Monday, 20 September 2021
THERE are a lot of men walking round these days (often in checked shirts) with bushy and perfectly manicured beards.
That’s only an observation but it highlights the importance to us of the stuff that grows from our skin in so many different ways.
A person’s hair (whether it be on their chin or their head) is an integral part of the way they perceive themselves, whether they choose to style it, dye it or shave it all off.
In ancient Egypt, men and women would style their hair into pleasing shapes using a form of hair gel made from fat. Clearly things have come a long way since then but the sentiment is the same.
Our hair is made mostly from keratin, a tough protein which is also found in the outer layers of fingernails and toenails.
Each strand grows from its own hair bulb where living cells divide and grow, pushing upwards to form the shaft.
The bulb forms the base of a surrounding follicle which anchors the hair in a layer of skin and from which the shaft finally emerges when it is long enough.
The hair grows in three phases. The Anagen phase is the main one and lasts several years. During the Catagen phase the hair growth slows over the course of a few months until finally the Telogen phase is reached when the old strand detaches and allows a new one to begin growing in its place.
On average, a hair will grow around half an inch over a period of about a month and each fibre will last about five years. This gives us, at any one time, 100,000 to 150,000 hairs on our heads alone.
Of course we have hair all over our bodies and these perform functions of which we may be unaware. If you brush the light hairs over your arms, for example, you will notice that fine sensation even when not actually touching the skin.
This allows us to detect a breeze or any other faint touch that for us is a luxury but for some animals is of vital importance. It certainly gives you a new appreciation for whiskers.
In addition, each follicle will have an erector pilli muscle which responds to surrounding temperatures either by pulling on the shaft and flattening each body hair (to reduce heat) or by straightening the hairs to create a forest like layer over the skin, trapping a layer of air to help protect against the cold.
And don’t forget that we all have hairs in our ears and nostrils. These are of vital importance to trap and collect any larger particles that may cause problems if they got any further.
In general, hair is fairly hardy stuff. We tend to shed between 40 and 150 strands in a day and this is part of the normal turnover.
In the struggle to make ourselves look good, however, we tend to use harsh shampoos and conditioners in excess, which can affect the overall “health” of the hair.
An excessive use of curling irons and regular hair dyes can exacerbate this. Even then, we may only notice a patch of thinning hair when the coverage in that area is down to 50 per cent.
Alopecia is the term we use for hair loss. There are various types, some of which are reversible.
Stress can have a big impact on the hair and people who are feeling low or anxious may start, quite literally, to pull their hair out in an almost habitual way. This is a recognised condition known as trichotillomania and those who suffer from this may benefit from counselling and cognitive behavioural therapies.
There is also a condition known as telogen effluvium, in which temporary hair loss results a month or two following a big shock, for example childbirth or an accident.
Fortunately, most of the time, new hair starts growing straight away. Male and female pattern hair loss, however, tends to be more permanent. There is a genetic element in these conditions which can often come to light at quite an early age.
While females tend to see a general thinning all over the scalp, men might see a gradual loss of hair in the temples and crown. There are some medications that can sometimes help for this but they are not available on the NHS. Some people use hair transplants to shore up patchy areas but this can be expensive.
Certain types of chemotherapy will result in dramatic hair loss. Again hair will grow back but nevertheless this is unpleasant when it happens.
There is a wide range of high quality wigs available these days that can really help. Synthetic ones are an option but hair donors have made real hair wigs available and these tend to last much longer.
In general practice, the more common forms of hair loss we see include something called alopecia areata. This most commonly occurs on the scalp and presents with well-defined spots of baldness.
There is a thought that it may be an autoimmune condition but the true cause is often unclear, though stress is definitely a factor.
Regardless, the majority of cases will resolve on their own after a year or so without any intervention.
Sometimes, if the underlying skin is scaly and sore, fungal skin infections can present in a similar way, in which case antifungal creams may be of use.
I should also mention that hair does not have to be falling out to be troublesome. Head lice fall into that category and these can, at worst, cause an itchy sensation in the scalp. If you find any, check everyone in the household for either the lice themselves or the white eggs (nits).
You don’t need to see your GP for the next step. Just pop to your pharmacy and try one of the many lotions or sprays available. Fine combing every other day is also a good idea. You often need to repeat these treatments after a few days or weeks to ensure complete eradication.
Sometimes, in contrast to hair loss, excessive hair can present a problem. The condition known as hirsutism can be a big issue, particularly for women. This is essentially excessive hair growth in a male pattern (for example excessive facial hair).
This can often be a sign of an underlying condition such as polycystic ovarian syndrome as well as secondary to various medications (like steroids) and is essentially a response to a higher than average level of circulating male hormones (androgens) or a higher sensitivity to them. If you are concerned about this, it is always worth seeing your GP to check things over.
In general, if you are interested in keeping a healthy head of hair in the absence of any of the above conditions, you only need a good balanced diet with enough vitamin C, A and E as well as plenty of iron and biotin. Eggs, carrots, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits and unsalted nuts are a good start. There is no need for supplements but having an unhealthy diet is likely to result in reduced hair quality down the line.
I wouldn’t worry too much about “the science bit” in shampoo adverts, just stick to the basics.
25 June 2018
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