When you think of the phrase “hair transplants,” what comes to mind? Is it locks of transplanted hair that don’t exactly blend in with the natural hair around them?

If so, you’ll be surprised to learn that hair transplants have come a long way from the days when they were called “hair plugs.” They can now provide the look of a naturally full head of hair.

Wondering how hair transplants actually work, and if they’re a good option for treating your hair loss? Wonder no more. We’ve got all the answers you need.

Wait, so what is a hair transplant?

Before we dive into the details, let’s make sure we’re all clear on the basics. A hair transplant is a medical procedure that adds hair to thinning or balding areas of the scalp, where it continues to grow normally. As the name implies, the new hair is transplanted from follicles on parts of the scalp that still have thicker hair.

Since male pattern baldness (you guessed it) follows a pattern, this usually involves moving hair from the sides or back of the head to the front or top.

You need to have healthy hair on the back of your scalp for it to work, though—if you transplant hair that’s already thinning, it’ll continue thinning after the transplant and eventually fall out. (Hair transplants also aren’t a good option for people whose hair loss is caused by something other than male pattern baldness, like chemotherapy.)

How does the hair transplant procedure work?

There are actually two different hair transplant procedures. Both start with the surgeon cleaning your scalp, injecting some anesthesia, and choosing one of two methods: follicular unit extraction (FUE) or follicular unit transplantation (FUT), which is also called follicular unit strip surgery (FUSS).

To perform a follicular unit transplantation, the surgeon cuts a strip of scalp from the back of your head (usually 6-10 inches long), then divides it into anywhere from 500 to 2,000 small grafts with the help of a microscope. In follicular unit extraction, the surgeon removes the hair follicles one by one directly from your scalp by making hundreds or even thousands of tiny incisions.

The size of the resulting grafts can also vary, from micrografts (one or two hairs each), to slit grafts (4-10), to old-school punch grafts (10-15), which aren’t used much anymore. Either way, the procedure ends with the surgeon using a scalpel to make tiny holes in the area that will receive the transplant, then inserting the healthy hair follicles into those holes.

Depending on how many grafts you need, transplant sessions can take anywhere from 4-8 hours, and you might need multiple sessions (each separated by several months to give your scalp time to heal) to get the full head of hair you’re looking for.

What happens after you get a hair transplant?

Understandably, all of those incisions and insertions leave your scalp pretty sore, so after a hair transplant you might want a prescription pain medication. You’ll also need to take antibiotics to avoid infections and anti-inflammatories to prevent swelling.

Two or three weeks after the procedure, the transplanted hair often falls out to make way for new growth. It can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months for new hair to grow in, so your doctor might prescribe minoxidil (generic Rogaine®) or finasteride (generic Propecia®) to speed up the growth and limit future hair loss, including the hair you didn’t transplant. (Imagine getting a new full hairline from a transplant just to lose the hair right behind it!)

Can a hair transplant have side effects?

Aside from the risk of infection and inflammation of the affected hair follicles (formally known as folliculitis), the potential side effects of hair transplants are pretty minor, but can take up to three weeks to clear up. They can include…

  • bleeding
  • crusting, numbness, scarring, or swelling on your scalp
  • bruising around your eyes
  • itching
  • shock loss, which means all of the transplanted hair falls out at once (it grows back)

Is a hair transplant safe?

We wouldn’t let just anyone answer this question, so we turned to world-renowned hair loss expert and Keeps medical advisor Dr. Antonella Tosti.

“Any surgical procedure has risks, but you can reduce your chance of getting an unsafe transplant by doing your research and finding a skilled doctor,” Dr. Tosti says. She recommends referencing the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery’s website instead of the Google results for “cheap hair transplants.”

How much does it cost?

A hair transplant can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a session, not including any medications you’re prescribed afterward. And because hair transplants are cosmetic, health insurance usually won’t cover it. Some hair restoration centers offer repayment plans to help you manage the cost of the procedure.

To sum all this up: if you’re losing hair due to male pattern baldness, transplants can give you the full head of hair you once had.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

If you would like to learn more about finasteride, please see the full prescription information here. You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit MedWatch: https://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm   or call 1-800-FDA-1088

Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash