Minoxidil is a very popular hair loss treatment. Many users, however, experience side effects related to the product’s ingredients, including the alcohol.
This article will discuss the ill effects that alcohol-containing hair products can have on your scalp.
You will learn about the different types of alcohol, including the ones which are present within minoxidil-containing products. You will also learn about alcohol-free options, as well as alternatives to avoid minoxidil altogether.
With this information, you can then work on stopping your thinning, and perhaps even reversing it.
An Introduction to Minoxidil
Minoxidil, usually sold under the brand name of Rogaine, is a topical hair loss treatment drug (1).
Researchers originally developed it as an oral hypertensive drug, under the brand name of Loniten. Doctors and their patients soon started to notice an unexpected side effect: increased hair growth. And so Rogaine was born.
Rogaine was the first drug that the FDA approved for the treatment of hair loss, in 1987. It has been a popular choice of hair loss sufferers ever since.
How Minoxidil Works
Unlike finasteride (Propecia), the second FDA-approved hair loss drug, there is no clear answer as to how minoxidil stimulates hair growth (2). There are three suggestions that seem to have the greatest scientific backing. These are:
- Minoxidil increases blood circulation to the immediate area.
- It opens potassium channels (3).
- Minoxidil also up-regulates growth factors in human dermal papilla cells (4).
By dilating the blood vessels and opening potassium channels, scientists believe minoxidil delivers more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the follicles. The end result is that more of these follicles are in the active growth phase (anagen) at any given time. This means more hairs that are growing for longer.
The Effects of Alcohol on Your Scalp
Alcohol is present in many shop-bought hair products. This includes those that are meant to treat pattern baldness, but also everyday items like shampoos, conditioners, and serums.
While some individuals have no adverse reactions to alcohol, those with more sensitive scalps may benefit from avoiding such products. Alcohol can lead to a number of unpleasant scalp-related symptoms, which we outline below.
The function of alcohol in many products is to speed up the process of drying. This means that alcohols evaporate from your scalp quickly.
Unfortunately, as it dries, alcohol can sometimes bring take other things with it. The most important of these is sebum, the natural oily substance that our scalp naturally produces. This can dry out your scalp and lead to dry, brittle hair.
A common symptom of scalp drying is flaking. As alcohol present in hair products can cause dryness, flaking can be another common side effect.
Your scalp can start to flake when its moisture levels are low. This can happen with insufficient scalp sebum and can lead to itching and redness. The flaking itself is unsightly and can cause embarrassment.
In addition to dryness and flaking, another possible side effect is irritation.
Alcohol is not the most gentle of substances. Especially in susceptible individuals, alcohol can strip moisture from the skin and scalp, leading to irritation. Symptoms of this irritation include burning, tingling, itching, and throbbing (5).
A Look at Short-Chain and Fatty Alcohols
It might be surprising to hear for the first time that alcohol can be harmful to the scalp and hair. After all, it is a very common ingredient in nearly all shop-bought hair products, including those that claim to be moisturizing.
In reality, not all alcohols are created equal. There are two main different categories of alcohols found in hair products.
When you think of alcohol, this is the type you are most likely to think of. Such alcohols include ethanol, SD alcohol (and its variants), and isopropyl alcohol (6).
These are all alcohols that are small in terms of molecular structure. They are used in skincare products because they are solvents: this means that they are able to break down oils and other ingredients that don’t dissolve with water.
These alcohols are also added to hair products in order to speed the drying process after application. This often leaves a pleasant, cool sensation that users perceive as beneficial. Unfortunately, this can leave the hair shafts dry and damaged, as oil evaporates along with the alcohol. The drying can also spread to the scalp, leaving it with patches of dry, itchy skin.
Unlike short-chain alcohols (which contain only 1-3 carbon molecules per chain), fatty alcohols are long-chain alcohols. They contain anywhere from 4-26 carbons. A few examples of such alcohols include lauryl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol.
Fatty alcohols are largely derived from natural sources, such as vegetables and animal fats. As vegetable oils provide a larger variety of chain lengths, they are the preferred source.
When speaking of carbon molecules, it is important to understand that more molecules mean an oilier substance. As such, fatty alcohols are commonly used as emollients in hair products. This means they penetrate and moisturize the hair shaft, leaving your locks soft and manageable.
Alcohols in Minoxidil: Short Chain or Fatty?
When it comes to skin and hair products, including minoxidil, short-chain alcohols are the most likely cause of adverse skin reactions. Here is a look at the ingredients of minoxidil’s most popular brand name product, Rogaine:
It contains one of the most common small-chain alcohols, SD alcohol 40.
Another common short-chain alcohol, while not present in all minoxidil formulations, is propylene glycol. This is an ingredient commonly associated with irritation, and many users of minoxidil have had luck switching from the liquid formulation (which contains propylene glycol) to foam (which does not contain propylene glycol).
However, there are still alcohols present in the foam formulation, so you may have trouble if you are particularly sensitive.
(Learn more about the differences between the liquid and foam formulations of Rogaine here.)
Why Does Minoxidil Contain Alcohol?
With so many negative side effects, you may be wondering why alcohol would be included as an ingredient in so many hair and skin products, including minoxidil.
As we mentioned, alcohols like SD alcohol 40 and propylene glycol act as solvents. This means that the alcohols contribute significantly to the solution-like presentation of minoxidil and other such topicals.
Alcohols like SD 40 also serve to preserve the formulation and extend the shelf life of the product.
Where to Buy Alcohol-Free Minoxidil
Finding store-bought alcohol-free minoxidil can be difficult. There is one brand in particular – Aquagaine by Hair Restoration Lab – that seems to have the alcohol-free minoxidil market cornered.
Developers claim the product is:
Silicon-Free, Alcohol-Free, Ammonia-Free, Contains Vitamins, Cruelty-free/No Animal Testing, Formaldehyde-Free, Paraben-Free, Perfume-Free, Sulfate-Free
If there are not many alcohol-free minoxidil products on the market, what are your options? The cream formulations may also be an option since they are less likely to contain alcohol. On the other hand, they are also harder to find.
Is There an Alternative Option to Minoxidil?
After thirty years on the market, minoxidil has proven itself as a hair growth stimulator, at least for some users. On the other hand, minoxidil does not treat the root cause of hair loss. This means as soon as you stop using it, you are likely to face the same receding hairline and increased shedding as before.
Fortunately, there are a few drug-free options available.
As we mentioned earlier, one of minoxidil’s signature physiological mechanisms is vasodilation. That is, it increases blood circulation.
You can increase blood flow to the scalp without minoxidil, though. One easy way is with scalp massage.
Scalp massage is the practice of manually manipulating the scalp. It has several benefits, including reduced scalp tension and increased blood flow to the immediate area.
How to Perform Scalp Massage
To begin, place your hands on either side of your scalp. Grip your scalp firmly, and begin to move your hands in a circular motion. You will continue this motion from the sides of your scalp, to the hairline, and then back to the sides.
To target the crown and base, place one hand on your scalp just above the forehead. Place the other on the base of the scalp. Perform the same circular motions as before, gently moving your hands towards each other so they meet at the crown. Then take them back to their respective positions.
For a more in-depth tutorial, check out the scalp massage and exercise demonstrations here.
If you are looking for a way to further stimulate hair growth, try microneedling (7).
Microneedling is a dermatological procedure that involves making tiny wounds on the scalp. As the wounds heal, the scalp releases various growth factors. These promote skin rejuvenation as well as hair regrowth.
Some researchers speculate that the healing process itself plays a role in hair follicle neogenesis (8). This means that microneedling can lead to the regeneration of functioning hair follicles on the human scalp. This is similar to the embryonic process where hair follicles are initially formed.
There have been numerous studies on the benefits of microneedling for hair growth. One in particular even showed that the use of a dermaroller alongside minoxidil outperformed minoxidil monotherapy (9):
In the above graph, the red line shows the before and after results of a group of men who used standard daily minoxidil treatment. The green line is the group of men who combined daily minoxidil with weekly microneedling sessions. Their hair counts increased approximately four times as much as those of the minoxidil monotherapy group.
Other studies have reported similar results (10, 11)
How to Perform Microneedling
Dermatologists and estheticians offer microneedling services, but you can also practice microneedling at home. All you need is a microneedling tool like a dermaroller or a dermastamp.
Note: If you choose to get the procedure done at a clinic, ensure that the practitioner is licensed.
To use the dermaroller, you will want to divide your scalp into 8-10 zones. Place the dermaroller within the first zone. Begin to move it in up/down, side/side, and diagonal patterns.
Perform these motions two or three times, before moving onto the next zone of your scalp. There may be some areas that overlap, but try to avoid overtreating any particular spot.
The dermastamp is a bit simpler. Just place the device in the first zone of your scalp first horizontally, then vertically, and then diagonally. On each placement, hold the stamp in place for five seconds. Repeat these steps until you have treated each zone.
It is important to sanitize your microneedling tool after each use. You can do so with alcohol or boiling water. Never share a dermaroller/dermastamp.
If you have discussed your hair loss concerns with your doctor, you know that one of the first things they may consider is your vitamin and nutrient levels.
Many people, even in developed countries, suffer from vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. The most common include Vitamins B7, C, D, and E, though other deficiencies do exist.
The idea to supplement your diet in order to reverse hair loss is not a new one. In fact, it may be one of the easiest ways to support healthy hair growth.
The quickest way to address these deficiencies is to begin supplementation with vitamins and minerals. The best long-term resolution to this issue is to adjust your diet accordingly.
If you suffer from biotin deficiency, for example, then you will want to be sure to include more biotin-rich foods. These include egg, beef liver, pink salmon, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, and almonds.
It can be difficult to ensure that you are hitting all major vitamins and nutrients, but here is a tip: the more colorful your diet, the more varied your vitamin intake is likely to be. This means eating colorful fruits and vegetables in addition to lean meats, healthy fats, and whole grains.
Alcohol is present in many shop-bought hair products, including those which are meant to regrow your hair, like Rogaine.
Alcohol can have ill effects on the scalp. The most common of these are dry skin and irritation. These will not directly interfere with minoxidil’s therapeutic effect. Because they are unpleasant, however, they may lead to poor treatment compliance and increase the chances you quit altogether.
Fortunately, there are some alcohol-free minoxidil formulations on the market, though these can be hard to find.
There are also natural alternatives to minoxidil. Two of the most popular ones are scalp massage and microneedling.