If your hair is thinning, you may be curious as to whether any of the new-fangled wearable laser devices sold for home use can restore your lustrous locks. One is iGrow, a helmet-like device you’re supposed to wear for about 25 minutes every other day. Others include the LaserCap, Theradome, and HairMax LaserBand. All deliver low-level laser light therapy (LLLT)—also called red light, cold laser, or soft laser therapy—to the scalp. Though this may sound tempting, here’s what to know before you plunk down $700 to $3,000 for one of them.
Animal research dating back to the 1960s first noted that LLLT stimulated hair growth. It has been proposed that LLLT may alter cell metabolism in hair follicles and increase tissue oxygenation and vasodilation, among other mechanisms. The light may also activate the anagen (active growth) stage of hair.
Two small studies on the use of iGrow in people with androgenic alopecia (common male balding and female hair thinning) reported a 35 percent increase in hair count in men and a 37 percent increase in women after four months of treatment, compared to those who used a sham device. The studies were published in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
A handful of other small trials using LLLT helmets or less-pricey laser combs have also reported increases in hair density and thickness. But some studies have shown no benefits. And while many website comments rave about the results, some complain of hair loss after using the product.
Bear in mind also that even when studies report positive findings, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a significant difference in appearance. That is, you may end up with a little more hair or thicker hair shafts, but you may not notice it. A study in Dermatologic Surgery in 2013, for instance, noted statistically significant increases in hair diameter, compared to a sham-device group, but no differences in subjective assessment or satisfaction of users.
Moreover, nearly all the research has been funded by the manufacturers of the products or done by researchers with financial ties. Methodological problems are common. Plus, the studies vary in design, making them difficult to compare. There’s no standard wavelength or energy dosage used, and it’s not known what an optimal treatment protocol would be. It’s not even clear who might benefit—some people may be more responsive, depending on the type of hair loss and individual differences.
According to an independent review article in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment in 2014, much of the evidence in favor of LLLT is “quasi-experimental,” and thus the extent to which the treatment is effective “remains unclear.” If you see companies boasting that their devices are “FDA cleared,” that just means they are “equivalent” to similar devices already on the market, not that the FDA has endorsed the products’ efficacy (or safety) for the claimed purpose.
Bottom line: Well-designed independent studies are needed to determine the benefits and long-term safety of LLLT and of particular devices. If you’re concerned about hair loss, a dermatologist should evaluate you to determine the cause of the problem and advise you about possible treatments. The laser devices are meant to be used only for common hair loss. Over-the-counter topical minoxidil (Rogaine and generics) and prescription oral finasteride (Propecia) have better track records for regrowing hair, especially when started early on—though they have potential side effects and also don’t work for everyone.