If you wake up with this on your pillow, the product is not working. (Photo by How can I recycle this)
If you're slick bald, deciding whether or not a hair growth product is working is simple. Hair growing where it didn't? Product works. Scalp still a human solar panel? Product doesn't work.
However, in those who suffer (or think they might suffer) from general thinning, the matter is more complicated. To be able to judge the results of using a product just by looking in the mirror takes at least 6 months, more likely a year. That's because the hair cycle is so long. It takes patience.
A lot of people will try a product for a few months and stop using the product because they think the results aren't there. Most likely they'll then try another remedy – again for a few months – and just keep switching from one product to another. This, of course, tells them nothing about whether the products actually work or not. They might be effective but grow hair only after a year or so, or they may simply stop hair loss in its tracks (or just slow it down, but that would be very hard to objectively detect and isn't much help anyway).
The following tips are not perfect – far from it. They're not a match for the virtue of patience. Unless you notice an increase in hair loss, you should give any product at least six months before making the decision to quit using it.
They are, however, simple and helpful indicators of whether the product is working its magic or not. They should also give you some idea of the cause of your hair loss – genetics, inflammation or something else. Depending on how long your hair usually grows and how effective the product is, you might see changes in these indicators (or hair-o-markers as I like to call them) earlier or later.
So, let's take a look at what the three ways of measurement are.
1. Count the number of hairs you shed.
Before you embark on a great journey of hair growth, you should try to count as meticulously as possible the average number of hairs you normally lose each day. Why? Because this number will serve as a reference to which you will compare the number of hairs lost after having used the hair growth product for a while. Remember that anything up to a hundred hairs is considered normal.
Of course, noticing and counting every single hair you lose during the day is very difficult (unless you wear one of those hair nets to the office and count them at home). Instead, you could count the average number of hairs you lose in the shower, or the number hairs on your pillow in the morning. It's impossible to say what the "normal range" is in this case, but the important thing is to have an estimate of how much hair you lost before you started eating Rogaine with your cereal.
One of the things that happens with androgenic alopecia (and some other forms of hair loss) is that the anagen (growth) phase gets progressively shorter. So when a single hair used to grow for 5 years, the next generation hair from the same follicle grows only for 4 years, and then the next one for 3, etc.
And what does this have to do with the effectiveness of the product? If the hair growth product really is making the anagen phase longer, as they often are supposed to do, you should see a reduction in the number of hairs lost.
To see why this is so, imagine that the average anagen phase lasts only one day, after which the hair immediately falls off (this'd be the telogen phase). Now, if you have about 100,000 hair follicles, you'd see 100,000 hairs being shed each day. Let's say that the product doubles the length of the anagen phase, making it two days. You'd now see only 50,000 hairs on average being shed each day. You'd still need a nuclear bomb to clean your shower drain, but at least you'd have an indicator that the hair product is doing something.
2. Look at the thickness of the hairs you shed.
Another thing that happens with genetic hair loss is that the thickness of individual hairs produced by a hair follicle is progressively reduced. This process is known as miniaturization. It happens to most people as they age, whether or not they have androgenic alopecia or not – including women.
Since most hair loss remedies and growth products claim to increase the size of the hair follicle, you should see an increase in the thickness of the hairs. This can be difficult to detect just by looking at your head in the mirror, since how it looks will depend on things like lighting, the length of your hair, the dryness/wetness level of your hair, and the ridiculousness of the face you're making when you're doing it.
A much easier way is to look at the thickness of the hairs you shed. If you have photographic memory, great, but you could also save some of the hairs you shed before you start the experiment, so that you can compare their thickness to the ones you shed while you're rubbing raspberry ketones and fermented dog saliva on your scalp. You could even track the progression of your experiment by saving a couple of samples from different parts of the head every month. It's all about the scientific method, see?
3. Look at the length of the hairs you shed.
This kind of ties in with the first tip, but it's still a bit different. The length of the hairs you shed not only tells you how long the anagen phase of the hair was, it also gives you an indication of possible scalp inflammation. Whereas with androgenic alopecia the anagen phase gets slightly shorter with each hair cycle, with inflammation you might shed hairs before they reach the end of their natural growth phase. That is, hairs are being lost earlier than they normally would.
You could of course argue that inflammation merely shortens the anagen phase even further, and I wouldn't argue back, I would merely call you names for trying to be clever. The important thing is that if you notice you're losing a lot of hairs that are much shorter than they should be (i.e. shorter than the rest of the hair on your head), you might have a problem with inflammation. Some of the follicles are probably more resistant to inflammation than others, so you'd have some hairs being shed due to reaching the telogen phase and others being shed much earlier due to inflammation.
Of course, this tip really only makes sense if you keep your hair long enough to notice the difference. Otherwise even the hair that has been growing for years is still going to be short. In that case, looking at the thickness would make more sense, as inflammation can also cause the hair to grow thinner.
So there we have them, the three simple and time-efficient ways to keep track of whether you're growing hair or thinning further. Not exactly rocket science, but certainly an improvement over staring at your hair in the mirror in a semi-hypnotic trance.
As I've mentioned many times in my blog posts, subjective evaluations can be notoriously misleading (see, for example, this post). Hopefully these tips will balance things slightly towards objectivism.
Have other tips? Share them!
For more information on hair growth, see these posts:
Asiasari Radix Extract Grows Hair in Mice and in Human Skin Cells
Vitamin E Tocotrienols May Grow Hair in Humans
Green Tea Extract Grows Hair in Vitro, May Work in Vivo
Signaling Protein Ephrin-A3 Grows New Hair Follicles and Thicker Hair