While minoxidil is commonly celebrated as an effective hair loss treatment, many individuals experience side effects related to the product’s ingredients, namely the alcohol content.
In this post, I’ll discuss the ill effects that alcohol-containing hair products can have on your scalp.
You’ll learn a bit about the different types of alcohols, including the ones which are present within minoxidil-containing products. I’ll also recommend you a few alcohol-free options, as well as alternatives that can help you to avoid minoxidil altogether.
With this information, you can then work on stopping your thinning, and perhaps even reversing it.
An Introduction to Minoxidil
If you suffer from hair loss, the chances you’ve heard of minoxidil are good. But let’s take a second to introduce minoxidil, including how it works.
Minoxidil, better known by the brand name of Rogaine, is a topical hair loss treatment drug.
The drug was initially developed as an oral hypertensive drug under the brand name of Loniten. The side effect of increased, unexpected hair growth was soon noticed, however. And thus, the idea of Rogaine was born.
Rogaine was the first drug to be approved by the FDA for the treatment of hair loss, and it’s been a popular choice of hair loss sufferers for decades.
How Minoxidil Works
Unlike finasteride (Propecia), the second FDA-approved drug for the treatment of hair loss, there isn’t a direct answer to how minoxidil stimulates hair growth. There are three theories which seem to have the greatest scientific backing, however:
- Minoxidil increases blood circulation to the immediate area.
- Minoxidil opens potassium channels.
- Minoxidil up-regulates growth factor in human dermal papilla cells.
By dilating the blood vessels and opening potassium channels, it’s speculated that minoxidil works to ensure that more blood, oxygen, and nutrients are delivered to the follicles.
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 use items, such as shampoo, conditioner, and serum.
While some individuals have no trouble whatsoever, those with more sensitive scalps may benefit from avoiding such products. Why? Alcohol can lead to a number of unpleasant scalp-related symptoms. Let’s take a look.
Alcohol is used in many products to speed the process of drying. This means that alcohols evaporate from your scalp quickly.
Unfortunately, alcohol can sometimes bring other things – including scalp sebum – with it. This can lead to dry, brittle hair that is unmanageable. In addition, this can dry out your scalp.
A common symptom of scalp drying is flaking. As alcohol present in hair products can cause dryness, flaking is not an uncommon side effect of such products.
Flaking occurs when the scalp’s moisture levels are low. This happens in the absence of natural scalp sebum, and this can cause itching and redness. In addition, flaking itself is an embarrassing symptom.
As a result of the dryness and flaking associated with alcohol application to the scalp, irritation can occur.
Alcohol isn’t exactly known for its gentle properties. Instead, alcohol is known to strip moisture from the skin and scalp and this can lead to irritation. Such irritation includes burning, tingling, itching, and throbbing.
In the video below, Javi talks about using minoxidil (for beard growth.) He makes it clear how the alcohol causes the skin to sting, and also causes severe dryness. So much so that he has to use a moisturiser lotion after (more chemicals.)
A Look at Short-Chain and Fatty Alcohols
You may be surprised to learn that alcohol can be harmful to the scalp and hair. After all, you can find it in almost all shop-bought hair products, even those claiming to be moisturizing. So, what’s the deal?
Well, not all alcohols are created equal.
There are actually two different categories of alcohols found in hair products.
When you think of alcohols, this is the type you’re most likely to think of. Such alcohols include ethanol, SD alcohol (and its variants), and isopropyl alcohol.
These are all alcohols which are small (in terms of chemical structure) and slightly miscible (able to mix) in water. This miscibility also means that they’re able to break down oils and other ingredients that aren’t miscible with water.
These alcohols are added to hair products in order to speed the drying process of such products when applied to the hair.
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, and leave the scalp 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 and 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, historically, animal fats. However, as vegetable oils provide a larger variation of chain lengths, they are the preferred source.
When speaking of carbon molecules, it’s important to understand that more molecules means an oilier substance. As such, fatty alcohols are commonly used as emollients in hair products.
This means they penetrate and moisturize the hair shaft, and this leaves your locks soft and manageable.
Alcohols in Minoxidil: Short Chain or Fatty?
When speaking of hair products, including minoxidil, it’s safe to say that short-chain alcohols are the most likely cause of adverse skin reactions. Let’s take a look at the ingredients of minoxidil’s most popular brand name product, Rogaine:
One of the most common small-chain alcohols, SD alcohol 40, is present.
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 doesn’t contain propylene glycol).
However, there are still alcohols present in the foam formulation, so you may have trouble if you’re particularly sensitive.
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.
In short, 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.
Where to Buy Alcohol-Free Minoxidil
You may be surprised to learn that finding store bought alcohol-free minoxidil is quite 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
However, as far as I can tell these claims aren’t backed by the FDA or any other such compliance agency.
So, if there aren’t 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, but they are also harder to find.
Is There an Alternative Option to Minoxidil?
The best thing about alcohol-free minoxidil is that it makes it possible for people with skin sensitivities to use it, too. What if you prefer to take a different approach, though?
There’s no doubt that minoxidil has proven itself as a hair growth stimulator. But it doesn’t treat the root cause of the hair loss. This means as soon as you stop using it, you’re likely to face the same receding hairline and increased shedding as you had before.
The good news? There are a few drug-free options available. Let’s take a look.
While minoxidil has a few proposed mechanisms by which it promotes hair growth, the one that most people consider is its vasodilating effects. That is, it increases blood circulation.
You can increase blood flow to the scalp without minoxidil, though. How? With scalp massage.
Scalp massage is the practice of manually manipulating the scalp. This has a few 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’ll continue this motion from the sides of your scalp, to the hairline, and then back to the sides.
To target the crown and base, you’ll place one hand on your scalp just above the forehead and the other on the base of the scalp. You’ll perform the same circular motions as before, gently moving your hands towards each other so they meet at the crown, and then back to their respective positions.
For a more in-depth tutorial, check out our scalp massage and exercise demonstrations here.
If you’re looking for a way to further increase blood flow to the scalp, try microneedling.
Microneedling is a dermatological procedure which involves making tiny wounds on the scalp. As the wounds heal, the blood circulation to the area is increased.
Blood flow isn’t the only benefit of microneedling, though. It’s also speculated that the healing process itself plays a role in hair follicle neogenesis.
What does this mean? Microneedling can lead to the regeneration of functioning hair follicles on the human scalp. This is similar to the embryonic process in which 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 the group to use just minoxidil:
How to Perform Microneedling
Microneedling services are offered by dermatologists and estheticians, 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’ll want to divide your scalp into eight to 10 zones. You’ll then place the dermaroller within the first zone. Begin to move it in up/down, side/side, and diagonal patterns.
You’ll perform these motions about two to three times before you move onto the next zone of your scalp. There may be some areas that overlap, but try to avoid overdoing it in one particular spot.
The dermastamp is a bit simpler. You’ll place the device in the first zone of your scalp first horizontally, then vertically, and then diagonally. On each placement, you’ll hold the stamp in place for five seconds. You’ll then repeat these steps until you’ve done it in each zone.
It’s important to sanitize your microneedling tool after each use. You can do so with rubbing alcohol, boiling water, or an antibacterial soap. Never share a dermaroller/dermastamp.
If you’ve discussed your hair loss concerns with your doctor, you know that one of the first things they consider is your vitamin and nutrient levels. Why? Because nutrients are a necessary part of healthy hair growth.
The fact is that many people, even in first world 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 isn’t a new one. And 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. But the best long-term resolution to this issue is to adjust your diet accordingly.
If you suffer from biotin deficiency, for example, then you’ll 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’re hitting all major vitamins and nutrients, but here’s 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 (such as Rogaine and Propecia).
The presence of alcohol can have ill effects on the scalp, however. This can mean that the product doesn’t work as intended, or the side effects are too much to continue use.
Fortunately, you can still see the same positive effects associated with minoxidil by making your own alcohol-free alternative at home. The best part? The ingredients you use are all-natural, and this means better long-term results.