What Causes Hair Loss? 9 Myths About Baldness

The bald truth about hair loss may surprise you.

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Nearly two out of every three men will begin balding by the time they're 60. Most don't part with their part willingly—American males collectively spend $1 billion a year trying to hang onto those locks. And while there's no cure for a shiny scalp, there are a lot of supposed causes that men worry about more than they need to.

Recent research suggests that the most common type of hair loss, male pattern baldness, can be triggered by faulty hair-making progenitor cells in the scalp. Researchers long believed that men whose hair progressively thins—starting with a receding hairline, and then stretching to the crown—lacked a sufficient number of these cells. Rather, it appears that the cells are merely unable to complete their normal development and mature to a fully-functioning state. That finding, published last month in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, could help researchers develop a treatment that reactivates and restores the malfunctioning cells.

Other potential contributors to hair loss include illness, age, genetics, and even primping habits. Meanwhile, a flurry of myths contribute to men's anxiety, if not to baldness itself. "I get athletes who think helmets caused their hair to fall out, and men who say it's because their mothers rubbed their heads with black tar soap," says dermatologist Gary Hitzig, author of Help and Hope for Hair Loss. Neither helmets nor soap are at fault, he says. And more blame may get heaped on mothers than they deserve.

U.S. News gets to the bottom of nine common beliefs about hair loss. Here's the bald truth:

Myth: Hair loss is passed down from your mother's side.

Not entirely true. While the primary baldness gene is on the X chromosome, which men get only from their mothers, other factors are also in play. The hereditary factor is slightly more dominant on the woman's side, but research suggests that men who have a bald father are more likely to develop male pattern baldness than those who don't.

Myth: If you're balding, you're old.

On the contrary, hair loss can strike in the teens and is common among 20- and 30-year-olds. The earlier it begins, the more severe it will likely become.

[See: Do's and Don'ts of Healthy Hair.]

Myth: Wearing a hat strains hair follicles, causing hair to fall out.

Good news for men who rely on caps to cover their shiny crowns: They're not causing any harm. Dirty hats can, however, lead to a scalp infection, which in turn accelerates hair loss, so either make sure yours is clean or rotate frequently.

Myth: Trauma can cause hair loss.

True—with a catch. Physical or emotional stress "will never cause you to lose hair you wouldn't have lost anyway," Hitzig says. "If the hair is not meant to be lost, it will grow back." That said, it can accelerate balding. Rapid shifts in weight—whether pounds are gained or lost—can also contribute to the likelihood of hair loss.

Myth: Treatments like Propecia and Rogaine can prevent hair loss.

True. "Propecia is probably the most important advance in hair loss therapy in the last several decades," says Neil Sadick, a clinical professor in the department of dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. That prescription pill, which reduces levels of a hormone that shrinks hair follicles, works best in younger people whose hair is just beginning to thin. In addition to stalling the process, about one-third of men on Propecia will see some hair regrowth. But it's not the only option: Rogaine (also known as minoxidil), a topical treatment applied directly to the scalp, also helps slow hair loss. But both drugs come with drawbacks. Propecia can reduce libido, or sex drive, in men, while Rogaine must be applied twice daily and can irritate the scalp.

[See: B.O.? Uh Oh! How to Cope With Body Odor.]

Myth: If you want to hang onto your hair, stay away from gel and hairspray.

No need to forgo the products—they don't cause balding, and neither does shampoo, washing your hair frequently, or dandruff. But some men tease their hair and use curling irons, which could speed up the process. "It's the over-mechanical utilization of hair that can be problematic," Sadick says.