(Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

January 30, 2024   7 mins

Shakespeare had it wrong: uneasy is the head that wears no crown. Because from Samson onwards, men have feared losing their hair. It’s something to do with ageing perhaps, a sense of retreat or fading virility — though for decades a comforting myth persisted that bald men actually had an excess of testosterone. But there’s no way of spinning it: the condition still inspires a visceral reaction. Just compare thumb-headed Prince William with golden, wavy Prince Wills.

Lifelong sufferers report dysphoric levels of internal torment. Christopher, now 62, started shedding when he was 28. “I was so proud of my thick hair, but it just got thinner and thinner,” he says. “It changes your image of yourself fundamentally, at least it did for me. Because my hair was so thick I never thought it would, and then I just thought, ‘Oh fucking hell. I’m going to be one of those bald guys.’ I’m not exaggerating — it robbed life of any pleasure. Just looking in the mirror became a torture. And I already drank a lot, and I started drinking really heavily after that. My drinking took on a really dark turn after the hair loss — it just poisoned everything.”

Christopher had five hair transplants over a couple of decades, and the final one “took” completely, leaving him with a full head of hair. But he tells me about a friend who started losing his as a teenager. “I know that it destroyed his self-confidence,” Christopher says. The friend, now 70, neither treated nor shaved it, persisting with “combovers and things like that”. “He would say, ‘Once you go bald, your looks are gone and you’re always going to have to accept second-best in terms of a wife’
 I know it ruined his life.”

In an age of technologically compelled self-obsession, a version of this fear is already filtering down to my own age group. Having barely achieved the quarter-century, friends are inspecting their family trees for evolutionary disadvantage, peeling back fringes to reveal widow’s peaks and Eiger foreheads. It is now more than common for my social reunions to begin with an update on the loosened thatch — stories of smoothing back your rug only to find yourself with furry fingers, and of showers that seem uncomfortably akin to shaves. These anecdotes find plenty of statistical company. A quarter of men who develop hereditary male baldness (“androgenic alopecia”) see symptoms before the age of 21; by 35, two-thirds of men have lost at least some of their hair. 

Such is the potency of this fear that young men try to palliatively anticipate what’s to come. Ben is 29, and has been using medicinal treatments for hair loss for two years. “It was like a preventative thing,” he says. “I don’t like to think of myself as someone who is vain. But I don’t really exercise, and if I were to lose my hair, I’d basically just become my dad
 It’s almost like a psychological thing where, if I take this pill, I’ll keep my hair. It’s like an anxiety deferred.” But he’s sure this is more prevalent among young men than it used to be. “If I was a 30-year-old man in the Seventies, and I was going bald, no one would care. Something has happened in the last 40 years.” And he’s right. For most of human history, however miserable it made them, men could do nothing about their condition. But now an entire male baldness industry has arisen to simultaneously nurture and service their fears. 

The gold standard is, of course, the transplant, a treatment which sprouted onto the British male psyche in 2011 when Wayne Rooney explained: “I was going bald at 25 — why not?” In response, millions of men must have thought: if a guy who’s been turned into a Shrek doll by his own fans can have a decent head of hair, why not me? Other celebrities followed suit (“Rio Ferdinand shows off his new hair and beard transplant,” as the sidebar of shame had it last month) and now a £1.5 billion transplant economy has now opened up, headquartered in Istanbul. Nor is the trip necessarily a fool’s errand. For the scale of change possible, observe the stunning transformation of Arsenal defender Rob Holding from tonsured no-hoper to barbershop pin-up.

Though increasingly popular, this is still the expensive option, costing thousands in Turkey, and tens thereof in England. For those of leaner means, or whose condition is not yet so severe, there are alternatives. An entire fleet of companies has surfaced: Keeps, Rogaine, Happy Head, Scandinavian Biolabs, Sons UK, Numan, Unthin, Manual and Hims. If you haven’t heard of them, check the social media feed of any man you know. You’ll find their before-and-after adverts squatting there, admonishing and inviting. 

For around £20 a month, you’ll receive a mixture of topical and oral treatments (pills, shampoos, serums and sprays) which make use of two main chemicals, minoxidil and finasteride. The first came about by happy accident. Minoxidil is a vasodilator (a drug used to treat high blood pressure) originally developed in the Seventies. But when it was tested, doctors noticed that it also stimulated hair growth (exactly why is still somewhat unclear) and it was directed towards hair-loss treatment in 1986. Finasteride, meanwhile, is a “preventer”. The drug stops testosterone from turning into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a male development hormone, and was first developed to treat enlarged prostates in 1992. But, since DHT also stops hair growing, reducing its presence in the body can slow hair loss, including after it has already begun. The product joined minoxidil in a different section of the pharmacy in 1997. As cosmetic treatments, neither is available on the NHS for hair loss, though they have been available from private pharmacies for years. 

In this way, these companies are effectively pulling off a marketing trick more than a medical miracle: they offer the slickness of a “telehealth” service, employing online physicians to validate prescription-subscriptions which are then sent out in the mail. And in this digital setting, a distinctive, millennial tech start-up aesthetic emerges: gorgeous websites, pastel colours, and stylish, sans-serif fonts. Hims is most typical, and like any modern company worth its screentime, offers a philosophy as well as a product. “Hims is about personal wellness,” its website boasts. “You should look and feel your best all the time. Our job is to make that easy and affordable
 We hope to enable a conversation that’s currently closeted. Men aren’t supposed to care for themselves [we’re too often told]. What a load of bollocks.”

This is the language of wellness, of looksmaxxing and personal optimisation, turned into breathy corporate advertising copy. The packaging of Hims’s bottles and pouches is of a piece — beige, clean and minimalist. Manual, which Ben uses, does the same: “You get a little box, and it’s very cute, and it’s like you’re opening a present… It’s almost like they’ve managed to remove all stigma around what is essentially a pharmaceutical product, and it just becomes another thing that you take alongside your vitamin D and vitamin C tablets.” Much like the supplement industry, they are marketing hair regrowth as a route to the giddy state of “self-care”. And not just hair regrowth — several (but not all) of these companies offer other optimising pathways to spot-free skin and top-notch sexual performance. In this context, hair regrowth becomes just one waypoint of many along the road to total masculine performance. 

But obviously there is a catch. For a start, none of these treatments is guaranteed to work — and certainly not to levels of reforestation depicted in the adverts — while the hair that grows can be thin, and disappointingly downy (“peach fuzz”, Christopher calls it). The drugs can also take months to have any effect, which, for all the many happy customers, will see many men paying for weeks’ worth of ultimately useless brew, while (unlike transplants) any improvements will disappear the moment you stop taking them. And, frequently noted in manosphere-adjacent corners of the internet, finasteride especially can have some worrisome side-effects: depression, loss of libido and erectile dysfunction. Which makes you wonder if Hims were onto something with the specific combination of treatments they offer.

Nevertheless, men are flocking to these companies. While there’s little evidence that hair loss is statistically more prevalent today, the psychologists’ verdict is that social media has made millennials and Gen Z more “hair aware”. Popular Reddit threads such as r/tressless and r/HaircareScience provide a platform for tens of thousands of young men to trade tips on courses of “min” and “fin”, and share their own progress, uploading dozens images of their gradually thickening scalps. Even those who suffer the side-effects shrug them off: “Had a couple of days of ball ache and I don’t get morning wood anymore,” one user told me. “But fine. Satisfied with the results.”

Another man in his 40s making use of finasteride explained it “has had some psychological effects such as moderate depression that I have recently mitigated via antidepressants”. But, not to be deterred, he’s just starting using minoxidil too. Ben, meanwhile, used finasteride before minoxidil, and reported a plunging period of depression. “I was taking actually a very small dose, like half the dose I was recommended, and I just felt dead inside
 It’s actually really disturbing that you can send off for something on the internet which can put you in such a dark place.” (Manual lists “low mood, depression or thoughts of self-harm” as very rare side-effects on its website.)

This is not exactly the relationship one might expect between a health supplement and its consumer, and it’s quite self-evident what all this really adds up to. In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith attempted to clarify the phase of late capitalism that had established itself in the post-war United States, based around the marketing of luxury and consumer goods. Many had been retailed through what he called “the dependence effect”, by which consumers’ “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied”. Frequently, producers may go as far as to “actively create wants through advertising and salesmanship”. In the Fifties, this meant white goods and General Motors. But now individual happiness is found in the mirror, much as it was once found in things. 

Since then, with nowhere else left to colonise, capitalism has begun to cultivate the interior self, as it once did the fields and forests. And, it should be noted, this follows a strategy that has already been tried and tested to tremendous effect on at least 50% of the population. Women, for whom the scale of personal refurbishment demanded by society was always greater, have long been sold the language of optimisation and tweakments. It is part-and-parcel of existence as a female citizen-consumer, but also of a feminist discourse that has been critiquing the relationship of the cosmetic to the political for decades. 

The old stereotype of male insouciance when it comes to appearance is equally now long dead. A brave new world has crept up to replace it: of hair regrowth, breaking your femurs to gain a few inches in height, chin implants to achieve a squarer bone structure, and penis-enlargement surgery. But this is all about as liberating as the first appearance of Botox, another very 21st-century promise of cash-for-youth, cash-for-looks. It is another patch of the private realm swept into the orbit of commerce and checkout, a demand that may be exploited, but is ultimately unsatisfied.

Nicholas Harris is a Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.