When it comes to caffeine, we often think about coffee. But have you noticed how many cosmetic products use caffeine, too? You may have seen it as a topical product in lotions, serums, shampoos, and various skin and hair products. This is because caffeine absorbs through your skin and works its magic on your skin cells and hair follicles. But is this enough to treat hair loss? Read below to find out more.
Most caffeine studies focus on androgenic alopecia, the most common type of hair loss. Androgenic alopecia is a genetic type of hair loss that affects the hair in a specific pattern. In men, it often causes receding hairline or thinning on the crown, and is called male pattern hair loss. In women, it usually presents as general thinning on top of the scalp and is called female pattern hair loss. It is a condition that we see daily at The Belgravia Centre and a common question is whether caffeine products can treat it.
An important aspect of this type of hair loss is a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This is a completely natural hormone and is your most potent androgen (male sex hormone). It is produced when an enzyme called 5 alpha-reductase makes testosterone, your main circulating androgen, convert into DHT. This process can happen on your scalp, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss. Lifestyle factors can also influence the severity of hair loss – for example, hormonal changes, low levels of some vitamins and minerals, stress, and some medications can all play a part.
Your hair grows in a cycle made of three main stages. The anagen stage is the growing phase of the cycle during which cells in the follicle divide and the hair actively grows in length while it is strongly anchored to the follicle. The catagen stage is a brief transitioning stage and at this point, the hair stops growing. The telogen stage is the resting stage of the cycle when the hair detaches from the follicle, falls out naturally, and the follicle remains empty to rest for a short while before it starts the same cycle again. This entire hair growth cycle is regulated by various proteins, hormones, and hair growth factors.
Androgenic alopecia can start at any age after puberty and the first signs can be subtle. You may notice the hair on your temples looking thinner, or you may see your scalp more easily through your hair. Many people don’t realise that they are losing hair until they compare it to old photos and notice that their hair now looks thinner, or until someone else points it out. This is because hair loss is a very gradual process. DHT attaches to receptors in your hair follicles which makes them become smaller. Over a long period of time, with every following hair cycle, the affected follicles become smaller and weaker, they produce less hair which is also thinner – this is a process called follicle miniaturisation. Their anagen duration becomes shorter and the telogen phase may be longer. This means your hair would struggle to grow to its usual thickness and length, and once it falls, the follicle may take a while before it starts growing new hair again. This makes your overall hair look thinner and thinner until many of the follicles are lost permanently.
Although androgenic alopecia is not a dangerous medical condition, it can still cause significant distress and low self-esteem. It is always recommended to treat androgenic alopecia early. The aim of the treatment is to slow down the hair loss process, regrow hair, and then maintain the hair at its optimal thickness.
Using caffeine on your scalp is of course not the same as drinking coffee. Caffeine has a very useful ability to absorb through the skin with the help of the hair follicles. This is why the use of topical products containing caffeine has been gaining more and more popularity.
Caffeine is a chemical that is available in many plants – not just coffee beans, but also cocoa, tea, and is even made synthetically and added to some soft drinks, cosmetic products, weight loss medications, and pain relief medications. When used in moderation, it can provide many benefits:
Caffeine has been known to influence the release of some neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenalin and acetylcholine. It can therefore enhance the mood, help improve concentration and even help reduce fatigue which is why it is added to pain relief and cold medications.
Caffeine can also inhibit specific types of enzymes called phosphodiesterase enzymes (PDE) in the cells – this means that it can help provide more energy to the cells, increase their metabolism and promote cell division. For the hair follicles, this means that more energy can be available for the hair follicle cells so they can continuously divide and make more hair fibre.
Caffeine is a rich source of antioxidants and is often used in anti-ageing cosmetic products. It has been known to protect cells from free radicals and can help protect the skin from photoaging induced by UV radiation from the sun.
You have smooth muscle fibres throughout your entire body – they contract and serve many functions. Each of your hair follicles has a muscle attached to it – this is the arrector pili muscle, made of smooth muscle fibres. Caffeine has been known to decrease the tension of smooth muscle fibres around your follicles which helps to deliver nutrients through the blood supply to your hair follicles.
The International Journal of Dermatology published a study in 2007 that investigated the effects of caffeine and testosterone on hair follicles. The researchers used biopsy to take follicles from the crown area of men with androgenic alopecia. These follicles were then observed in a lab setting – some were used as control and some were exposed to testosterone and/or caffeine. The study found that testosterone was suppressing the growth of the follicles – this is consistent with the nature of androgenic alopecia where androgens like testosterone and dihydrotestosterone make the hair follicles become smaller and weaker over time. Interestingly, however, they also found that caffeine in concentrations of 0.001% and 0.005% counteracted this effect. Additionally, the follicles that were exposed to caffeine alone, were stimulated to grow further.
In 2013 the Journal of Mazandaran University of Medical Sciences published a study comparing the efficacy of topical caffeine + minoxidil solution 2.5% and topical minoxidil solution 2.5% alone in the treatment of androgenic alopecia. This was a double-blind randomised clinical trial with 60 patients diagnosed with androgenic alopecia. They were divided in 2 groups with each treatment method, and both groups had to use their allocated solution by measuring 1ml and applying this twice daily to their scalp. The hair count on the affected areas of the scalp was monitored and after 5 months, the researchers found that the combination of caffeine and minoxidil achieved significantly more results compared to the minoxidil alone.
The British Journal of Dermatology published a study in 2014 exploring the effects of caffeine on the hair follicles and hair shafts. Human scalp hair follicles were observed in a lab setting – some were exposed to testosterone, others were exposed to a combination of testosterone and caffeine. The study found that follicles that were exposed to caffeine, produced longer hair shafts and had a longer duration of their anagen (growing) phase of their hair cycle. Caffeine also stimulated the growth of cells in the hair follicles and reduced the cell death. Interestingly, female hair follicles had higher sensitivity to caffeine than male hair follicles but in both cases, the study found growth-promoting effects of caffeine on the human hair follicles.
An Italian study in 2020 tested the effects of caffeine shampoo on women with female pattern hair loss. The researchers asked women with female pattern hair loss to use caffeine shampoo for 6 months and compared their hair results to women with female pattern hair loss who used a control (caffeine-free) shampoo for 6 months. They performed a pull test at the end and concluded that those who used the caffeine shampoo had fewer hairs pulled during the pull test. A pull test is performed to assess the number and type of loose hairs that come out when the hair is gently being pulled without significant force. This means that telogen hairs may come out if the person is experiencing increased hair shedding at the time, or broken hairs may come out if the person has very damaged and over-processed hair. Many variables can influence the result of a pull test such as how frequently the person washes and brushes their hair, as well as the general health of the hair shafts. As female pattern hair loss is an ongoing type of hair loss, it does not have to present with excessive hair shedding and in many cases the pull test is negative. For this reason, a pull test alone is not enough to measure the severity of hair loss in androgenic alopecia.
Although caffeine has been found to have positive effects on the hair follicles and hair growth, it is important to note that this only happens at low caffeine concentrations. Over-treating the hair follicles with caffeine can actually have the opposite effect and inhibit hair growth. The International Wound Journal also found that higher concentrations of caffeine reduced cell division and resulted in poor wound healing. This is an important note to consider because if the scalp is maintained in poor condition with chronic irritation and scratch marks that heal slowly, this can only have a negative impact on hair growth.
Caffeine is progressively gaining popularity in hair and skin products due to its numerous positive effects. However, androgenic alopecia is a genetic progressive type of hair loss that requires ongoing treatment. Future studies will have to examine the long-term effects of topical caffeine on hair growth at various caffeine strengths, and whether the effects of caffeine change over time. It is also important to measure how much caffeine will reach the hair follicles when used in a shampoo that is being rinsed fairly quickly, compared to a leave-on product, and which one would be more beneficial to hair growth.
The Skin Pharmacology and Physiology journal published an article in 2007 demonstrating that the hair follicles provide a pathway of fast caffeine absorption and caffeine can penetrate the follicles in as little as 2 minutes of exposure to caffeine shampoo. But is this enough to treat hair loss?
At present, there are several studies demonstrating the positive effects of caffeine on the hair follicles as observed in a lab setting but there is a limited number of studies exploring the long-term efficacy of topical caffeine in those with androgenic alopecia, with most studies only lasting for several months. It is promising to see that caffeine combined with other treatments, such as minoxidil, may achieve better results in hair growth. However, there is no clinical evidence that caffeine alone can achieve the same results as treatments such as minoxidil or finasteride.
Although topical caffeine may help your hair growth, it is very unlikely that this will be enough to treat male or female pattern hair loss. We still have a lot to learn about the exact concentrations of topical caffeine that can achieve optimal results and whether these results will be long lasting. So far topical caffeine alone hasn’t been enough to stop the progression of androgenic alopecia and achieve significant regrowth when used in cosmetic products such as shampoos or lotions. Of course, considering its possible benefits, there is no harm in trying such products alongside your hair loss treatment as long as you don’t have any skin sensitivities to caffeine and you don’t rely on caffeine alone to cure your hair loss condition.
There are only two medically proven treatments for androgenic alopecia – minoxidil and finasteride for men, and minoxidil only for women. Finasteride, available in oral or topical preparations, reduces the available DHT that is causing hair follicles to shrink and lose their hair. Minoxidil helps to increase blood circulation, encourages the growth of hair follicles and aids in stronger and thicker hair growth. Minoxidil is available in various strengths and preparations with added ingredients that help us achieve optimal results and tailor the treatment plan to each patient’s situation. Some of Belgravia’s minoxidil preparations also include caffeine added to them.
If you have noticed any signs of androgenic alopecia, it is always advisable to start treatment early as otherwise more hair can be lost and the hair follicles will become weaker over time. You can contact our qualified hair loss specialists 7 days a week, should you wish to discuss suitable treatment options for your specific case. You can arrange a free consultation in our Central London clinic with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the world and we will talk to you on Zoom. Take a look through our hair regrowth photo gallery – which is the largest gallery of its kind in the world and contains over 1,000 sets of hair growth photos and verified reviews from patients of The Belgravia Centre.
The Belgravia Centre is a world-renowned group of a hair loss clinic in Central London, UK. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation from anywhere in the world for home-use treatment.
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