Making those hairy decisions

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Carol Sorgen

Does your hair make you want to dye? Or wig out?

Sure, there are worse things in life. But as we age — whether it’s thinning hair, graying hair or lost hair — those bad hair days just seem to multiply.

The FDA says two out of five women color their hair. While there do not appear to be national statistics on men who touch up or dye their hair, a walk down any drugstore’s hair color aisle suggests it is a common phenomenon.

At the same time, as the baby boomer generation has aged and gone gray, there has been a backlash in some quarters against such efforts to turn back the clock.

More and more women are deciding not to color their hair, many celebrities among them (think actress Helen Mirren, singer Emmylou Harris and model Carmen Dell’Orefice). And there’s even a trend among some young fashionable women, exemplified by Lady Gaga, to color their hair gray on purpose.

Author Anne Kreamer helped inspire this approach in 2007 with her book Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else that Really Matters.

She and Diana Lewis Jewell, who wrote Going Gray, Looking Great, have led thousands to take pride in their silver locks. Or at least to come to terms with it.

“I’m going gray!” Nancy Jackson exclaimed. “OK, well, I am gray,” she admitted. While gray hair may not be what Jackson wants to see when she looks in the mirror, she has decided it’s going to have to do.

The 52-year-old Perry Hall resident said her decision to let her gray hair stay that way has provoked a lot of comments from her friends. To all those who want to know, “Hey, what’s up with the gray hair?” Jackson explains that she chose to go this route for several reasons:

“One, the idea of constantly putting chemicals on my head is scary at best,” she said. “Two, dyeing it won’t make me any younger, although I will grant you that I might look younger.

“But I’m opposed to a society that has so many standards of what women are supposed to look like, that is, young, thin, etc. And finally, I just don’t have the time. These days I can barely keep up with getting it cut.”

Going natural

Anne Berman has also joined the ranks of women who refuse to dye their gray hair. But in her case it was a decision made after years of coloring it.

Berman, who is 63 and lives in Owings Mills, first started adding red highlights to her hair as a teenager. “I envied my older sister, who was a natural redhead, and thought coloring my own mousy brown hair would make it look better,” Berman recalled.

The highlights eventually led to all-out dyeing, and when Berman noticed her first few strands of gray in her late 40s, she figured all the more reason to keep on coloring.

Berman eventually decided enough was enough. Among other things, she was getting tired of the expense. “I could do something else with that money,” she said of her professional dye jobs.

It took about a year and a half for Berman’s now salt-and-pepper hair to grow out. “That was not a lovely stage,” she admits. But eight years down the road, Berman doesn’t give her hair color a moment’s thought.

Her decision has so impressed others that one of her husband’s cousins decided to follow suit, and her own daughters have said that when they start graying, they’re going to let it be.

From a hairstylist’s standpoint, there are other reasons that you may want to think twice about dyeing your hair. Sherri Miller, owner of Versacchi Studios in Owings Mills, notes that once you’ve gone gray, “the grow-out [after a coloring] is obvious so quickly that you may have to come in as often as once a month.”

Also, “a gray ‘grow-out’ makes hair look even thinner because of the contrast with the new color,” she explained.

If you do want to color your hair, she said, it’s better to go with a lighter shade, or just add highlights to minimize the contrast.

Hope for hair loss

But what if it’s not so much the color of your hair that’s the problem, but the lack of it?

Alopecia (the medical term for hair loss) can be even more troubling and common. The problem confronts 50 percent of men and 30 percent of women over the age of 50, according to Dr. James E. Vogel, an Owings Mills plastic surgeon who is a national leader in the field of hair restoration surgery.

In many cases, hair loss is due to hormonal imbalances, Vogel said. In men, this type of hair loss can be controlled by the medication Propecia (finasteride). Vogel himself takes the once-a-day pill and credits his full head of hair to the drug.

Unfortunately, when alopecia is an inherited condition, even Propecia won’t prevent hair loss, Vogel said. In those instances, you’re reduced to either a hairpiece or surgical hair transplantation.

Another drug, minoxidil (sold as Rogaine) helps some men (and women) retain their existing hair and in some cases grow part of it back. But it doesn’t fight baldness or receding hairlines, and works best in those under 40, according to the National Institutes of Health. Also, the drug must be continued indefinitely. When it’s stopped, any new hair will fall out.

With a transplant, a cosmetic surgeon moves healthy hair follicles from the back of the scalp or side of the head to areas in the front or middle portion of the scalp where hair has disappeared.

Hair from the side or back of the head will grow anywhere it is transplanted, according to Vogel, and will not fall out like the hair it is replacing.

Hair transplantation is an outpatient procedure done under local anesthesia plus an oral sedative. Possible side effects include temporary swelling of the forehead and tightness in the area from which grafts were taken.

But the benefits, according to Vogel, are having your own naturally growing hair, undetectable results and more self-confidence.

Transplantation costs vary according to the extent and number of procedures needed, but are on a par with other cosmetic surgeries such as liposuction, Vogel said. Insurance doesn’t cover hair transplantation unless the hair loss is caused by injury or illness.

Roger Bobbitt recently traveled from Virginia to Baltimore to have Dr. Vogel correct hair plug surgery Bobbitt had undergone at the tender age of 30, almost 20 years ago.

Techniques then weren’t what they are now, and Bobbitt was never happy with the artificial look the earlier surgery had given him. As he continued to lose hair through the years, the plugs became even more visible.

Following a three-part corrective repair and new transplantation procedure recently performed by Vogel, Bobbitt said his hair has a softer, more natural look. “Now I look good,” Bobbitt said.

Solutions for women

While hair transplants are frequently thought of as a technique for men, almost a third of Vogel’s hair restoration patients are women.

For women, hair loss can be especially devastating, said Vogel. “Men can put a positive spin on it, but for women, hair loss is even more psychologically damaging,” he said.

“No woman wants to be faced with hair loss,” agreed Matt Leavitt, DO, author of Women and Hair Loss. “Loss of hair is a huge self-esteem issue for women.”

Women’s hair can become thin or fall out for many reasons, including illness, stress, childbirth or heredity. Women’s Rogaine — a less potent form of that for men and available without a prescription — can stimulate hair growth, said Leavitt.

Rita Douglas found herself among the 30 percent of women who suffer from hair loss. “I had an actual bald spot in the front of my scalp,” said the 67-year-old Sparks resident.

After meeting Versacchi’s Miller, a hair loss specialist, Douglas found a solution that worked for her — an enhancer, which is a cap of hair that adds volume and height to thinning hair as well as covering bald spots. The cap is glued to the scalp and replaced every month.

“You can wear it all the time and treat it just as you would your own hair,” said Douglas. She also chose to lighten her hair from its original dark-turning-gray color to highlighted blonde.

“It’s made such a tremendous difference in my life,” said Douglas, who recalled that at her own 60th surprise birthday party her friends almost didn’t recognize her.

“I have a better outlook on life. Men smile at me now. Without hair, I was never noticed at all,” she said.

At a monthly charge of $365 — which includes not only the hairpiece but scalp treatments — “it’s not cheap,” Douglas admits. “But it’s worth every penny!”