Minoxidil – more popularly known as Rogaine – is a hair loss product used by thousands worldwide. Due to its rate of absorption, however, its use is limited to liquid and foam formulations and this can make it difficult to use on a daily basis.
In this article, I’ll be discussing the mechanism behind minoxidil’s effectiveness. This will include a look at how the product absorbs into the scalp.
Since minoxidil cannot effectively be used in shampoo formulations, I’ll then show you THREE ways to make its use more effective.
What is Minoxidil?
While minoxidil has grown in popularity as a hair loss treatment, it’s actually an ingredient that was previously used for a very different purpose.
Minoxidil was originally developed in the late 1950s as a treatment for ulcers. While shown to not be effective, it was found to be a vasodilator, and was later released in 1979 as a drug to treat hypertension (high blood pressure).
As trials were underway on minoxidil, it soon became obvious that the drug was also effective in growing new hair.
While doctors began to prescribe the hypertension medication (under the brand name of Loniten) to their balding patients, minoxidil did eventually become approved for use as a hair loss treatment.
It was branded under the name of Rogaine, and official use began in 1988.
How Does it Work?
As mentioned, minoxidil is a vasodilator. This plays a significant role in its hair-growing properties. Let’s take a look.
Your hair follicles are organs, and as such they’re part of a larger system. One component of this system are capillaries – these are tiny blood vessels that deliver nutrients and oxygen to the follicle, and also remove buildup (such as DHT) and waste.
When you suffer from Male-Pattern Baldness (MPB), a process occurs known as hair miniaturization. This happens when DHT (a hormone) causes irritation to the hair follicle, leading to inflammation.
As the follicle becomes inflamed, the hair coming from the follicle has very little room to grow. Eventually, the hairs being produced become smaller and smaller, and this leads to balding (permanent, if not treated).
But what does this have to do with capillaries and, more importantly, minoxidil?
As the hair follicle shrinks (both from DHT-induced inflammation and hair loss), the capillary restricts. This is because inflammation is a system-wide occurrence.
With less nutrients and oxygen now being delivered, the follicle continues to shrink.
Where minoxidil comes in is in its capillary-widening abilities. As a vasodilator, minoxidil works by relaxing the smooth muscle cells within the walls of the capillaries. This means that proper delivery of vital nutrients and oxygen can restart, and the hair follicle can once again begin to produce new hair.
As an aside, minoxidil may also prolong the anagen phase of hair growth. This is purely speculation, however, and there is yet to be any scientific proof to back this claim.
How Does It Absorb?
As part of its effectiveness, it’s important to understand how minoxidil absorbs into the scalp. This will enable you to use it most effectively, and see results sooner.
In 1990 – in the midst of Rogaine’s raise in popularity – a study was performed to show the length of time absorption takes for minoxidil, the popular product’s main ingredient.
Twice daily for six days, one mL of minoxidil was applied to the scalps of 22 healthy male volunteers. It was applied to 150 cm2 of bald scalp.
The minoxidil was then wiped from the scalp at either hour 1, hour 2, hour 4, or hour 11.5. Urine samples were then taken, and the amount of unchanged minoxidil, minoxidil glucuronide, or the sum of these was then measured.
It was found that by hour 1, only about 50% minoxidil absorption was complete. By hour 4, however, it was more than 75% absorbed by the scalp.
What does this mean then?
As a user of minoxidil, this means it’s important to leave the product on your scalp – undisturbed – for at least four hours.
This means you shouldn’t shower, apply other hair product, or do any other such thing that would interrupt the absorption process. This is why a minoxidil cream can work quite well. Because it has the time to absorb into the scalp.
Common Minoxidil Formulas
There are two forms of minoxidil which can be used to regrow hair: liquid, or foam.
The liquid formula was the first to be developed, entering the market in 1988.
So, if minoxidil liquid was well received, why the need for the foam formula?
As use spread, it became obvious that the liquid formulation was causing some unpleasant side effects. These were mostly contained to the application area, and included itching, rash, flaking, and irritation.
It was learned, however, that minoxidil wasn’t the issue. It was an ingredient found within liquid minoxidil formulations – propylene glycol.
This is a short-chain alcohol and, as such, it can cause a number of issues for minoxidil users. Such issues include dryness, flaking, and irritation and, for many, these can be too much to bear.
As a response to this issue, the developers of Rogaine went ahead and created a propylene glycol free product: Rogaine foam.
Without the trouble ingredient included, many have seen a significant decrease in side effects and even further hair growth.
(Are you looking for alcohol-free minoxidil? Learn more here.) If you want to know if high strength minoxidil works better then please read my article here.
Minoxidil Cream: A New Option?
With liquid and foam formulations currently on the market, you may have thought that manufacturers were out of ideas. But that’s where minoxidil cream comes in.
Minoxidil cream is a cream formulation which is applied to the scalp similar to a lotion.
The minoxidil cream formulations are not FDA-approved. That doesn’t mean that companies don’t sell it, however.
So, is minoxidil cream worth a try?
First, let’s consider efficacy.
A cream formulation may seem “longer-lasting” than a liquid or foam. After all, the other formulations evaporate pretty quickly.
The good news is, the liquid and foam formulations have been produced with absorption in mind. While the bulk of the product will evaporate over time, it does absorb effectively into the scalp.
The cream formulation would stay on for much longer and, theoretically, lead to greater absorption. But that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, the other ingredients in the cream product may make it more difficult for the actual medication (minoxidil) to enter the skin.
And while the cream formulations have a higher concentration of minoxidil (15% to 20%, typically), this doesn’t mean they’ll be more effective.
Second, let’s talk about safety.
As mentioned, the cream formulations tend to have higher levels of minoxidil. This can increase the risks and potential for side effects.
While minoxidil side effects are often minor, the dosage increase can make them worse or more likely to occur. These include headaches, flushing, and dizziness.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that the cream formulation has not been FDA-approved. This means there was no formal testing carried out on the product. There is no guarantee of its efficacy, or even of its side effects and potential contraindications. As such, I would recommend against its use.
Of course, we must also talk about ease of use.
A cream formulation, quite frankly, seems like a nightmare to apply. This is especially true if you have medium-length to long hair.
A liquid or foam formulation will be much easier to apply, and less likely to interfere with your day-to-day activities.
Which Concentration is Best?
Aside from deciding between liquid and foam, you’ll also have a few concentrations to choose from.
The two concentrations currently approved by the FDA for hair growth are 2% and 5%. There are more powerful concentrations (namely, 10% and 15%), but neither is recommended unless under supervision of a medical professional. And, even then, the side effects may be too great to use them for long.
For men, either concentration is recommended for use. The 5% concentration has been shown to improve results, so many men begin with this concentration.
However, women should stick with the 2% concentration.
This is because use of the 5% solution has been shown to increase the risk of hypertrichosis – excessive hair growth – on the face. In addition, women were shown to be more susceptible to other side effects as the concentration increased, including dizziness and allergic dermatitis.
Is Minoxidil Available as a Shampoo?
Due to the time it takes minoxidil to fully absorb into the scalp, minoxidil is not available as a shampoo.
There may be shampoo products on the market which contain minoxidil, but their use would be futile. This is because there’s no way to hasten the absorption of minoxidil into the scalp, and only time can lead to proper absorption rates.
This is unfortunate, as a minoxidil shampoo would be very convenient. However, it’s a reality of the ingredient that can not be changed.
How to Boost Minoxidil’s Effectiveness (3 Ways)
If minoxidil-containing shampoo is ineffective, what can you do to improve the effectiveness of the product?
1. Combine With a DHT-Blocking Shampoo
As you learned above, DHT is believed to be a main culprit in MPB. As such, it’s important to remove DHT from your scalp and use a DHT-blocking shampoo on a regular basis to keep your scalp as free from DHT buildup as possible.
- Warm water (1 cup)
- Baking soda (1 tablespoon)
- Apple cider vinegar (1 tablespoon)
- Citrus essential oil (5 drops)
- Saw palmetto gel (1 capsule)
- Olive oil (1-2 teaspoons)
Combine the water, baking soda, vinegar, and olive oil in the container of your choice. As the baking soda and vinegar react, it’s best to use a non-airtight container to avoid gas buildup.
Next, use a needle or knife tip to pierce the saw palmetto capsule. Squeeze the gel into the combination above, and mix by stirring. At this point, you can also add in the citrus essential oil drops.
The baking soda and vinegar work together to create a gentle, but fully-cleansing shampoo base.
This combination gently removes buildup of oil, dead skin, and chemicals, but it leaves the necessary oils behind to protect your hair and scalp from overdrying.
Saw palmetto is the main DHT-blocker ingredient in this recipe.
It works similarly to Propecia – another FDA-approved hair loss drug – and studies have shown that saw palmetto shampoos may improve your hair’s growth.
Last, olive oil is the hydrating carrier oil used in this recipe to deliver the free radical-scavenging citrus essential oil throughout the scalp. This ensures the citrus oil is distributed evenly.
2. Use a Dermaroller
To further open the pores and improve absorption of minoxidil, I recommend you use a dermaroller.
A dermaroller is a small device with tiny needles attached to a rolling pin. It’s used to create small punctures in the skin, where the skin then repairs itself and generates new hair follicles.
Are you a bit wary? Check out this 12-week study that shows just how effective the dermaroller can be:
One hundred men with varying degrees of male-pattern baldness were split into two groups. The first group received a weekly microneedling procedure and twice daily application of minoxidil 5% lotion.
The second group received only the twice daily application of minoxidil 5% lotion.
During the day of microneedling, the participants were informed not to apply minoxidil; instead, they were to resume application 24 hours after the procedure.
There were three efficacy measures that were considered:
- Change from baseline hair count at 12 weeks;
- Patient assessment of hair growth at 12 weeks; and
- Investigator assessment of hair growth at 12 weeks.
These were the results:
As can be seen quite clearly, the microneedling + minoxidil group performed significantly better than the minoxidil-only group.
The researchers hypothesized that there were a few reasons for this difference.
First, microneedling can induce the release of platelet derived growth factor. This leads to wound regeneration and, as a result, growth of healthy hair follicles.
Second, it’s believed that an activation of stem cells in the hair bulge area occurs. This further perpetuates the growth of healthy follicles.
Fortunately, you don’t need to work with a professional to get these same results. You can do this at home.
3. Change Your Diet
One of the greatest things you can do for hair loss – whether you’re using a product like minoxidil or not – is to bring your diet back into alignment with your body’s natural state.
What does this mean?
Your body, just like any other living organism, requires a variety of vitamins and minerals to survive. These include iron, vitamins A, C, and D, niacin, biotin, and more.
When your body is lacking in these vitamins and minerals, which can happen if you eat a poor diet, the nutrients will go to the necessary organs and tissues first. But this will leave the non-essential organs, like the hair follicle, to suffer.
Will a balanced diet help minoxidil to absorb more quickly? Not likely. But it can work alongside minoxidil to provide you with enhanced results.
You don’t just want your body to survive, but to thrive. That’s why a healthy, balanced diet is crucial to your overall health, but also to hair growth.
What does a balanced diet?
The term balanced diet refers to the balance of healthy food groups, including: unsaturated fats, whole grains, protein, and fruits and vegetables. That’s not to say that you can’t indulge every now and again, but you should limit your consumption of trans and saturated fats, highly refined grains, and sugary beverages.
While you’re unlikely to see benefits overnight, a change in your diet for the better can result in many positives.
With a greater availability of nutrients, your body will be able to support its necessary functions but also the unnecessary ones like hair growth. You’re also likely to feel better, both mentally and physically, when you eat a varied diet.
Are you ready to get started? It’s best to make small changes so that the changes will stick.
You should first begin by adding in healthier food options to your diet. Perhaps you can have a green salad with your dinners, or replace half of the carbs on your plate with an extra serving of vegetables.
Once you’re comfortable with these changes and they’ve become part of your routine, you can begin to remove less healthier options. This may happen naturally as you fill up on the healthier choices you’ve introduced, but you could also cut out (or significantly reduce) fast food and takeout, soda and other sugary drinks, and fatty snacks like chips.
You don’t need to remove these foods entirely from your lifestyle, as it’s all about balance. But aim to eat healthy at least 80 percent of the time and you’ll be off to a great start.
While adding minoxidil to shampoos would be a great way to makes its daily use simpler, the rate at which it absorbs into the scalp would make this course of action worthless.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to increase minoxidil’s effectiveness.
Do you have questions about the information above? Leave a comment below.
*This article was reviewed by Dr. Debra Rose Wilson.