AS OTHERS let their hair down at office parties, Vikas Arora would be found trying his best to blend in with the furniture. “That’s because I literally had no hair to let down,” he chuckles. The 35-year-old architect can laugh about his bad hair days now, but just six months ago his receding hairline had him turning into almost a recluse.
“I was desperate enough to get a wig, although aware that it might look artificial,” he says, “till a relative recommended hair restoration.” Apprehensive about the procedure at first, Vikas looked it up on the Internet and found many vouching for how painless and technically sound these modern methods of hair restoration are. Half a year later, with 2,500 new hair implants, Vikas runs his hand through his lush hair with undisguised pride. “Today, the results are there for all to see.”
A combination of affordability, ease and swiftness of procedure has made it possible for many like Vikas to opt for new hair restoration techniques—like follicular unit extraction and direct hair implantation—that have stormed the Indian market.
The number of plugged heads in India is rising at an increasing rate. “Even three years ago, I would handle not more than one or two such cases in a month, but now I do 10 to 12 restorations in the same span of time,” reports Dr Arihant Surana of DHI Asian Roots, New Delhi, who treated Vikas for frontal baldness.
The profile of the implant seeker has also undergone a transformation. The urban rich have been replaced by the upper middle class as the target group. “It is the 30 to 55-year-olds who come in for the treatment. Among these are young entrepreneurs, corporate executives and engineers. They earn well, are extremely image conscious and hence are willing to spend a lakh or two on these treatments,” observes Dr RK Joshi, senior consultant, dermatology and venereology at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.
Trips overseas are no longer needed. “Celebrities still visit doctors like Alvi Armani and Sajjad Khan in Dubai to get implants done,” says Dr Surana, “But the middle-class consumer doesn’t want to spend so much money and time, and is opting for choices available within the country.” The spurt in domestic demand has prompted more and more doctors in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to take up this specialisation in recent years. Not just dermatologists and cosmetologists, but even trichologists now specialise in hair and scalp health.
GOOD CROP, BAD CROP
As specialisations go, it’s getting more and more refined, with old techniques yielding to new. Punch implants, for example, are passé now. As part of that process, a tuft of hair would be taken and punched onto the scalp.
Not only was it painful, the aesthetics of the results weren’t too appealing either. The fresh crop of hair would look unnatural, rather like a ‘doll head’ or ‘paddy field’. “Patients would have to undergo general anaesthesia and be discharged from the hospital after two to three days,” says Bangalore-based trichologist Shahid Shamsher, who recounts the tale of a patient so traumatised by the treatment that he climbed out of the toilet window to escape the rest of it.
Such athletic responses are unheard of now. Microscopic follicular hair transplant, or follicular unit extraction (FUE), is the new draw. It lets the specialist impart a natural look by imitating nature: clumps of hair are relocated from donor to balding patches. “Also, we use local anaesthesia so the patient is wide awake but not in any pain,” says Dr Sandeep Sattur, who owns Hair Revive Clinic in Mumbai and specialises in hair restoration and skin rejuvenation.
Yet another technique that has found favour with many is direct hair implantation (DHI). In this, single roots of hair are taken out from the donor area. “This is also an outpatient procedure and may take up to 4 to 6 hours, depending on the number of hair to be implanted,” says Dr Surana.
Besides the functional attractions of these methods, the celebrity quotient has also played a role of some recency. When Himesh Reshammiya flicked off his cap last year to reveal a newly thickened mane, he sent more people scurrying to google ‘hair restoration’ than to buy tickets for his latest film release.
“People like me thought that if he can grow back his hair, then so can I,” says a one-time sufferer of frontal baldness who spent nearly Rs 2 lakh and six hours to fulfil his mirror dream. “It was a simple procedure. I went in the morning and got done by the evening. My hair is growing naturally now and I am loving it,” he declares.
But more than Internet information and celebrity conversion, it is word-of-mouth publicity that works best for these treatments. Take the case of a 41-year-old who had held himself back from hair restoration because of all the horror stories he’d heard about the primitive punch method. That Reshammiya had had a transplant done was no reason to think again because he was such a big name. “He has the best of resources at his disposal,” says the one-time sceptic, “It is not necessary that I would get the same kind of treatment from doctors.”
However, a chance conversation with a colleague changed his mind. “He told me about a friend who had got follicular transplant done and was extremely satisfied with the results. I then met the same doctor, heard some more case studies and decided to go for it,” he recounts.
Hair restoration is sought mostly by men. Mumbai-based trichologist Dr Apoorva Shah believes that the male to female ratio is about 70 to 30. This is echoed by Dr Joshi, who treated only two women in 2008 for hair loss. “Most women don’t feel they need a hair transplant,” he says, “They usually have a thinning at the vertex or back of the head which they hide with their long hair.” The differing patterns of balding also make restoration somewhat more strenuous for women. “One usually transplants hair from the back of the head or the sides onto the recipient patch. As compared to men, women usually have very sparse hair per square centimetre in both these areas,” explains Dr Joshi.
While men give in to the need for hair implants more readily than women, they almost always prefer to do so behind a veil of anonymity. For many, half the point is to project a youthfulness that anyone knowing about it will work against. Then there is a degree of social awkwardness as well. “No matter how common these treatments become,” complains Vikas, “people still judge you and snigger at you, especially for being a male who got cosmetic treatment done. It’s just the way the mindset is.”
Maybe that will change once hair restoration becomes just another grooming device. Remember, hair colourants were seen to be upsetting the natural order of appearances only a decade or so ago. Attitudes and applications both have changed since. Expect even more excitement here. “The way ahead promises many more advancements and improvements,” says Dr Surana, “In fact, cloning is going to be the next big thing for replacing lost hair. Work on this is still underway.” Stem cells may yet stem baldness.