What's the go with hair plugs?

Hair plugs generally deliver enviable, natural-looking results.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
June 7, 2022
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Hair plugs, known better today as a hair transplant, is an increasingly common method of combating hair loss. The treatment has come a long way since it first emerged in the 1950s.

When it comes to hair loss, few, it would seem, are immune.

Hair loss is more normal and common than you’d think. In fact, one in five Aussie men in their 20s encounter significant balding (with this stat doubling by the time men reach their 40s).

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean men aren’t affected by hair thinning. For many blokes, hair loss is a source of stress and anxiety, and so it makes sense that a bunch of hair loss treatments have been developed over the years.

Nowadays, men can choose from a selection of hair loss treatments on the market with varying levels of success, but perhaps the most extreme treatment available is a hair transplant or hair plugs.

Today, hair plugs generally deliver enviable, natural-looking results and have a high success rate depending on your individual hair loss journey and the specialist that carries out the procedure. But they’ve come a long way since the 1950s, when hair plugs first came onto the scene.

The history of hair plugs

Hair plugs have been used since the mid 20th Century as a way to hide the appearance of hair thinning or balding. The process involves taking follicular units from thicker parts of the scalp (or other parts of the body) and transplanting this onto the affected areas, like the crown or within a receding hairline.

Hair plugs have earned themselves a bad reputation over the years. The first modern hair transplant took place in Japan during the 1930s, using grafts to restore facial hair to burns victims.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the focus was shifted to treating male pattern baldness, with New York dermatologist Dr. Norman Orentreich responsible for planting the first grafts in balding areas on the head. Many look to Dr. Norman as the inventor of the modern-day hair transplant.

The early incarnations of hair plugs used invasive surgical techniques that transplanted large tufts of “donor” hair areas onto the “recipient” areas of the scalp or hairline. The issue with this technique is that it didn’t blend in the transplanted hair, giving an unnatural doll-like look to the hair. Clearly, something had to change.

Fast forward to the 1990s and enter Dr. B.L. Limmer, the first surgeon to use micro follicular unit grafting to revolutionise hair transplant treatments globally. Setting the gold standard for hair transplant treatments, Dr. Limmer used a microscope to create small grafts of naturally occurring hair groups (known as follicular units).

The result? A more natural finished product that better blended into the patient’s actual hair.

Types of hair transplants

For men considering hair loss treatment, the options are much less barbaric than in previous decades, thanks to the powers of modern medicine.

Today, the process involves taking hair from the back of your head and transplanting this to the front. These treatments can have an almost undetectable look as they use smaller grafts to mimic the look of your natural hair.

There are two common types of hair transplant options available in Australia. These are:

Follicular Unit Excision (FUE)

A modern hair transplant procedure which involves taking individual hair follicles from your own head using specialised micro tools. These fine blades work on tiny parts of your scalp to shift hair follicular units one by one from the back of your head to the crown or hairline.

The pros: using fine needles, this sophisticated process transplants hair follicles individually (moving only one to three hairs at a time) making scarring almost impossible to see with the naked eye.

The cons: Due to the single-hair extraction process, this treatment involves a full day surgery under local anaesthetic, making it very time consuming and often more expensive than other options.

Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT)

Also known as a “strip procedure”, this technique is commonly used to harvest and move thousands of hair follicle in one go. These narrow strips are removed from the back of the head (where the hair is the thickest), divided into small follicle units of 1-4 hairs, and transplanted into the thinning scalp areas.

The pros: By moving larger strips of hair, this method is much faster and more cost effective as surgeons are able to move large amounts of hair quickly.

The cons: Due to this technique taking larger strips of hair, scarring is almost inevitable with this procedures (which can be a concern for those with shorter hair).

As you’d expect, no matter what method you choose, the costs of hair transplant surgery aren’t cheap. In fact, they’re shown to cost Australians on average between AU$11,000 to $18,000 (with some even costing as much as $30,000 if multiple sessions are required).

How do hair plugs work?

It's worth noting that all experts agree that hair transplants do not provide a 'cure' for baldness — they can treat it, but there is no guarantee that further hair loss won't still occur.

Hair transplant procedures have been utilised to treat hair loss, including female pattern hair loss, for decades now.

It's been acknowledged that these techniques are effective, but that the FUE procedure can achieve more natural-looking results. Like all hair transplant surgeries, there are pros and cons to each medical procedure.

The FUE procedure takes longer for the surgeon to perform as it involves the removal and transplant of individual existing hair follicles onto the donor area but it can produce slightly better results with minimal scarring.

In essence, hair transplants work by hair transplant surgeons obtaining existing hairs from the body (from the back of the head, or even other areas of the body where more hair is present) and using them as donor hair for the scalp and thinning areas.

Are hair plugs actually effective?

Medical News Today advises that there is a chance that some of the transported hair follicles will not "take" — this is similar to the language used when doctors refer to donated organs that are "rejected".

These transported hair follicles can die, and no new hair will grow.

In addition, even successful hair transplant recipients may require a touch-up procedure. Like all medical procedures, it can take a few months for the body to settle in its new state and for patients and their doctors to assess the outcome.

Not everyone is over the moon with their results so a good doctor will keep expectations in mind before the surgery.

Touch-ups are generally a minimally invasive procedure but are definitely something to think about when researching and assessing the overall cost.

What are potential complications?

Like all medical procedures there are risks that can come with hair transplants:

  • General anaesthesia risks, including an allergic reaction
  • Surgical risks such as bleeding or infection
  • Scars that may be severe, raised, or bumpy
  • Possible nerve damage including permanent loss of sensation
  • Tissue death along the wound
  • Death of the skin grafts and hair follicles themselves
  • Further surgery to address any complications

Things to consider

With the rise of 'lunch break' beauty techniques like anti-wrinkle injections being normalised, it can be easy to forget that most cosmetic procedures like hair transplants are, in fact, surgery.

Some important things to keep in mind:

  • Crucially, have realistic expectations. If someone is starting with not much hair at all, no amount of transplant is likely to transform that into a thick mane.
  • Thin hair has slightly less chance of being successful than thick hair.
  • It can take up to nine months for the donor hair to fully take root.
  • It can take time to find the right surgeon.
  • Factor in recovery time when thinking of timelines.
  • Smokers are at increased risk of complications from surgery (this is relevant to most surgeries by the way, if you needed an extra nudge to quit!).
  • Speak with your GP to assess whether a hair transplant procedure is right for you.
  • Consider alternative methods (especially if you’re young) as there are medications and less invasive options worth checking out.
  • Do your research and find a licensed, certified surgeon who can guide you through the process. Compare a variety of reputable surgeons so you don’t settle for the first one you meet.
  • Be prepared for the potential side effects of the procedures, including infections, pain, itching, swelling, bleeding, and more. If you’re concerned, speak with your doctor to get a better understanding of what to expect.

Like most things when it comes to your health, prevention is always better than a cure, and in the case of hair loss, a costly and painful operation is still the closest we have to a "cure", per se.

But with this said, the biggest killer of hair follicles is time, and the sooner you act to keep your hair via the two proven effective treatments available from a GP, the more likely you are to stay hairy without surgical intervention.

Modern day hair loss medications, like those offered by Pilot doctors, are easily available, affordable, and have a high success rate in helping more than 80 per cent of men to keep and regrow their hair.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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