Why Most Hair Loss Topicals Fail To Regrow Hair

Rob Treatments 22 Comments

Read Time: 10 minutes

Will These Topicals Reverse Your Hair Loss?

People often ask me if a new topical mentioned by a doctor, website, or hair loss forum will help regrow their hair. Here’s a running list from my emails just last week:

  • Emu oil
  • Argan oil
  • Castor oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Onion juice
  • Shea butter
  • Egg yolk
  • Rogaine

In the last decade, if there’s anything I’ve learned about topicals, it’s this: topicals are a shot in the dark.

What works for one person does not work for 99% of others. I’ve experimented with almost all of the above topicals, and for months at a time. None of them helped regrow my hair.

With that said, my story isn’t everyone’s story. Sometimes people get lucky. Sometimes a person uncovers a topical that gives them significant regrowth.

But why is that? How can one topical regrow hair for one person but not for everyone else?

That’s what this article is about.

Why Most Topicals Fail To Regrow Any Hair

Reason #1 – Genes & Gene Expression

It’s been well-established that our genes predispose us to hair lossFor instance, if we have this genotype, we’re twice as likely to go bald. If we have this genotype, we’re seven times more likely to bald. (Note: “predisposed” does not mean “destined”.)

Interestingly, our genes and gene expression also influence how well we respond to hair loss drugs.

Studies show that Propecia is more effective for those with certain gene variants (polymorphisms). For reasons not yet understood, people who have these polymorphisms and take Propecia tend to recover more hair than those without them.

We can apply that same logic to any hair loss topical – like Rogaine.

Rogaine’s mechanisms are mysterious, but most experts agree that Rogaine helps boost blood flow to hair follicles. However, the amount of blood flow that Rogaine can send to the scalp probably depends on a person’s…

All of these markers link back to our genes (and gene expression). Genetics likely explains why some men and women using Rogaine regrow some hair, while others (like myself) see no changes at all.

But this is just one reason. That’s not all that’s going on.

Reason #2 – Your Topical Might Not Target Why You Personally Are Losing Your Hair

There are a million different reasons why someone starts losing their hair. Calcification, fibrosis, and increased scalp DHT all play a huge role in developing pattern hair loss… But all three of these things have thousands of triggers.

For instance, calcification and fibrosis are the end-result of chronic inflammation. What can trigger chronic inflammation? Certain foods, poor lifestyle choices, bacteria, parasites, pollution, scalp tension… The list goes on. Here’s a chart summarizing just the major categories (not specific triggers) about how hair loss can begin:

Ultimate Hair Loss Flowchart

Unfortunately, most hair loss topicals target just one trigger of these thousands of possibilities.

Just look at these hair loss topicals and what each allegedly targets:

  • Spironolactone – blocks androgen receptors
  • Topical Finasteride – inhibits 5-alpha reductase
  • Rogaine – increases blood flow
  • Onion juice – reduces inflammation
  • Apple polyphenols – decreases transforming growth factor beta
  • Nizoral (shampoo) – anti-fungal, decreases DHT

Now let’s look at the odds:

There are thousands of triggers for hair loss. But most hair loss topicals target just one (or a few) of these triggers. So how likely is it that we pick a topical that also happens to target the same triggers of our own hair loss?

Not very likely – especially if we’re experimenting with a topical that doesn’t target the major culprits of hair loss – scalp tissue DHT, calcification, and fibrosis. (Note: for more information, read this.)

This sort of thing happens in hair loss forums all the time. Here are two recent examples.

Topical Study #1: Pig Lard

In September 2013, a researcher published a paper about how he used a pig fat (lard) topical for his own personal hair regrowth. This researcher massaged five grams of fat (lard) into his scalp each night before going to bed. After eight months, he’d regrown a ton of hair:

Hair Regrowth Pig Lard

(source)

This study got posted on hair loss forums, and within days, its popularity exploded. Dozens of forum users decided to commit to the methodology for eight months and try to validate its results.

So what happened?

After a month people’s excitement started to sizzle. After two months the thread got buried to the forum’s second page. After three months people forgot the study had ever been posted. And after eight months none of the “testers” posted a single before-after picture. Of the testers who finished the experiment (to my knowledge – just two), none claimed any results.

This story isn’t unique. This is the typical trend with any treatment on any hair loss forum:

  1. One treatment success story
  2. Initial excitement from the community
  3. A few users who say they’re going to try it themselves
  4. No updates from those users
  5. A slow fade into radio silence

For purposes of this article, let’s assume that of the testers who tried this topical, they tried it correctly and for the entire eight months, and it still didn’t work. Let’s forget about the possibility that most testers who faded away probably didn’t even commit to the regimen (which is probably the reality).

Why would this lard topical work for the author but not everyone else?

Pig Lard Might Only Be Effective For Certain Types Of Hair Loss

Pattern hair loss is a broad term, so let’s break it down.

The two most common types of pattern hair loss in men are…

  1. Typical pattern recession (hair loss starting at the temples and vertex)
  2. Diffuse thinning (general thinning across the entire top of the scalp)

Interestingly, our type of hair loss might tell us more about its triggers.

I often reference calcification, fibrosis, and scalp tissue DHT as primary catalysts to hair loss. Here are a couple more (related) triggers worth mentioning:

#1: A Decrease In Subcutaneous Fat (The Fat Cushion Protecting Our Hair Follicles)

Hair follicles are surrounded by a fatty layer known as subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat helps maintain the health and size of a follicle. If this fatty layer erodes, a follicle no longer has the cushion needed to support its size, and so it begins to shrink.

Some theories suggest that the “erosion of subcutaneous fat” above the scalp is what leads to pattern hair loss. (Interestingly, there’s evidence that DHT may erode subcutaneous fat, which is probably why DHT levels are elevated in the scalps of balding men. Read more here.)

A common sign of decreased subcutaneous fat in our scalps is thinner, tighter scalp skin.

#2: Skull Expansion (The Continued Growth Of Our Scalp Bones)

As men age, androgens like testosterone and DHT may encourage the bones in their scalps to thicken or grow larger. This is called skull expansion, and some people theorize that skull expansion actually causes hair loss by reducing blood flow to thinning regions.

The theory is that skull bone growth might decrease blood supply to parts of our scalps, or even indicate advanced states of calcification. For evidence, just look at photos of most balding men. Many have a “bulge” starting at the midline of their foreheads (skull expansion).

Circling back to the types of hair loss, is there anything unique about diffuse versus pattern thinners? Yes. In my experience working with hundreds of readers, I’ve observed two major differences.

  1. Diffuse thinners tend to have thinner skin everywhere across the scalp
  2. Diffuse thinners tend not to have much skull expansion.

Remember: one sign of eroded subcutaneous fat is tighter, thinner skin. So based on these symptoms, what is one potential “trigger” of hair loss for diffuse thinners?

An eroded subcutaneous fat layer.

Now let’s get back to this pig lard study. What can we glean from the author’s “before” photo?

Based on the pattern of his hair loss, he also looks like a diffuse thinner.

Interestingly, there’s evidence that fat-based hair loss topicals might help increase the density of our scalp’s subcutaneous fat through hydration. This includes emu oil, coconut oil, and yes – even pig lard.

This might explain why the author got such great results. The author is a diffuse thinner. Diffuse thinners tend to suffer from subcutaneous fat erosion. Any fat-based topical that helps increase the scalp’s subcutaneous fat should also help diffuse thinners.

Now let’s go back to the “testers” on that hair loss forum. Chances are they weren’t diffuse thinners. Chances are they were typical pattern hair loss sufferers.

Since those with typical pattern recession tend to also show signs of skull expansion, it’s likely that their hair loss is more rooted in triggers beyond subcutaneous fat erosion (like calcification).

As a result, those with typical pattern hair loss probably won’t experience much benefit from fat-based topicals that target subcutaneous fat. Instead, these people need to target calcification.

Advice For Diffuse Thinners

If you’re a diffuse thinner with minimal skull expansion and you want to try a topical, go for fat-based topicals like emu oil, lard, butter, or coconut oil. Use them nightly, leave them in as you sleep, and test for a year before determining whether they’re helping.

Topical Study #2: Essential Oils

Many years ago researchers conducted a study on aromatherapy essential oils’ effects on hair growth for people with Alopecia Areata.

Alopecia Areata is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the hair follicle, often leading to hair fall in patches and everywhere (even on the scalp sides).

The researchers tested a cocktail of thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood essential oils inside a mixture of jojoba and grapeseed. The instruction: massage these oils into the scalp, daily, for 2+ minutes.

The results were incredible.

44% of users saw hair improvement. Some even saw full recoveries:

(source)

Again, this study made its rounds through hair loss forums. People got excited. Many pattern hair loss sufferers said they would attempt to replicate the study and try it themselves.

Months later those threads went quiet. We never saw any before-after photos from those who said they’d commit to the regimen.

Why did this essential oil topical work for those in the study and not for the forum testers?

Why Essential Oils Don’t Regrow Hair For Everyone

This one is kind of obvious. The study was for people with alopecia areatanot male pattern hair loss.

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease where the body begins recognizing hair follicles as invaders, and then begins to attack and destroy them.

Those with alopecia areata don’t necessarily have any of the scalp conditions associated with male pattern baldness (calcification, fibrosis, higher tissue DHT, etc.).

As such, alopecia areata sufferers and male pattern hair loss sufferers responder better to different types of treatment.

Advice For Alopecia Areata Sufferers

If you’re suffering from alopecia areata, this topical might be worth trying. But if you’re suffering from regular pattern hair loss, don’t expect an essential oil blend to work any miracles.

Final Thoughts On Hair Loss Topicals

I don’t have any topical recommendations. I think most are a waste of money, and that most don’t target the two most chronic, progressive conditions of hair loss – calcification and fibrosis.

But if you’re going to try a topical, do the following:

  • Test it for at least four or five months before deciding whether it’s helpful.
  • Don’t change a dozen other things in your regimen at the same time.

Otherwise, you won’t have any idea what’s helping.

What’s To Come…

In the next few weeks, I’ll have a post on which topicals encourage hair regrowth and why. The key to an effective topical: something known as autophagy. More on this later.

Best,

Rob

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Instead, just sign up for my 10-day course on natural hair recovery.

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Stop Googling "How To Regrow Hair" Until 3AM

Instead, just sign up for my 10-day course on natural hair recovery.


You'll get access to my before-after photos, the science behind the DHT paradox, hair loss mistakes to avoid, reader-submitted photos, and more.

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Comments 22

  1. Hi
    Rob great article.

    I look forward to the next one.

    Question.

    Does this mean that diffuse thinners do not have diet, calcification and fibrosis issues ?

    And what if a Diffuse thinner was to do the massage aswell as topical treatments such as coconut oil shampoo, emu oil ect ?

    Im guessing the tighter skin which erodes the fat is caused by calcification and fibrosis which allows DHT to erode the fat. So a massage and topical would have substantial results ?

    Thanks

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Praz,

      Thank you. And great questions. There haven’t yet been enough studies to differentiate the causes of diffuse vs. pattern thinning. Based on the available evidence and my experience working with readers, it seems that skull expansion is significantly less pronounced (and sometimes nonexistent) in diffuse thinners versus those with pattern recession. With that said, I still think DHT, calcification, and fibrosis are implicated in both cases. It just might be that someone’s type of thinning – diffuse or pattern recession – is more indicative of the weight of those causes (ex: diffuse thinners might have less androgen receptor density but those androgren receptors could be spread more evenly across the scalp, or diffuse thinners might have more fibrosis and less calcification versus those with pattern recession). Unfortunately we won’t know for sure without more data.

      But based off the results of diffuse thinners using fat-based topicals, I think it’s safe to say that 1) eroded subcutaneous fat is a big issue for diffuse thinners, and 2) these topicals might help. To answer your second question – yes, I think fat-based topicals like coconut or emu oil (applied topically, left in overnight, every night) will be synergistic with the massages.

      Best,
      Rob

  2. Hey rob thank you for your articles 🙂

    SO my question .
    Are fat-based topicals good MPb with danddruff symptoms? or do they help produce more sebum/collagen?

    Thank you

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks Panos. To answer your questions, I’m not sure if fat-based topicals will help with dandruff. And I think fat-based topicals might actually downregulate scalp sebum production in the long-run. As far as collagen – there’s more evidence that fat-based topicals increase the density of subcutaneous fat where they’re applied – but less so on the ability of these topicals to remodel collagen. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible – it’s just not yet studied (as far as I know).

      The big takeaway is that if you’re a diffuse thinner, then you’re likely also suffering from an eroded subcutaneous fat layer – in which case fat-based topicals can help.

  3. Hey Rob
    It is a very interesting article regarding topicals.Your article are always very logical so looking forward to your next article on various topicals.
    Meanwhile I have this doubt.Since scalp calcification & fibrosis increases the activity of androgen receptors & also the increased DHT cause loss of subcutaneous Fat layer below scalp.So will in turn these massages & topicals will over time balance the eroded scalp fat.Also what dietery changes can cause fat increase in particular area of scalp.I beilive it’s the muscle activity & collogen( like broths)that may help with this but your advice in this regard will be very helpful.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you Ankur. It’s my belief that the massages firstly focus on resolving the fibrosis and calcification that restricts blood flow to the follicles – which thereby allows dormant follicles to regrow.

      With that said, it’s also possible (and actually, very likely) that subcutaneous fat erosion is the end-result of calcification and perifollicular fibrosis. That means that if you resolve the calcification and fibrosis, there’s a chance the subcutaneous fat layer may also make a significant step toward recovery.

      Fat-based topicals might help encourage this process – at least based on the available evidence. But the evidence is very limited on any dietary changes (aside from weight gain) actually increasing the density of subcutaneous fat anywhere on the body. With that said, collagen supplementation and bone broths have been shown to help increase the hydration of the skin, and in doing so, increase the density of subcutaneous fat through hydration. Collagen and bone broths are also great for a million other reasons.

      If you’re looking to increase the density of the scalp’s subcutaneous fat – doing the massages + the fat-based topcials + the dietary recommendations in the book should help tremendously. I hope this helps!

      Best,
      Rob

  4. Hi

    Rob

    what about Apple Polyphenols ??

    There was a lot of buzz around this after Japanese researchers discovered it had amazing effects on MPB. And small doeses could even bring amazing results. It was said to be more twice more powerful than Minox without side effects.

    Regards.

    1. Post
      Author

      It’s mentioned briefly in the article, but apple polyphenols decrease the expression of transforming growth factor beta, which may help prevent fibrosis. I’m sure it’ll help some people – but based on my experience, no single topical seems to regrow hair for the majority.

  5. Hello Rob!

    I am really amazed about your knowledge and resourcefulness! You are doing great job of educating others and helping them achieve success in hair health.
    Today I bought your eBook with video and started to implement those massage techniques. Everything feels the way you described in your eBook. Looking forward for some amazing results!
    I have a question regarding one topical. It contains Saw Palmetto, Green Rooibos, Licorice Root extract.
    https://www.amway.co.uk/product/110686,satinique-scalp-tonic#product_ingredients
    I have been using it for about a month twice a day as suggested. Just rubbing it into my scalp, massaging a little bit my scalp before or after topical and recently I bought a shampoo brush and started tusing it. https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00HRGWVE8/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
    I am not sure, but I think I see some small hair regrowth after those procedures so far.
    How do you think should I use that scalp tonic and shampoo brush along with your scalp massage and how/when you think I can use it?
    I know that you are not a doctor, however I would really like to hear your opinion on that!

    Looking forward to regrowth my hair with your explained method!

    Regards,
    Rolandas

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Rolandas – thanks for your support. You can certainly try that topical and see how it goes. I don’t see any ingredients of concern. Saw palmetto taken orally is a 5-AR inhibitor and can reduce total DHT levels within the body. I’m not sure if it’s as effective when it’s a topical, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it out. Twice per day is fine – and maybe leave it in overnight if you can.

      The rubber massager looks fine too – though I think for massaging, nothing replaces your own hands (hands are more dynamic). If you use the rubber massager, I’d try using it to replace the presses (the demonstration video will show you more of the specifics).

      I look forward to your progress! Please keep in touch.

      Best,
      Rob

  6. Hi Rob – have you looked into topical caffeine for MPB? And should you expect regrowth once the scalp is elastic again?
    Thanks.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey John – it’s a great question, and yes, I’ve looked into it. I’m writing an article on caffeine now. The science is complicated, but in short, there seems to be a big difference in orally ingested caffeine versus topically applied caffeine when it comes to hair regrowth. But what I’m actually most worried about is the fact that caffeine increases androgen receptor activity in certain tissues:

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3521899/

      This is a concern in the long-run, especially if that relationship holds true in the scalp, and especially if the effect is long-lived after stopping usage of caffeine. We actually see this problem with Finasteride use. Finasteride use might inhibit 5-AR, but it also increases androgen receptors in the prostate:

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19484778

      The physiology of the prostate DOES NOT return to normal after stopping Finasteride. In other words, when you take Finasteride, you inhibit 5-AR but you increase AR expression. The net result: less DHT in the blood, prostate, and scalp. But when you stop Finasteride, you stop inhibiting 5-AR activity, but your androgen receptor expressin may not normalize… You might be stuck with a higher androgen receptor activity post treatment. The result? More DHT in the blood, prostate, and scalp after stopping treatment. That’s no good for our hair.

      Is the same relationship true for topical caffeine? We don’t yet know. But if it is true, this means that the effects of a caffeine topical may only be limited to its continued use, and once you stop, your hair loss may actually increase.

      So the jury is still out on caffeine as a topical. Anecdotally I’ve heard of mixed / good results. But as a long-term solution, I’m less convinced. Only more data will tell.

      Best,
      Rob

      1. Post
        Author

        And to answer your question about scalp elasticity — it’s complicated. In most cases, an increase in elasticity will stop hair loss in its tracks, and lead to thickening and regrowth (the levels of which vary depending on each individual case). But depending on the severity of your loss, sometimes it takes an extra “nudge” to break through and reverse any pre-existing fibrotic tissue. This usually involves additional efforts for wounding/healing and mechanical stimulation – either via dermarolling + a topical or otherwise.

  7. Hey Rob,

    great site you’ve got here. Amazing information.
    Regarding the fat-based topical, would you recommend using castor oil?
    Also, if using coconut oil, should it be warmed (to become liquid) before applying it?
    Do all these topicals for diffuse thinning should be applied only on the top of the head (i.e. affected area) or everywhere including sides, back, and nape?

    Thanks in advance,

    Best,
    D.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks for reading, David!

      RE: fat-based topicals–

      You can absolutely use castor oil. It’s antimicrobial, may increase PGE2, and contains small amounts of linoleic acid — all of which tend to have pro-hair effects.

      In terms of applying coconut oil — it shouldn’t matter whether or not you warm it, so long as you can spread it across your scalp (your body heat should warm the oil to a spreadable temperature anyway). And as far as the application itself — the case studies with results all suggest that we should put this oil all over the scalp (even the places we’re not balding).

      Keep us posted with your progress!

      Best,
      Rob

      1. Rob,

        thanks for the response.
        I tried it yesterday and my hair was really oily in the morning. I’ve seen that shampooing is not as recommended as we thought.
        How could I wash my hair next morning? just water or any advice on other way?

        Cheers,
        D

      2. Post
        Author

        Hey David — in cases where someone is using a fat-based topical, it’s okay to use shampoo if your hair still feels oily after a water rinse. In this case, the benefits of the topical likely outweigh the cons.

        Otherwise, hotter water does a much better job than colder water at rinsing out topicals. So you can also experiment with temperature.

        Best,
        Rob

      3. Hello Rob,

        I was wondering if applying the topical twice per day would do a better job for hydrating the scalp and increase eroded subcutaneous fat.

        Any thoughts on that?

        Cheers,
        D

      4. Post
        Author

        Hey David,

        You can certainly try applying it twice per day — so long as you’re okay with having the oils in your scalp / hair during working hours. I’m working with one reader who shaved his head and is doing the book’s regimen + a coconut oil + crushed ginger root twice daily. He lathers his entire scalp and wears a hat to work. He’s also seeing the fastest regrowth of anyone with whom I’m currently working. So — there’s at least anecdotal evidence that twice daily applications seem to have merit.

        Best,
        Rob

  8. Hi Rob,
    First time I discover your articles and I find them very enlightening.
    I really hope you can advice on my situation..months before my scalp hurt, not only when I touched it or move the hair from one side to another, but even while staying. After became very itchy specially at the back of my head and my hair very very dry. Now they are still like that and very itchy plus I’m suffering a hair loss . Referring to your scheme it could be inflammation of the scalp? Any advice would be highly appreciated. Thanks, holta

    1. Post
      Author
  9. Hi Rob,
    Thanks a lot for your feedback. In fact I have been suffering for a few years now from yeast infection…i don’t know if that is related somehow to your suggestion of fungal infection, but I guess a simple test can show it. Anyway, my condition shows an unbalanced intestine flora which maybe worsen my condition .
    I was thinking a zinc supplement might help(thanks for your article about it). Please let me know if you have any idea about it.
    Thanks again and all the best,
    Holta

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