The secret side effects of taking hair loss drugs

It's not every day that you discover you have something in common with the president of the free world. But the recent revelation (courtesy of his GP, Dr Harold Bornstein, no less) that Donald Trump has been safeguarding his bizarre bouffant with finasteride made us brothers-in-arms: I started taking the same tiny pills in my twenties, in an attempt to stop my own locks from falling out.

I'm not the only man worried about losing his hair. Last week Gareth Bale, Real Madrid's 27-year-old superstar, was reported to be considering a hair transplant after his signature man bun was criticised on Twitter for not covering up a noticeable bald patch. When golfing legend Tiger Woods, 41, removed his trademark baseball cap at his recent book launch, he revealed – gasp! – a receded hairline.

Could their hair loss have been halted if, like me, they'd started taking finasteride when they were younger?

Not without side-effects

The drug is not without its possible side-effects – bouts of anger, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. A raft of sexual problems, too, including the loss of libido and impotence. Dig even deeper on medical advice portals and there's more to terrify. "Chills, cold sweats and confusion", "hives or welts" and "breast enlargement and tenderness". Everything from the mundane ("runny nose") to the unimaginable ("abnormal ejaculation").

What are The Donald and I thinking? What makes us so afraid of baldness that we're willing to risk our mental and physical wellbeing?

While I can't speak for Trump, I sincerely believe my fears are simple: I want to remain attractive to the opposite sex. I'm now 33, and don't want to end up old, hairless and alone.

A hairy issue

Women may blithely state that "it makes no difference" to man's attractiveness if he is bald, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In 2015, Tinder user Richard King revealed that his matches doubled after a hair transplant.

I've always known that my future would involve hair loss. Grandfathers? Both bald as coots by the age of 30. As a child, I used to cruelly tease my maternal grandpa by sneaking up behind him and spraying Mr Sheen on his dome. My father held out a few years longer, before morphing into a portlier version of Bruce Willis. My uncle, likewise.

Therefore, having long been on the lookout for a possible escape route, my heart leapt when Boots began its Hair Retention Programme, which offers access to Propecia, a prescription-only formulation of finasteride. For a relatively affordable $50 a month, it promised to halt hair loss "nine times out of 10", with a few patients even experiencing regrowth.

Advertisement

Catch it early

I was at an early stage in the thinning process, but it had surely begun; strands on the pillow and in the plug hole attested to that. So I – bravely – asked the pharmacist for a consultation. Getting hold of the drugs was surprisingly simple. We talked through the costs, she took a photo of my head from above – for future reference, so I could see that the pills were working –and, yes, we discussed some of the "unlikely" side-effects. I recall nothing of anger, suicide or engorged breasts, but something else did come up. I should not take the pills if I'm looking to start a family, I was told, as there is some evidence linking finasteride with birth defects.

Slightly worrying, but I was young and single. Then she mentioned impotence, and my brow furrowed. "How unlikely?" I gulped. Nevertheless, I vowed to give them a go (what does impotence matter if you're an undateable baldie?), offering the pharmacist assurances that I would keep a keen eye on any negative developments.

Initially, I was a little coy about my new medicine. I took care not to leave my Propecia packets lying around the bathroom of my shared flat. Not least because, with each pill assigned its own day of the week, the untrained eye might think I was popping oestrogen. But I soon stopped worrying, and before long was telling all and sundry – even first dates – about my miracle drug.

Preventative? Or miracle?

But do they actually work? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. I still had reasonable coverage when I began the treatment, but the hair was starting to go. The same situation applies today. In another plus, there have been no unexplained fits of rage, sweating or senior moments.

So the best-case scenario is that I've frozen time. Had I not signed up, I might be looking like Sir Ben Kingsley today. Or perhaps I've done nothing but risk my health and throw away a small fortune. Because, though $50 a month sounds cheap, it really adds up. Six years on, I've spent $3550 on the treatment so far. If I live to 80, maintaining my barnet is going to set me back at least $27,950 – before inflation.

Is that a price worth paying for a full head of hair or, as Trump might say, just sad?

The Telegraph, London