When Morwenna Shone saw a photo of the previously thin-on-top actor James Nesbitt, she couldn’t take her eyes off his thick hair.
She was so excited that she tore the picture out of her magazine and waved it in front of her husband Mike as proof of how successful a hair transplant could be.
But it wasn’t Mike she was trying to convince to undergo the procedure – it was herself.
While hair transplants are associated with balding male celebrities such as footballer Wayne Rooney, surgeons say the procedure, which costs between £4,000 and £10,000, is increasingly popular with women. According to cosmetic surgery group Transform, women make up a third of hair transplant patients, and there has been a 41 per cent rise in inquiries from women in a year.
This demand has been partly driven by a steady increase in the number of women experiencing hair loss and by the increased publicity around successful transplants.
In a recent survey, 64 per cent of GPs said they had come across more women patients with hair loss in the past five years. It’s a condition that affects six million women in Britain.
This can be blamed on a combination of escalating stress levels, errant hormones (often unbalanced by use of the Pill), extreme dieting, anaemia (iron deficiency), immunological conditions such as alopecia (which can be triggered by stress) or by women damaging their scalp with dye, hair extensions and straighteners.
Morwenna’s father had gone bald at the age of 21, so it came as no surprise when her three brothers followed suit. But it was a huge shock when her own hair started to become sparse in her early 40s.
‘I began to notice a thinning across the top of my scalp,’ says Morwenna, now 51, who works as a book-keeper and lives in Wales.
‘It was a slow progression and at first my GP dismissed me, saying it was just my age.’
As her hair continued to thin, however, Morwenna became depressed. ‘I stopped socialising,’ she says. ‘I found myself avoiding the work canteen and steering clear of changing rooms because of the way the harsh spotlights would reflect off my shiny white scalp.’
When she was referred to a dermatologist, he performed blood tests and prescribed a supplement to boost Morwenna’s low levels of iron and recommended the hair- stimulating product Regaine – available over the counter for £30 a month – to rub on her head.
However, nothing he suggested seemed to help.
When her daughter, Lisa, 25, became engaged to her boyfriend of seven years, Morwenna was adamant that as mother-of-the-bride she would certainly not be wearing a wig at the wedding.
She searched the internet for solutions and in December 2011 paid £6,500 to have a transplant at the Farjo Hair Institute in Manchester.
During the procedure, which can last up to nine hours, the doctor cuts out a thin strip of skin from the back of the head.
The wound is stapled back together by one team, while a separate team works swiftly to pick out individual hair follicles from the strip.
These follicles – each containing from one to five hairs – are individually inserted into 3.5 mm holes that the surgeon makes on the thinning area of the head.
‘We angle the holes to ensure the grafted hair lies in the same direction as surrounding hair,’ says Dr Maurice Collins, of Hair Restoration Blackrock in Dublin, which has treated James Nesbitt and X Factor judge Louis Walsh.
‘There is a real skill in ensuring a truly random scattering of holes to make the graft looks realistic.’
Patients walk out of the clinic at the end of the day with antibiotics to ward off infection, steroids to control swelling, cream to apply to the incision across the back of the head and mild medicated shampoo and conditioner.
They are also given instructions to follow a strict after-care procedure, such as using a cup to pour water over their head after shampooing rather than standing under a high-powered shower – this avoids damaging the delicate grafts until the wound heals.
Morwenna had problems sleeping after the procedure – it was months before she could comfortably rest her head on the back of a seat or lie flat on a pillow.
But she says it was worth it. When her daughter got married last May, Morwenna didn’t feel self-conscious about her hair. She hopes to return to the clinic for another transplant to fill in the gaps where her parting still seems wide.
‘I’d have it done again next week if I could,’ says Morwenna. ‘But I’ll have to save up for it. Though it may not have been easy, my new hair is worth every penny.’
It’s common for men to have repeat procedures because their hairline regresses. Dr Collins says Louis Walsh is a regular customer and James Nesbitt has been back four times.
He also says it’s not surprising that women such as Morwenna are flocking to clinics to have top-up procedures, pointing to the fact that they can suffer enormous emotional turmoil as a consequence of thinning hair.
‘I treat more women than ever before, perhaps one woman for every ten men,’ says Dr Collins. ‘My clinic has women from all walks of life. I’ve even treated a nun.’
‘Though it may not have been easy, my new hair is worth every penny.’
And certainly, for many, transplant surgery provides an excellent solution. Ellie Kidd is a 37-year-old mother of two children, aged ten and 13, from Worcestershire. She is thrilled with her thick new fringe and perfectly happy to tell anyone what she went through to get it. ‘I always had fine hair, but I noticed in photos that it was becoming obvious that my scalp was showing through at the top,’ she says.
A blood test revealed she had a vitamin B12 deficiency, a nutrient essential for healthy hair, and though she started a course of injections every three months to correct the problem, it was too late to stop more hair falling out.
She asked her GP about the possibility of a hair transplant on the NHS, but was told a wig was her only option. She was horrified.
Then her cousin started working at a nationwide hair restoration group of clinics called Ziering. Her father loaned her part of the £5,700 transplant fee and she paid the rest.
Ellie’s procedure took place near Birmingham and lasted nearly eight hours, but it was not a gruelling experience.
‘I was awake the whole time, but I’d had a sedative,’ she says. ‘Local anaesthetic was injected into my scalp, so I couldn’t feel anything.’
Ellie was given strong painkillers after the surgery and switched to paracetamol after four days. On the fifth day, she went back to her job as a clerical assistant.
‘The pain was manageable, but it wasn’t until the stitches were taken out two weeks after the procedure that I really felt back to normal,’ she says.
Ellie had been warned that the existing hair around the implant site might fall out as a consequence of the ‘trauma’ of the procedure, and she was horrified when her own hair did, initially, thin dramatically on top.
‘I was quite bald for a while,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t go out without a hat.’
Four months later, Ellie had all her hair cut short so the transplanted section would blend in.
‘The transformation is amazing,’ she says. ‘The new hair blends in brilliantly. I’m no longer self- conscious. I’m so glad that I’ve had it done.’
Still, as with every surgical procedure, there are risks, and there is no guarantee it will be successful.
Most clinics claim 92 to 95 per cent of the grafts will take hold and, once established, they should last for ever – or as long as the hair at the donor site stays thick and healthy.
But sadly that’s where the main problem with female hair transplantation lies.
Reputable clinics should warn patients if the pattern of their hair loss makes them unsuitable for transplantation. Indeed, trichologists say that women with generally thinning hair do not make good transplant patients.
‘Provided the donor hair site is permanent, the transplanted hair will last for ever,’ says Dr Collins.
‘But if the thinning process travels to the back and the sides of the scalp, the hair we have transplanted is likely to be affected as well.’
This is what happened to 40-year-old dental nurse Elaine Nixon, from Liverpool. She blamed her thinning hair on the male hormone tablets she had been prescribed for two years during her teens to treat gynaeological problems.
‘The lowest point was when a stranger came up to me in a bar and said: “You’re going a bit bald there, aren’t you, love?” ’ she says.
‘The new hair blends in brilliantly. I’m no longer self- conscious. I’m so glad that I’ve had it done.’
‘I was 24, but men weren’t looking at my smile – they were staring at my bald spot.’
Elaine says she was lucky she met her future husband, Ian, now 42, when she was 15. They married when she was 28 and he has always been supportive.
The first clinic she approached to ask about transplant surgery turned her down. Six years ago, she went to a second clinic and it agreed to take her – with a warning that she could face further hair loss in the future.
‘I was so desperate I was prepared to take that gamble,’ she says.
In 2007, when she was 34, she underwent surgery at a cost of £4,000. Then a year later, she went through the whole process again.
‘I was so pleased with the results of the first operation I was desperate to have another go,’ she says.
‘My battered confidence soared – people started spontaneously commenting on how fabulous my hair looked.’
But Elaine’s newfound confidence lasted only four years. Bereavements and stressful events took their toll on her, and her hair began to thin dramatically again.
She returned to the clinic begging for more surgery, but the surgeon refused – there was nothing more he could do.
Now she has no option but to wear a hairpiece. She ties a bandana around her head in the summer to prevent her scalp from burning.
Dr Collins warns that the biggest problem with female hair transplants is meeting expectations. Women dream of much more dramatic results (and flowing locks) than men.
As with any cosmetic surgery procedure, the advice is to shop around. ‘Make sure you get seen by a doctor, not a salesperson,’ he says.
‘And whatever you do, don’t rush into anything.’