Minoxidil, commonly sold under the trade name Rogaine, has long been held as the “gold standard” for topical hair regrowth treatments.
And despite the many adverse side effects, men and women who struggle with hair loss still take their chances with the product on a daily basis (1).
Yet there are substances touted as “safe,” “natural,” and “effective,” by many online sources — but are they, really?
This article will delve deep into the research to determine which, if any, products can give you results equal to — or better than — minoxidil.
Before examining purported alternatives, it’s important to understand the mechanism by which minoxidil encourages hair growth.
In cases of androgenetic alopecia, the most common cause of hair loss among men and women, a build-up of di-hydrotestosterone (DHT) builds up at the base of the hair follicles, causing inflammation. As inflammation builds, circulation is affected and the hair stops receiving needed nutrients and oxygen (2).
Over time, this lack of nourishment leads to a phenomenon known as “hair miniaturization,” in which the hair gradually becomes thinner, weaker, and eventually stops being produced.
Minoxidil is believed to work by boosting circulation to the scalp and hair follicles, temporarily overriding the damage caused by DHT. As the hair follicles begin to receive nourishment again, they revive, and hair regrowth is seen (3).
Two things that are important to note about minoxidil: Results are temporary, that is, they disappear when you discontinue therapy, and there are adverse side effects.
Side effects of minoxidil include (4):
- Rapid heart beat
- Unwanted facial/body hair
- Weight gain
- Chest pain
- Swelling of hands/feet
- Weight gain
- Trouble breathing
With all these potential side effects, it’s no wonder many people search for a natural way of regrowing hair.
But are there any safe, natural therapies that are also effective?
Natural Alternatives to Minoxidil
If you look at the mechanism of hair loss, you’ll see that there are three main contributors to follicle damage and hair miniaturization: DHT build-up, resulting inflammation, and circulation restriction.
Minoxidil works by boosting circulation, but effective results can be found through therapies that reduce inflammation or work by reducing — or removing — DHT build-up on the scalp.
Let’s look at each category of alternatives, beginning with those that work in the same way as minoxidil — by increasing blood, nutrient, and oxygen circulation to the hair follicles.
Circulation Boosting Alternatives
Since minoxidil works directly to increase circulation to the scalp, one of the best ways to find a suitable alternative is to find a substance that replicates — or surpasses — this effect.
Fortunately, there are several all-natural, safe substances that have been scientifically proven to work as well as, or better than, minoxidil — without toxic side effects.
A native plant in Europe, peppermint (Mentha piperita) has been used around the world for food and health purposes. Some of the ways peppermint has been used are:
- Food flavoring
- Essential oil for fragrance and cosmetics
- Gastric stimulant
- Gas relief
And now a study has examined looked at the effect of peppermint oil on hair growth in mice (5).
Researchers divided the animals into four groups upon which were tested saline solution, jojoba oil, 3 percent minoxidil and 3 percent peppermint oil.
Out of these groups, the group receiving peppermint oil showed the greatest results including:
- Increased follicle number
- Increased dermal thickness
- Increased follicle depth
- Increased expression of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1)
No weight changes, food efficiency, or other toxic effects were noted in the peppermint oil group(6).
Another study showed that topical menthol had significant blood-vessel widening properties, which contributed to greater blood flow for increased circulation (7).
Another natural substance recently tested by researchers as a replacement for minoxidil topical therapy is lavender oil from the lavender (Lavandula) plant.
In an experiment similar to the one for peppermint oil, above, researchers found that lavender oil, at 5 percent concentration, produced results equal to the 3 percent minoxidil solution used as a contrast (8).
Additionally, the lavender oil groups did not exhibit an toxic changes, while there was an increased spleen weight noted in the minoxidil group (9).
An additional benefit to lavender oil is its use as an aromatherapy agent.
One randomized, double-blind study of aromatherapy for the treatment of alopecia areata found lavender oil, among others, to be beneficial for hair regrowth (10).
Another aromatic herb, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been found to have hair growth qualities on the same magnitude as 2 percent minoxidil.
Researchers comparing the two substances found a similar increase in hair count at the end of the study period, with the subject assigned to rosemary oil experiencing significantly less scalp itching than the minoxidil group (11).
According to results, the rosemary group’s hair count increased nearly twice as much as the minoxidil group.
The oil from rosemary plants contains bioactive antioxidants including rosmarinic acid, ethanolic acid, 1,8-cineole, carnosic acid, and camphor. These compounds may have a number of effects on the growth of hair.
In fact, due to the combination of these bioactive agents, rosemary oil can help:
- Reduce inflammation (12)
- Reduce bacteria on the scalp (13)
- Decrease DHT levels by inhibiting its attachment to androgen receptors (14)
- Increase circulation (15)
Besides helping to moderate oxidative stress, rosemary oil also exhibits hepatoprotective characteristics. That means that rather than being toxic, it protects your liver from other toxicity. (16)
Another way to increase the circulation to your scalp is through massage.
One Japanese study showed a significant increase in hair thickness after just 24 weeks of scalp massage for just four minutes each day (17).
This was attributed to the stretching of the dermal papilla, which contributed to gene expression that open potassium channels, and accelerate the anagen phase of the hair growth cycle. (18)
Although this experiment used a device to conduct the massage, the Panasonic EH-HM75-S, you can get similar results using your own hands.
- Spread your fingers as wide as is comfortable and place each hand on the side of your head, reaching through the hair to your scalp.
- Now, move your fingers in a circular motion using gentle pressure with the pads of your fingers.
- Continue massaging the sides of your scalp for one to two minutes, and then slowly move your hands towards the crown (top) of your head.
- Massage the crown for one to two minutes, and then place your fingers on your hairline. Begin massaging at the top center, above your forehead, and slowly work out to temples, keeping your fingers in the hairline area.
- Move from the sides to the center of your hairline and back again for one to two minutes, then move your hands to the back of your scalp.
- After you finish with one to two minutes of massage on the back of your scalp you can revisit previous areas if you feel you missed a spot or you need extra benefit in an area.
Not only will massage stimulate your scalp’s circulation, but it will provide stress relief, which is also important for people suffering from hair loss.
DHT Build-up Reducers
Minoxidil does nothing to tackle the root cause of androgenetic alopecia — the build-up of di-hydrotestosterone (DHT) on the scalp. (19)
When DHT accumulates on your scalp, it connects to the androgen receptors at the base of the hair follicles. For those sensitive to DHT, this leads to miniaturization of the hair follicles and, eventually, hair thinning and loss.
You can use natural products to block DHT or to inhibit 5-alpha-reductase to prevent the production of DHT (20).
Rosemary oil gives you a double-boost by increasing circulation, as shown previously, and by inhibiting 5-alpha-reductase.
Research has shown that rosemary oil is even more effective than finasteride in preventing DHT build-up (21).
To get rid of the DHT present in your scalp, try saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). This native American plant produces a substance that, according to research, can inhibit 5-alpha-reductase and prevent DHT from forming.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum) seeds are packed full of plant lignans, a kind of polyphenol that has powerful benefits for your hair.
Moreover, in animal studies, flax seed was shown to have a positive effect on hair density and no adverse effects were noted, making it safe for consumption and topical use (26).
Both of the most recent studies showed that flaxseed supplementation had significant benefits for hair growth.
The first study measured the effects of various plant-based lignans on DHT. These plants included flaxseed, sesame, safflower, and soy (27).
The study was performed on castrated male rats, with a focus on prostate weight, as lowered weight indicates less androgenic activity.
Flax was connected with decreased prostate weight as well as lower testosterone levels — both strong indicators of 5-alpha-reductase inhibition.
Building on this, the second study specifically measured flaxseed’s hair growth benefits (28).
The group of animals that received flaxseed supplementation rather than just plain feed had improved length, width, and weight of hair.
Finally, flaxseeds hormone-balancing ability, while useful for men with androgenic alopecia, can also be of great benefit to women with this condition (29).
Best of all, flaxseed is delicious ground on cereals and in smoothies or, if you don’t like the taste, you can purchase flax oil capsules.
Another delicious source of 5-alpha-reductase-inhibiting lignans is the humble sesame seed.
These seeds were included in the 2013 study of plant-based lignans and their effect on testosterone levels that also included flaxseed.
The study showed sesame seeds were close to flaxseed’s effectiveness in reducing 5-alpha-reductase, along with safflower oil and soybean oil (30).
Sesame seeds and their oil are also versatile and easy to incorporate into a balanced diet. The seeds can be sprinkled on salads and stir frys and mixed into smoothies while the oil makes a delicious salad dressing and cooking oil.
Pumpkin Seed Oil
Pumpkin seed oil is produced from the hulled pumpkin seed and it provides an incredibly rich source of hair-nourishing fatty acids, minerals, and antioxidants.
Pumpkin seed oil can be applied topically to provide gentle cleansing and maintain a healthy scalp.
However, for those looking to treat male-pattern baldness, ingested pumpkin seed oil has been scientifically proven to reduce the activity of 5-alpha-reductase (33).
In a study involving pumpkin seed oil, 76 male subjects with mild to moderate received either a supplement containing 400 mg of pumpkin seed oil per day while the other half received a placebo capsule.
At the end of the 24-week study, 44.1% of the men in the supplement group saw a mild-moderate improvement in hair growth. This same improvement was seen in only 7.7% of the placebo group.
While pumpkin seed oil was not the only ingredient present in the supplement studied, its strong anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties in concert with DHT blocking capability are all possible contributors to its efficacy in encouraging hair growth.
Pumpkin seeds can be eaten raw, roasted, or sprinkles on salads and other foods. For those who prefer capsules, pumpkin seed oil is readily available in stores and online.
One study of mice given green tea extract in their drinking water showed a statistically significant hair growth after 6 months (38).
What is interesting about the catechins in green tea is that they are type 1 isoenzyme selective — that is, they work mainly upon the conversion of testosterone to 5 alpha DHT in skin.
The type 2 isoenzyme is the one finasteride works on, and it is found in the prostate, epididymis, and seminal vesicles (41).
To reap the benefits of green tea supplementation, you could increase your tea intake or add in a green tea supplement.
The bark from the Pygeum africanum, a tree native to Africa, is a powerful DHT blocker. It’s been shown in numerous studies to reduce the symptoms of Benign Prostate Hyperplasia (BPH)
BPH is an enlargement of the prostate, and DHT is a prime aggravator of the condition. When DHT is reduced, the enlarge prostate shrinks and symptoms are minimized (44).
In a study completed in 1998, pygeum bark was shown to play a part in the reduction of BPH symptoms (45).
Interestingly, one of pygeum’s constituents is beta-sitosterol, a plant sterol that’s also found in cashews, canola oil, almonds, and avocados.
Beta-sitosterol can assist in blocking DHT, leading to improved hair thickness and growth (46). It also helps boost scalp circulation, ensuring that vital nutrients and oxygen are available to nourish your hair follicles. (47)
An edible brown alga that’s found off the coasts of Japan and Korea, E. Cava is a promising new lead when it comes to the cessation of hair loss and growth of new hair.
While E. Cava may make a delicious addition to your soups, its topical use has been proven to inhibit 5-alpha-reductase and, therefore, DHT. When applied as a whole, E. Cava was shown to inhibit 5-alpha-reductase up to 61.5% (50).
Even better, though, was the inhibition results of the polyphenol extract dieckol. Dieckol is found in abundance within the alga. The highest concentration tested (100 mg/mL) actually proved to be just as effective as finasteride.
This means that E. Cava and its extracts are a good option to consider if you’re looking to block DHT and encourage the proliferation of new dermal papilla cells (51).
Some of the alternatives previously discussed help reduce inflammation as well as increase circulation or block DHT. These double-duty alternatives include:
- Rosemary oil
- Lavender oil
- Pumpkin seed oil
- Flax seed oil
- Green tea
However, one of the best ways to fight inflammation in your scalp is to reduce the inflammation in your entire body.
To do this, you must eat an alkaline diet.
The Alkaline Diet
Having the correct pH (pH is a measure of acidity and alkalinity like Celsius and Fahrenheit are a measure of temperature) in our bodies is crucial to strong health because our cells, hormones, mitochondria and just about everything in our bodies work much more efficiently in the right conditions
Our natural and healthy pH is slightly alkaline 7.36 (52).
There is research to support that eating an alkalizing diet — that is, one high in whole foods like fruits and vegetables — results in a reduction in whole-body inflammation (55).
In fact, ensuring that your body’s pH is on target increases dietary polyphenols, as an anti-inflammatory diet relies on a colorful array of fruits and non-starchy vegetables (56).
In addition, controlling the pH of your body is paramount for reducing inflammation and 5-alpha-reductase.
Studies have shown that the optimum pH range for type 2 5-alpha-reductase, the kind that appears in the typically balding areas of men’s scalps, is 5 to 5.5 (57).
Outside of this pH range this enzyme can’t function and do its job of binding to testosterone to make DHT.
That means if our bodies are more acidic, pH 7 or below, then the enzyme type 2, 5-alpha-reductase functions much more efficiently, creates more DHT, and consequently we lose more hair.
On the other hand, when we alkalize our bodies, the pH in our scalp becomes greater than 7. The enzyme can’t do its work of converting testosterone to DHT and, as a result, we experience less — or no — hair loss.
Our bodies evolved so that the foods we ate most often — fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts legumes, fish, meat — created the best conditions for our bodies and specifically our enzymes to function in.
When we eat processed or pasteurized foods like grains and dairy, our bodies are pushed out of balance.
To create an alkaline environment in your body to halt hair loss, you’ll need to consume foods with alkaline values over foods with acidic values.
The very best way to do this is through vegetable juicing and avoiding processed, acidic foods. Some examples of acid-producing foods are:
- Processed or packaged foods
- Refined sugar
- Grains, especially refined and GMO
- Certain dairy products
- Too much animal protein
- Soda and other sugar-filled drinks
- Refined white salt
- Prescription medications
Not only will eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables lower inflammation and help prevent the other processes associated with androgenetic alopecia, but it will provide proper nutrients to support body-wide health.
While minoxidil remains the most common topical product for hair loss, there are many natural alternatives that can provide the same — or better — results without the toxic side effects.
Minoxidil works by increasing circulation in your scalp, but effective alternatives focus on three ways of halting hair loss: boosting circulation, lowering inflammation, and blocking the production of DHT (58).
Among these alternatives to minoxidil therapy, you can choose topical treatments such as rosemary or lavender oils, or ones you ingest, such as pumpkin seed oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame seeds.
Finally, one enormous contributor to hair health and retention is to adopt an alkalizing diet heavy in non-starchy vegetables and fruits and low on processed, prepared foods, some types of dairy, salt, sugar, and grains.
Paying attention to your body’s essential nature — its evolutionary need to be at a slightly alkaline 7.36 to function optimally — will help nourish and support your hair while keeping acid-loving DHT-producing enzymes at bay (59).