Low-Level Laser Therapy: Does it Work for Hair Loss?

laser-therapy-for-hair-lossLasers surround us in our everyday life.  We listen to CDs using special laser devices; we use laser printers to print information from computers; cashiers in supermarkets use laser scanners to read the barcodes on products;laser pointers are used by teachers when drawing attention to information on blackboards or overhead projections; various clubs use lasers to create light shows.  Medicine has also found a use for lasers – they are used instead of a scalpels to cut tissue during a surgery; to change the shape of the cornea during eye surgery in order to improve eyesight; to remove plaques from the clogged arteries; to remove unwanted hair, wrinkles, moles and freckles; even in plastic surgery to change the shape of a face! 1,2

Laser technology was used for the first time for medical purposes several years after the invention of the laser in 1960.  In 1965 Endre Mester, a Hungarian physician and a pioneer of laser medicine, started investigating his theory that low-level laser (LLL) light could lead to the formation of a cancerous growth.  Mester shaved two groups of mice: one group was put in a cage and exposed to a constant low-level laser; the other group was left unexposed as the control group. In spite of his expectations, the laser light didnot provoke cancer in any of the mice.  Instead, the mice that were left in the cage with laser light grew their fur back much faster than those of the control group. Mester published the results of his study in 1967 and called his discovery “photobiostimulation”.  He assumed that, in some way, the low-level laser light had managed to stimulate the haircells and switch them into an accelerated state of hair growth.3

In recent decades, medical professionals have used low-level (also called ‘cold’) lasers to treat hair loss (aka alopecia).  In spite of being on the market for quite a long time, such type of hair loss therapy still remains rather controversial – some physicians entirely reject the idea that lasers can help treat hair loss, whereas others use low-level laser therapy as a routine part of the treatment.

LLL Therapy for Hair Loss

The lasers used for hair loss therapy do not damage the skin or produce heat; they produce only light.  The light penetrates the upper layers of the scalp, does not harm it and is absorbed by the scalp cells.  Laser therapy used for the treatment of alopecia depends on the devices that emit a light which will penetrate the scalp. These devices may use any of the following types of LLL lasers:

  • Fractional erbium-glass (wavelength 1550 nm)4
  • Helium-neon (wavelength 632.8 nm);
  • Excimer (wavelength 308 nm)5.

Also LLL therapy uses the following devices emitting red light (630-670 nm):

  • Hand-held devices, like brushes or combs;
  • Head caps or bonnet;
  • In-salon overhead panels or hoods.

How does LLL Therapy Work?

To treat hair loss with low-level laser therapy, laser rays are applied directly to the scalp to stimulate the red blood cells. Theoretically, it is believed that:

  • Laser photons influence cytochrome C oxidase so as to increase the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which transports chemical energy for metabolism. ATP is then converted into cyclic AMP (adenosine monophosphate) in the cells of the hair follicles, releasing energy and promoting the processes that are required for hair growth.
  • Laser-induced nitric oxygen is released from the cells causing increased vascularization of the scalp which leads to enhanced distribution of oxygen and nutrients to the hair roots.

Researchers assume that low-level laser therapy increases the flow of blood to the scalp and promotes metabolism in those hair follicles that are in catagen (transitional) and telogen (resting) phases.  However, promoting hair growth is not the same as the re-growth of the miniaturized hairs affected by androgenetic alopecia.

Scientific Studies

Although low-level laser therapy has received enormous attention from the media and resulted in great marketing budgets from the manufacturers of the laser devices, there are not enough clinical trials investigating the long-term effectiveness of this therapy.  However, there are some studies showing positive results.

In April, 2014, the researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine published very promising results of the randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled clinical trials of hair loss treatment with the use of an LLL device (a lasercomb). The study involved 128 males and 141 females suffering from pattern hair loss.  These participants randomly received either a laser device (lasercomb) or a sham device and were treated for 26 weeks.  At the conclusion of the trials, the researchers observed the absence of any serious side effects and a statistically considerable difference in the density of terminal hair between the patients treated with a lasercomb and those who received treatment with a sham device.  It was concluded that LLL treatment can be an effective method to treat male and female pattern hair loss.6

What do Medical Specialists Think about Laser Therapy?

There is still no consensus among physicians as to whether or not low-level laser can really help in the treatment of any type of alopecia.  Some respected specialists reject laser therapy; some believe that it can provide the patients who suffer from androgenetic alopecia with marginal benefits.  Some hair transplantation surgeons believe low-level lasers can assist the process of postoperative wound healing and stimulating hair growth.

Those who are skeptical about this type of hair loss treatment say that the published trials are not independent nor unbiased and that there are not enough trustworthy clinical studies to assure them that this therapy can provide considerable effect.  They want more evidence thatproves LLL therapy can really promote hair re-growth.

What are the Possible Results of LLL Therapy?

As with any other hair loss treatment (maybe except for Minoxidil and Finasteride), there are no guarantees that LLL therapy will help solve a hair loss problem.  Some of those patients with hair loss who use laser devices for rather a long time, do report some thickening of their hair – meaning that the hair strands became stronger and thicker in diameter.  Such therapy may work for some patients, whereas for others, they experienced no results at all.

The manufacturers of laser devices have stated the following scenarios are possible when using their devices:

  • No changes – there is no slowing down of hair loss and no hair growth;
  • Hair loss slows down or even stops but there is no hair growth;
  • Hair restoration – hair loss has stopped and the hair becomes thicker;
  • Noticeable hair growth – hair loss has stopped and the hair growth is considerable.

It’s quite probable that the effectiveness of LLL therapy may be overpraised by some manufacturers of laser devices as well as by the clinics that offer such therapy.  So it is important to maintain realistic expectations and not to expect miracles when experimenting with this type of hair loss treatment.

References:

  1. Laser In-Situ Keratomileusis. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Laser_surgery.aspx
  2. Laser surgery. http://www.healthcentral.com/encyclopedia/408/324.html
  3. Mester E, Szende B, Tota JG. Effect of laser on hair growth of mice. Kiserl Orvostud. 1967;19:628–631.
  4. Lee GY, Lee SJ, Kim WS. The effect of a 1550 nm fractional erbium-glass laser in female pattern hair loss. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2011 Dec;25(12):1450-4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21812832
  5. Al-Mutairi N. 308-nm excimer laser for the treatment of alopecia areata. Dermatol Surg. 2007 Dec;33(12):1483-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18076615
  6. Jimenez JJ, Wikramanayake TC, Bergfeld W, Hordinsky M, Hickman JG, Hamblin MR, Schachner LA. Efficacy and safety of a low-level laser device in the treatment of male and female pattern hair loss: a multicenter, randomized, sham device-controlled, double-blind study. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2014 Apr;15(2):115-27. http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/483/art%253A10.1007%252Fs40257-013-0060-6.pdf?auth66=1406818524_f2dd90b2371254bb4d2deaae759727ed&ext=.pdf