Hair is so much more than just dead keratin protein. It's an expression of identity. It's your calling card to the world that says, "Here I am! And here's who I am!"

Perhaps your tight curls, cowlick or widow's peak link you unmistakably to your beloved granny whose hair grew in exactly the same way. Or maybe your artfully woven silver strands symbolize your willingness to embrace change. It's possible your glam, platinum locks give you an old-Hollywood vibe. Or maybe you rock a fabulous 'fro to celebrate your culture. Whatever your hair identity, the bottom line is that lush, glossy, full hair universally signals coveted qualities like vitality, health and desirability. So it's no wonder that hair loss is a downer, and people will do just about anything to get their mane back on point.

Unfortunately, the desire to have a vibrant, full head of hair leads people to take risks with their health, including miracle "cures" that are potentially quite dangerous. These risks are not only a bad idea, but they are also not necessary when there are effective, safe options like 100% vegan hair serum, which can support thicker, fuller hair without nasty side effects.

Here's what you need to know about these three popular hair-loss ingredients and their sometimes damaging results.

First, Avoid Self-Diagnoses

If you're losing hair, your wisest first step is to visit your healthcare provider. Ask your dermatologist or trichologist about possible causes, which could include hormone imbalances or nutritional deficiencies. Learning the root cause is the only way to make an effective plan.

Almost every woman eventually develops some degree of female pattern hair loss, typically noticed around menopause. This common phenomenon is called androgenetic alopecia, and it involves the activity of male hormones called androgens.

The precise role of androgens in women is not yet completely understood.As a woman, if you're noticing hair loss, it's important to tell your doctor to rule out the possibility of an androgen-secreting tumor. Polycystic ovary syndrome, for instance, results in an excess of androgens, which can cause hair thinning in women.

Inevitably, finasteride and topical minoxidil products will come up in any conversation with your doctor or pharmacist, so here's the basic information you need to know about these two popular treatments and their potential for causing serious side effects.

What Is Finasteride (Propecia)? 

Finasteride is an oral prescription drug that was introduced in 1992 to shrink an enlarged prostate.

The story starts in 1942 — when Yale University anatomist James B. Hamilton observed the effects of sterilization on young male patients at the Winfield State Training School, a residential institution for mentally disabled boys and men.

Hamilton observed that the adult twin sibling of one of the men was bald, while his castrated brother retained a luxuriant head of hair. Ultimately, Hamilton made the key connection that male balding requires both a genetic predisposition and testosterone.

Approximately three decades later, Julianne L. Imperato-McGinley of Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, studied a population of intersex or sexually ambiguous children in the Dominican Republic who developed male sexual characteristics at puberty, around age 12. As these children grew into male adults, they matured with small, underdeveloped prostate glands and did not exhibit male pattern baldness. This landmark study uncovered a genetic mutation that lowered levels of dihydrotestosterone — aka DHT.

In 1975, drug giant Merck, under the code name MK-906, began the process of developing a drug to treat prostate enlargement that would mimic this mutation. It developed finasteride, which is called an anti-androgenic, "andros" being the Greek word for "men" ("anthropology" and "misanthropy" arise from the same root). In 1998, the drug received approval to treat male pattern hair loss. Finasteride is an effective treatment for hair loss in men at 1 mg per day.

Today, finasteride is also prescribed to women (with many caveats) for hair loss, except at a higher dosage. In these cases, the finasteride is usually paired with another anti-androgenic, often an oral contraceptive. Clinical studies of oral finasteride to treat female pattern hair loss are limited, often involving fewer than 50 outpatient participants because of the dangers the drug presents to women. Early studies have established that the effective 1 mg dosage for males was not effective in treating hair loss in women, who are typically administered 5g daily for the desired results.

Transgender women now may choose to use this drug in tandem with estrogen to suppress masculine characteristics, including coarse, dark facial and body hair and a deep voice. This is enlightening because any development of pattern hair loss — in men, women and trans women — is what's called virilization or the activity of male hormones.

Finasteride targets DHT, a form of testosterone in the scalp that attacks hair follicles. Because it targets DHT, it will not work for other forms of hair loss, such as hair loss due to chemotherapy, stress, side effects of medication or hypothyroidism.

Finasteride Side Effects

Finasteride is not without side effects — serious ones at that. Learn more about the potential side effects of finasteride to decide if it's right (or wrong) for you.

Problems in the Bedroom, and More

Complaints from male finasteride users followed shortly after the release of the drug, reporting side effects ranging from sexual issues including breast enlargement and tenderness, hives or welts, skin rash, chills, cold sweats and confusion. Additionally, a newly emerged phenomenon, post-finasteride syndrome, is currently under study. PFS is characterized by the persistence of side effects long after the drug is no longer taken.

In 2016, Merck was a defendant in approximately 1,370 product liability lawsuits, which had been filed by customers alleging that they had experienced persistent sexual side effects after ceasing treatment with finasteride.

High Risk of Birth Defects

The risks for women are far more dire. Finasteride is a teratogenic drug, meaning that if you get pregnant while taking it, it may cause birth defects, specifically to the healthy genital development of boy babies.

In fact, the Mayo Clinic advises that pregnant women — or those who may become pregnant — should not handle crushed or broken finasteride tablets because the drug can be absorbed through the skin and result in birth defects in male babies. Any contact with the drug under these circumstances should be immediately followed by a thorough washing of the area with soap and water. If you are a woman considering taking this drug, be sure to tell your doctor of your current status regarding fertility and contraception.

Finasteride is never responsibly prescribed to pregnant women, and women in their childbearing years are strongly cautioned to employ the most effective birth control methods possible, including doubling precautions (i.e., pill plus condom).

Oral finasteride may also affect a woman's breast tissue, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dosage tolerances for women are currently under study. Some studies in which women took 5 mg of finasteride daily resulted in those women having denser, thicker hair, but they suffered from breast tenderness, excessive body hair growth and decreased libido. A daily dose of half that potency, 2.5 mg, is currently being studied for effectiveness.

Is Taking Finasteride Worth It?

The potency of this drug, in general, is indicated by the manufacturer's warnings, which include the caveat to never take a double dose. If you miss a day, just skip the missed dose, as opposed to taking two doses together. Other warnings include that you should never abruptly stop taking this medication for any reason.

Currently, a topical finasteride solution for female pattern hair loss is being studied in the interest of lowering the systemic risks associated with oral treatment.

Please note that while it may be possible to purchase finasteride online under various brand names, or as a generic, without a prescription, you shouldn't. Instead, always seek the guidance of a trusted medical doctor if you're seeking presciption-based drugs to help you treat your hair loss issues.

The current consensus of health care professionals is that Propecia and other forms of finasteride are not as effective in treating female pattern hair loss as Minoxidil (Rogaine), which is the only FDA-approved medication currently available for female hair loss.

Also: Foods WIth Biotin to Eat for Healthy Hair

What Is Minoxidil (Rogaine)? 

Topical 2% Rogaine (minoxidil) is the only FDA-approved treatment for female hair loss.

Minoxidil is a topical product available over-the-counter in many different foams, 2% and 5% scalp drops or serums and shampoo. It's known as a vasodilator, which means that it makes the blood vessels widen in order to create blood flow. In ways that are not yet fully documented, this increased blood flow slows hair loss and encourages hair regrowth. A secondary aspect of this reported vasodilation is that minoxidil may expand hair follicles that have shrunk in the presence of male hormone activity (specifically DHT), allowing for more abundant hair production.

Another current theory about how minoxidil works is that it increases a specific enzyme called ATP in the hair follicle, which extends the anagen or growth phase.

Minoxidil was initially developed and tested in the 1950s as a cure for ulcers (it proved ineffective), and later in the 1970s was approved by the FDA as an oral treatment for high blood pressure. Then an unexpected side effect was discovered: hair growth. Marketed to men as Rogaine in 1988 and then to women in 1991, it's now available worldwide without a prescription.

It's been noted that minoxidil isn't effective in treating postpartum alopecia — another irony since the hormonal changes following pregnancy are perhaps the second major cause of noticeable female hair loss.

Also: Are Baby Hairs a Sign of New Growth or Breakage?

Minoxidil Side Effects

The common side effects of minoxidil are significantly less troubling than those associated with finasteride as a topical solution. However, it's important to be aware of those side effects before using a minoxidil solution. Here's what you need to know.

Also: The Major Differences Between Minoxidil and VEGAMOUR

Do a Patch Test First

Skin irritation is the most common side effect of minoxidil. So to find out if your skin will react, apply the solution to a dime-sized area of your scalp and wait 24 hours before continuing.

Skin reactions typically take place within a few minutes to a few hours and may include itching, flaking, redness, irritation and burning. This sort of inflammatory response will traumatize your follicles and prevent the growth of abundant, luxurious hair, indicating that minoxidil is not for you.

Be Careful Where You Put It

If you accidentally splash the product on your face, you may experience the sprouting of unwanted hairs on your face (facial hypertrichosis). This is the experience of anywhere from 3%-51% of women who use the product.

Oh, the Irony

The product may cause a temporary loss of hair, known as telogen effluvium. Yup. Minoxidil can shorten the resting phase of the follicle, called the telogen phase, as well as stimulating the anagen or growth phase. This typically happens two to eight weeks after treatment starts.

An array of other side effects have been reported by women using topical minoxidil. These include scalp irritation, low blood pressure, irregular heart rate, headaches and changes in hair color and texture. The percentage of women experiencing these issues is low, in the 2%-3% range, and in some cases may be the result of drug interactions or the effects of other medications or skin products.

See: What You Should Know About Stress and Hair Loss

Spironolactone (Aldactone)

Other drugs are commonly used off-label to address hair thinning and female pattern baldness. This is especially common in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome.

One of these is spironolactone, an oral medication that may be prescribed in tandem with hormone replacement to address hair loss after menopause. Spironolactone, often marketed as Aldactone, is a diuretic, meaning that it helps move excess fluid out of the body. It is also an anti-androgen, and because it decreases testosterone levels, it is often prescribed to treat acne, as well as to correct hair loss.

Understanding the relationship between acne and hair loss may shed some light on the nature of your condition. Androgens boost sebum or oil production in the skin. On your face, chest and back, this may contribute to congestion and breakouts. And on your scalp, this may result in shrinkage of the follicles, reducing their productivity.

Spironolactone Side Effects

In relative terms, side effects of the prescription drug spironolactone are minor and may include urinary urgency, changes in the menstrual cycle, breast tenderness, fatigue, headache and dizziness. Some spironolactone users reported weight gain, but there is no evidence that spironolactone causes weight gain.

Protect Your (Potential) Pregnancy

That said, the fact that spironolactone impacts breast and menstrual conditions is a clear red flag on a hormonal level. As with all anti-androgens, this drug can cause serious harm to a male fetus. If you're considering getting pregnant, don't use this drug. And if you're of childbearing age and decide to use this medication, take superhuman precautions to prevent pregnancy.

Also: Alopecia Areata Explained

Finally, An Effective Product for Thicker, Fuller Hair Without Side Effects 

At VEGAMOUR, we had a radical idea: Create an all-vegan, hormone-free hair wellness system that won't compromise your health. And we succeeded.

VEGAMOUR GRO Hair Serum

VEGAMOUR offers its signature hair serum either as a GRO Hair Serum or GRO Hair Foam. How do you choose between the spray or the foam? It’s totally up to you! We love the foam for damp-styling and adding volume to towel-dried hair. And we use the serum between shampoos — no need to rinse out. Both formulas contain the same plant-based (but powerful) cocktail of "alpha hair" ingredients, and it's fine to alternate as long as you use one of the products each day. Order today and apply daily for visible results — often in as soon as three months! But you don't have to take our word for it — see what our customers have to say.

How VEGAMOUR Works for Your Hair

VEGAMOUR hair products feature bio-active phytomolecules that naturally open up and restore the communication channels between your dermal papilla (skin tissue) and your follicles, enabling hair growth stimulation. The longer your follicles receive these signals, the more time they have to grow and volumize. The more active follicles you have, the denser your hair becomes.

Here are the botanical ingredients are found in our serum and foam, along with many other Vegamour products:

  • Red Clover & Mung Bean: Combats the follicle-shrinking action of DHT, so strand production is returned to normal.
  • Turmeric Root: Increases the length of the anagen (growth) phase of the hair.
  • Nicotiana Benthamiana: Strengthens and increases the density of existing hair while reducing hair loss from telogen effluvium.

    We know hair thinning and loss is stressful. Why worry about scary side effects from a treatment? Shop around, but know you can always shop safe at VEGAMOUR.

    Additional members of Team VEGAMOUR contributed to the reporting for this article.

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     Photo credits:

    • Photo Yoann Boyer/Unsplash
    • VEGAMOUR
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