Slow, lackluster hair growth is a common problem for both men and women. Fortunately, there are several ways to accelerate hair growth, increase density and improve your hair’s overall appearance.
The key is to be consistent. Hair follicles are slow organs, and you cannot expect results from one day to the next. Pick two or three methods and stick to them until they become a habit.
The more of the tips below you apply, the better results you can expect to see.
Massage Your Scalp
Circulation in the scalp is vital for hair growth. Poor circulation can cause problems to the follicles, as with any other organ in our body. Conversely, adequate circulation ensures the hair follicles receive all the necessary oxygen and nutrients.
One way to increase blood circulation is scalp massages. Scalp massage is the manual manipulation of the scalp using hands or a specialized tool.
Use your hands and rub in circular motions, first at the side (above the ears), then at the front, then at the back. Feel the scalp loosening and relaxing as you massage. If you find this tiring or difficult at first do not give up; your technique will quickly improve.
Research has found that four minutes of scalp massage a day can have a beneficial effect on hair growth by increasing hair shaft diameter (1).
Aside from their direct effect on stimulating hair growth, scalp massages are helpful in reducing stress and tension. These can sometimes aggravate hair problems by themselves (2).
Check out the video below for a practical guide on scalp massages:
Use a Caffeine Shampoo
We typically think of caffeine as the ultimate pick-me-upper. Research suggests that topical caffeine can also be an effective hair growth stimulant (3).
Scientists have found that topical caffeine penetrates the scalp very quickly (4). The hair follicle is also the first structure of the scalp to absorb it, meaning the caffeine is going precisely where you want it.
In line with this, clinical studies find caffeine to be highly effective in men with hair loss. A 2010 study found that after 6 months of use, 70% of men who used caffeine shampoo saw improvement in their hair loss symptoms (5).
In 2017, researchers compared topical caffeine against minoxidil, a hair loss medication (we discuss minoxidil below) (6).
The study recruited over 200 balding men. They randomly received either a 0.2% caffeine topical solution or 5% minoxidil. Both treatments were done twice daily for 6 months.
The efficacy measure was the increase in the percentage of hairs in the anagen, or growth phase of the hair cycle. This is the time during which the hair follicle is actively growing the hair shaft.
After 6 months, the percentage of anagen hairs in the caffeine group had increased by 10.59%. This compared to 11.68% for the minoxidil group.
This small difference was not statistically significant. Meaning that in principle, caffeine might be as effective as a hair loss medication like minoxidil.
Choosing Your Shampoo
In recent years an increasing number of men and women with weak hair growth are using topical caffeine. You can now find it in various shampoos and topical solutions.
Alpecin is one of the more well-known mass-produced brands, with a range of caffeine-based shampoos. For a more chemical-free and less processed option, you can consider the Hairguard Caffeine Shampoo.
Consider Essential Oils
These are oily, concentrated plant extracts that keep the natural smell and flavor of the plants from which they are derived (6).
To give you an idea of just how concentrated and rich these oils are, you need about a thousand pounds of dried lavender flowers to produce between five to ten pounds of lavender oil.
Essential oils have various uses. Manufacturers put them in a wide range of consumer goods like soaps, toiletries, detergents, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, foods, and drinks.
Certain essential oils can also promote hair growth. Here are some of the most widely used essential oils for this purpose:
This is perhaps the most popular and widely used essential oil, and with good reason. Users apply it to treat insomnia, as well as to induce relaxation and general well-being.
People have used it to promote hair growth for centuries. It is best to not apply this essential oil on its own, but rather blend it with other oils like rosemary oil and basil.
Another essential oil with a long tradition going back millennia, rosemary oil has been used in a variety of conditions including coughs, headaches, sores, infections, and more.
A 2015 study out of Iran examined its effectiveness against hair loss. The researchers administered rosemary oil to men with pattern baldness and compared its efficacy against another group of men who were treated with 2% minoxidil (7).
After 6 months, both groups of men showed a significant increase in hair count, and this increase was the same across both groups.
Peppermint is a cross between two other species of mint herbs, namely the water mint and spearmint.
A 2014 mice study out of South Korea suggests that peppermint oil can induce significant hair regrowth, perhaps even superior to that obtained with 3% minoxidil (8).
Essential oils are very safe substances if you use them properly. They are for external use only, and you should never ingest them.
Always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil. Never apply them in their pure, undiluted form. One popular carrier oil that is also an effective hair growth stimulant on its own is castor oil.
Castor Oil for Hair Growth
Castor oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the beans of the castor plant.
There are two varieties of castor oil. The first is standard castor oil, which you will see advertised as cold-pressed castor oil.
This is extracted from the beans without any heat treatment and has a clear appearance. The beans are simply pressed, and the oil is literally squeezed out of them in a purely mechanical fashion.
The other major variety is Jamaican black castor oil, or simply Black castor oil. Here the beans are roasted until they turn dark. This gives the oil a very dark color.
How to Use it
Castor oil is very rich and not the easiest to absorb. For this reason, the best time to apply it is before going to bed every night.
If you have short hair, you can just rub it in or use a sponge applicator bottle. For long hair, try a long-tip applicator bottle.
A much less popular alternative to topical castor oil is actually drinking it. Be warned: castor oil is foul-tasting and has a very unpleasant texture when you swallow it. If you don’t want to be dealing with the taste, a good idea is to put in gelatin capsules.
A Balanced Diet Is Key
When it comes to health, our hair is not essential for survival. It is not a priority like, say, the heart or the brain. For this reason, our body will prioritize vital organs before the hair.
This is why it is so important to eat adequate amounts of healthy foods. Make sure you are getting adequate nutrients, minerals, enzymes, and probiotics. If you don’t, your body will use its limited resources to repair and grow other organs instead of your hair.
Nutrients and Minerals
Here are a few vitamins and nutrients with proven beneficial effects on hair growth.
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Niacin is a well-known ‘hair vitamin’. One of its very important effects is increasing blood flow to the scalp (9). Other benefits of niacin are its anti-inflammatory properties, and its ability to increase keratin synthesis (10, 11).
Biotin (Vitamin B7)
Found in many multivitamins, as well as those aimed at hair, skin, and nail health, biotin is one of the most important vitamins to add to your diet. Its main function is as a protein synthesizer. It turns fatty acids into proteins, like keratin, that are essential to the body.
Biotin is produced in healthy gut flora, but it can also be found in many foods, including:
You can also add a biotin supplement (or a multivitamin) to your daily routine.
Zinc and Selenium
As antioxidants, zinc, and selenium play a key role in the fight against free radicals (12). This helps protect the skin and other organs, including the hair, from premature aging and damage.
Both zinc and selenium also assist in the keratinization process (13, 14). They work similarly to biotin, in that they synthesize proteins and make it possible for the keratin to form.
Be careful, though, because an overabundance of zinc can lead to stunted hair growth. Instead, you are better off getting your zinc and selenium from food sources, such as (15):
- Red meats
- Pumpkin seeds
- Wheat germ
- Egg yolks
- Soy products
Antioxidants are mentioned often when discussing hair health, and there is a good reason. They protect against the breakdown of important organs, including hair follicles.
One of the best antioxidants found in nature is Vitamin E and, more specifically, tocotrienols (16). Clinical studies have found these to be beneficial to hair growth (17).
You can take Vitamin E supplements, but preferably increase your consumption of foods that are rich in it.
(You can learn more about vitamins, and the role they play in hair growth, here.)
Enzymes come from raw (or fermented) foods and help digestion. They help make the nutrients and minerals easier to absorb by your body. This means your body can easily make use of the minerals (increased bioavailability) (17).
There are many millions of bacteria living in the human gut, from as many as one thousand different species. Most of them are beneficial and even necessary to the normal functioning of our body. We call these good guys “probiotics”.
Poor diets and excessive consumption of antibiotics can disrupt our gut’s bacterial balance. In turn, this can affect your gut’s ability to absorb the nutrients it needs through food.
Restoring the balance of probiotics in your system can have beneficial effects for many organs in our body, including the hair follicles.
A widely-discussed recent study studied the effects of probiotic supplementation on hair growth in mice (18). Fortifying the rodents’ diet with the probiotic L. Reuteri resulted in shinier, healthier fur and fewer problems like hair loss and dermatitis. It also grew the rodents’ fur much faster after shaving.
Probiotics are available to buy online or at your local health food store. No doctor’s prescription is required. Do your homework before choosing a particular brand, and read the table of contents.
There will be dramatic differences in potency between the various supplements, and some will be mixed with less useful species of probiotics.
Avoid Heat Treatments and Hair Dyes
A common problem, especially in women, is split ends and hair breakage. These are largely self-inflicted, the result of unnecessary hair procedures.
The hair shaft grows from the inside out. The hair follicle literally pushes out the hair shaft through the scalp. This means that the tips of your hair are the oldest part of the hair shaft.
If you have long hair, the tips of your hair might be two or three years old, or even longer. This means they have been subjected to countless instances of shampooing, brushing, and other treatments.
Over time, the effects of these can add up and take a toll on the hair shaft. Scientists call this phenomenon of lifestyle damage to the hair “weathering” (18).
The most common symptoms of weathering are dull hair, split ends, and breakage. These can give you the impression that your hair is growing slowly.
Applying heat in the form of blow-drying, heat irons, etc can cause the most intense weathering. The hair shafts will either outright break, or more often split at the ends (19).
Hair dyes (especially permanent) are also very damaging. In order for the dye to reach the hair shaft, the chemical must lift the hair shafts’ outermost protective layer, the cuticles. This is an irreversible process that further compromises the hair shaft’s integrity.
Get Regular Trims
This may sound counter-intuitive, but it follows from what we said above. Since the tips of the hair are the most weathered part of the hair shaft, split ends will spread from the tips to the rest of the hair shaft. The best way to prevent this is to trim the edges. This will optimize the hair shaft’s health and ultimately lead to faster growth.
If your goal is faster hair growth, it is important you communicate this clearly to your hairstylist. Trimming off too much of the hair shaft will ultimately slow down hair growth.
Bonus: FDA-Approved Hair Loss Treatments
The FDA has approved two medications for hair growth: minoxidil and finasteride. Unlike the tips we discussed above, you should only resort to these medications in instances of pathological hair loss.
Minoxidil is a topical solution, and the first drug the FDA approved for hair loss (20).
The drug was first launched as an anti-hypertensive. It treated high blood pressure by dilating the blood vessels. While doctors still sometimes prescribe it as an anti-hypertensive today (brand name Loniten), its most common use now is to topically stimulate hair growth.
Minoxidil is an effective medication for both male and female hair pattern hair loss (androgenetic alopecia). You should only consider using minoxidil if you suffer from this condition.
Though it is over the counter and available without a prescription, it is best to speak to your doctor prior to starting treatment. Your doctor will confirm if you are a good candidate for treatment and advise of potential side effects and other considerations.
Finasteride (brand name Propecia) is the other drug the FDA has approved for the treatment of male-pattern baldness. Unlike minoxidil, the FDA has not approved finasteride for women. Another difference is that finasteride is a systemic medication that you take as a pill (21).
Finasteride works by blocking the production of Dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This is a male hormone that scientists believe contributes to male pattern baldness. By blocking the production of DHT, finasteride stops the balding process in around 85% of men. Close to two-thirds of users will also regrow some hair.
Finasteride is a very powerful medication that is only available by prescription and only works against male pattern baldness.
When to See a Doctor
If you suspect that your poor hair growth has a pathological component, it might be a good idea to speak to your doctor.
A dermatologist — a doctor who specializes in hair loss and other skin problems — can provide you with helpful information. Often a dermatologist will be able to get a good idea of the problem merely by a physical examination of your hair.
If necessary, they can also request more advanced procedures. These can include blood tests, trichograms, and even scalp biopsies.
There is no magical solution to stimulating hair growth. The are many smaller or larger steps you can take. Collectively, these will add up to make a big difference in the quality of your hair growth.
Some, like eliminating heat treatments and other unnecessary procedures, will require no time or money. On the contrary, they will actually save you money and time.
Others, like scalp massages, will take up some time in your routine. The key is to make a habit of them and stick to them consistently.
If despite your best efforts, your lackluster hair growth continues, or if you suspect there is an underlying health issue, consider speaking to your doctor.