs used for cancer, arthritis, heart disease, acne, birth control, weight loss, and depression. These medical drugs interfere with the normal cycle of scalp hair growth by forcing the hair follicles to go into a resting phase and fall out. The good news is that at the end of the resting phase, the hair is usually replaced by new hair.
On the other hand, over-styling and overuse of hair treatments through the years, can damage hair and eventually cause it to fall out and prevent regrowth. For example, tight braids, harsh chemical relaxers, and high-heat negatively affect the hair root when repeated on a regular basis. To prevent permanent damage, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends limiting these practices, using conditioner after every shampoo, and allowing hair to air dry before styling or combing. The AAD further recommends treatment at the earliest sign of hair loss.
For those men and women who seek treatment for hair loss, there are plenty of options. To start, they may choose to improve their diets and increase certain vitamins and minerals on a daily basis. Healthy, hair-promoting nutrients include protein, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, zinc, and vitamin D. Our bodies need these essentials to reduce hair loss, keep our hair growing and maintained, and for overall scalp health. Good sources include meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts, seeds, dairy products, leafy greens, fortified cereal, and a variety of fruits.
Another treatment plan to try to minimize the effects of hair loss is the use of fortified shampoos. In the early stages of hair loss, most people choose over-the-counter shampoos because they are less expensive and easily accessible. It is important to choose a shampoo that does not include parabens, sulfates, or artificial fragrances. A more heavy-duty approach is to get a prescription shampoo which includes ketoconazole, an antifungal agent used to eliminate scalp conditions such as dandruff. Fortified shampoos are meant to target hair growth at the site of the follicle, rebuild hair, reduce damage and inflammation, and help to interrupt the hormone cycle that causes thinning hair.
Still, others seek an even more vigorous approach to treating hair loss and choose to have a hair transplant. Those who promote this plan, claim that it will produce permanent, natural-looking results. The first step is for a dermatologist to determine whether you have enough healthy hairs to remove and whether you have the ability to regrow hair on the thinning area(s). A surgeon will remove a few healthy hairs at a time and transplant them in the thinning areas. This process is time consuming and costly. Most patients may not see results for up to a year. Furthermore, positive results are not guaranteed since other factors associated with aging and health may prevail. However, advances in technology eliminate the unnatural, doll-like appearances known in earlier times, and patients may enjoy their natural-looking results, even if only temporarily.
Asma Jarad is a freelance writer and editor. She has a YouTube channel, Sami & Amro Reading Time, to promote literacy for children from all backgrounds.