Finasteride is one of only two medicines (along with minoxidil) currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of hair loss. It's taken daily in tablet form, and hence is much more practical than minoxidil - which must be applied directly on to the scalp twice a day. The flipside is that any medication taken orally is more likely to have side effects, although the FDA stamp of approval ensures that any risks are slight. Currently finasteride is only available with a prescription.
Finasteride was originally developed by Merck Pharmaceuticals in the early 1990s for the treatment of enlarged prostate glands. It wasn't long before users noticed a welcome side effect; that the drug appeared to halt hair loss, and in some cases even promote re-growth. Merck set to work and began a two year study on more than 1,500 men who were experiencing hair loss in their twenties and thirties. Each was given 1 mg of finasteride daily, and at the end of the two year period the results were impressive; 83 per cent of the men had either maintained or increased their hair count.
In 1997 the FDA approved finasteride as a hair loss treatment for men and is currently looking into if the drug may be safely used by post-menopausal women (it's thought that taking finasteride when pregnant may interfere with fetal development).
For most dermatologists and hair loss specialists finasteride is currently the preferred method of treatment, largely because it's both the easiest to take and the most effective product available on the market. Finasteride is often used in conjunction with mindoxil, the former targeting prevention of hair loss and the latter aimed at promoting hair re-growth. It's important to remember that - no matter how impressive the results - they won't happen overnight and finasteride won't work for everyone. The medicine's effects only last as long as it's being taken, so once you've started using it you're committed to it for the rest of your life.
Each tablet contains 1mg of the active ingredient, finasteride, which works by blocking the action of an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase. As this enzyme is responsible for converting testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (better known as DHT), taking finasteride causes a domino effect which reduces DHT. And here's the crunch; for anyone who's genetically predisposed to hair loss, normal levels of DHT cause hair follicles to shrink to a point where hair at first thins and eventually can no longer grow.
By lowering levels of DHT, finasteride is able to arrest hair loss and even bring about re-growth (as long as the hair follicle hasn't effectively 'sealed up'). As with all hair loss products patience is an important virtue as it can take up to twelve months to see positive results. The medicine will only stop hair loss for as long as it is being taken, so it's important to be committed in the long term.
Taking any orally administered medication runs the risk of side effects - however the good news is that with finasteride the chances are slim. There have been no known allergic reactions and it is not thought to interact adversely with any other drugs. finasteride is only available on prescription so it's best to discuss any concerns with your physician first. Reported side effects include:
• Decreased libido and sexual functioning in just over one per cent of users. In the lion's share of cases this is the temporary result of a change in hormonal balance, and typically rights itself after one or two months.
• Increased testosterone levels may bring about a generalized increase in body hair.
• finasteride represents a very real danger to pregnant women (in fact the FDA recommends that pregnant women shouldn't even handle the medicine). DHT is known to play an important role in the development of male fetal sexual characteristics, and suppressing DHT production can cause birth defects.