What is minoxidil? How to use this hair growth treatment

We explore Minoxidil, one of the most popular hair loss treatments.

Written by
Sarah Stivens
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
June 29, 2022
6
7
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Hair loss — the bogeyman of getting older. If we don't talk about it, it won't happen, right? The truth is, hair loss is extremely common for men (and women) and most people you meet will be affected by hair loss at some point in their lives (5).

While some people might embrace change and go the full shave, it can be a scary decision to make and it's understandable if hair loss affects your confidence and self-esteem. But, the good news is that there are plenty of hair loss treatments available to keep you feeling your best.

In this article, we'll explore one of the most popular hair loss treatments on the market: minoxidil. Whether you've just started looking into treatment options, or are about to start minoxidil for the first time — we've done the research for you.

What is minoxidil?

Minoxidil is a hair loss treatment that's been around since the '80s. Originally, it was developed as a medicine for high blood pressure — when researchers realised people taking it got a little... hairier... all of a sudden, they developed it into the hair loss treatments we use today.

Minoxidil is the main treatment on the market for male pattern hair loss (fancy science name: androgenetic alopecia). It's called 'patterned' hair loss because the hair falls out in the same sequence for most people — for blokes, this usually starts around the temples and top of the head.

While minoxidil can definitely help with this type of hair loss, it's not recommended for use on a receding hairline or hair loss that's really sudden.

If you do have sudden or unexplained hair loss, it's best to chat to your GP — there could be some underlying health stuff going on they need to rule out (3).

How does minoxidil work?

Even though it's been around for a long time, researchers and doctors still don't know exactly how minoxidil works (2). What a mysterious little champion!

What they have figured out is that it seems to relax the blood vessels in the body. This helps nutrients and blood get carried to the hair follicles, which promotes hair growth. Some research has also suggested that minoxidil also has anti-inflammatory properties (2).

Male pattern hair loss can happen when your hormones start affecting your hair follicles. All of our hormones change as we age, and for men, it can mean that hair follicles become smaller or finer.

Eventually, this new type of hair can get so short/fine that it's hard to see — so your scalp can appear bald (5). By getting more of those delicious nutrients to the hair follicle, minoxidil can improve the thickness and volume of your hair. Full Fabio vibes.

When you first start on minoxidil, you might notice some initial hair shedding — this is completely normal and usually settles within about six weeks.

So, how do you actually use the stuff?

Different types of minoxidil treatments

There are a couple of different ways you can take or use minoxidil. The type you use can depend on your hair, medical history, current medications and what your doctor or health professional recommends (5).

Responses to hair loss treatment are really individual — what works for someone else may not be the right treatment for you, so it's important to get good advice.

The two main treatments available are minoxidil topical solution and minoxidil as an oral medication.

Oral minoxidil treatment

The oral minoxidil comes in tablet form and is the newer version of the treatment. It's usually taken once or twice a day, and should contain a low dose of active ingredients that stimulate hair growth.

We can't say too much about the meds (because of Australia's laws against advertising prescription medication, which protect us from dodgy marketing campaigns), but you do need a prescription to access them.

What we can say though, is they're effective at preventing or reducing hair loss — particularly if you haven't noticed any improvement with other types of treatment (1). Generally speaking, most people notice results within the first three months of their treatment (1).

Topical minoxidil treatment

The other option is topical minoxidil treatment. Topical here means the stuff you physically rub into your noggin. There are two kinds:

  • Liquid topical minoxidil — a solution that's usually mixed with propylene glycol, water and alcohol.
  • Foam topical minoxidil — you guessed it, a foamier solution that doesn't contain propylene glycol (7).

So which of these bad boys is better? It depends.

The liquid has propylene glycol in it because this can help minoxidil penetrate the skin and do its job, but it can leave you feeling a bit greasy. Some people can also have an allergic reaction to the liquid— itchiness and skin irritation are some of the signs.

The minoxidil topical foam is generally less messy, and some people find it easier to style their hair after using it (8). It dries faster than the liquid and seems to cause less scalp irritation.

It really will depend on you and your hair, though— for example, if you have longer locks the liquid might actually get further into your scalp and work better (8).

What are the side effects of minoxidil?

Before starting minoxidil therapy, it's important to have all of the facts. Side effects from minoxidil use are rare, but they can happen. Here's what you should look out for:

  • Dermatitis or other allergic reactions
  • Excessive or unwanted hair growth (sometimes called hypertrichosis)
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness and low blood pressure (8).

When you're taking the right amount and the right formula for you, the risk of adverse effects is pretty slim. But it's better to be safe than sorry, so make sure you chat to a trusted health professional before you start your treatment.

There are a couple of situations where the use of minoxidil isn't recommended: if you're already taking medication to reduce your blood pressure (4), if you're under 18 years of age (3), already have skin conditions, heart problems, or kidney/liver disease. If any of this applies to you, chat to your GP about your treatment options (3).

If you do start minoxidil treatment, whether it's the topical or oral kind, it's a good idea to regularly get your pulse and blood pressure checked. This can help keep you safe from any potential side effects (4).

Can minoxidil regrow hair?

So by now, we know most of the ins and outs of minoxidil. It can prevent hair loss, and increase hair volume... but can it actually replace the stuff that's already fallen out There's a pretty good chance it will, depending on how much hair loss there is. Let us lay some science on you for a second.

Hair growth happens in four phases that all have very official names: anagen phase (growing), catagen phase (transition), telogen phase (resting), and exogen phase (shedding).

Old pal minoxidil can come in and give your follicles a bit of a jump start from the resting to the growth phase. It can also keep your hair in the growth phase for longer — neat huh? With these powers combined, you can end up with new hair growth that's noticeably thicker.

We're not talking a full Rapunzel situation though; minoxidil can't regrow a full head of hair from scratch — if your hair has gone through big changes like this it's harder to reverse them (10).

Can you use minoxidil for your beard?

Look, we can't really tell you what to do with your own face, but the science doesn't seem to think it's a good idea to use minoxidil on it (10).

While you'd think minoxidil would do the same for facial hair growth as it does for your scalp, the problem is there are no clinical trials that have made sure it's safe.

At the moment, it's only really been tested on scalps — and we've already talked about the skin irritation some people experience. Your face is usually much more sensitive than other skin on your body, meaning you're probably more prone to irritation.

Because of this, and the higher risk of side effects, minoxidil isn't licensed for use on your face. Best to only keep it up top (10).

Using minoxidil with a derma roller

You've gotten this far, so we've got one more cool trick to share with you. Remember we said we'd done the research?

Well turns out that using a derma roller alongside your minoxidil treatment can help it work more effectively.

Derma rollers are made from a bunch of teeny tiny (1mm) needles that you can roll over the skin on your scalp. By doing this, you can trigger more blood flow to the area and activate the stem cells that live there — leading to better hair growth.

Studies have shown that people using the derma roller as well as their minoxidil have a much better response to treatment than when they use minoxidil alone (11).

For more information about how and when to use the derma roller, chat to your GP or dermatologist.

Where can you buy minoxidil?

Once you and your GP have decided which treatment (oral or topical) is the right fit for you, next up is acquiring the stuff!

If you're going the topical route, you can usually find this over the counter at your local pharmacy. For other options, you'll need to see a GP.

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