TikTok Thinks Retinol Can Help Hair Loss — Here’s What The Experts Say

Photographed by Leia Morrison.
With an issue as common, complicated, and emotionally charged as hair loss, it’s important to be discerning about a TikTok video that promises a “fix” in under seven seconds. Any doctor, dermatologist, or trichologist (a hair and scalp specialist) will tell you that addressing hair loss and thinning is more about the diagnosis than the treatment. The best way to find the right plan of attack is to figure out what’s causing it in the first place.
If you’re part of the 50% of the population who’s dealt with some form of hair loss, it’s understandable that you’d want to try all the tricks, especially those that are affordable and easy to implement. Maybe you’ve seen the recent TikTok trend spreading the gospel that a combination of minoxidil (the active ingredient in hair loss medications like Rogaine) and topical vitamin A — specifically prescription tretinoin — can help prevent hair loss at the hairline. 
We hear vitamin A and immediately think of retinol, but the claims here are specific to tretinoin at a 0.1% concentration. Tretinoin is similar to retinol in that they're both vitamin A derivatives used for the same purposes, but they're not interchangeable. For starters, tretinoin is a potent synthetic only available by prescription, whereas retinol is naturally derived and can be purchased over the counter. Many of us already use some form of retinoid on our facial skin. If hair loss is a concern, should we be extending it up and around our hairline, too?
@drabby6 Using a retinoid alongside minoxidil can prevent hair loss better than minoxidil alone. Is there anything a retinoid can’t do? #hairloss #minoxidilresult #minoxidil #retinoid #hairlossremedy #hairlosssolutions #hairtok #skintok #boardcertifieddermatologist #fyp ♬ original sound - Taylor Dean

Does tretinoin and minoxidil help with hair loss?

Maybe! But we can’t say for certain one way or the other just yet. This claim is based on a handful of hair loss studies performed on people with androgenetic alopecia (a genetic form of hair loss) who are being treated with a combined topical remedy of tretinoin and minoxidil. Some promising results showed that, for people with androgenetic alopecia, tretinoin may help enhance the effect of minoxidil, effectively aiding in the absorption of minoxidil to the scalp — but this research is both specific and limited since it focuses on a specific type of hair loss and a specific form of retinoid.
As a hair loss treatment, maximum-strength minoxidil is only prescribed to people with androgenetic alopecia. So, whether used alone or combined with other ingredients, it’s probably not going to help with stress-related hair loss or with traction alopecia, which is hairline thinning that may be caused by heat damage or physical strain on the hair (like wearing a super tight bun every day). “If you don't have androgenic alopecia, minoxidil has no purpose,” says Helen Reavey, a trichologist and founder of hair and scalp-care brand Act+Acre. Furthermore, even if you do have diagnosed androgenetic alopecia, minoxidil still might not work for you. “About 50% of men will see results, but 50% won't,” says trichologist Angela Onuoha. “For women, it's even lower, with only 30-40% seeing results.”
If you’re among the population using minoxidil for treatment of androgenetic alopecia, should you use a retinoid, like tretinoin, to enhance its effectiveness? You can talk to your doctor, but they’ll probably say no. There’s just not enough evidence yet to support the combined use, and plus, you’re basically adding an irritant to an irritant. “Minoxidil is made up of about 80% alcohol; it causes a lot of irritation already,” Reavey says. “Then you're going to put something else [potentially irritating] on top.”

Can I use plain retinol on my scalp for hair growth?

Sure, you could try a DIY hack of gradually introducing retinol to your hairline with the same caution you use with the skin on your face, but there’s no scientific evidence that it’s going to help promote healthy hair growth. “We already know from using it on our face that retinol increases skin cell renewal,” says Onuoha. “It could help other ingredients penetrate the scalp — that's why that combination [claim] has been made. But I haven't seen any studies showing that retinol will do that much to the hair strands.” 
Reavey points out that retinol can actually cause more harm than good. “With retinol, when you're going to extend it to your scalp, then you need to take care of your scalp in the sun,” she says, adding that a high-factor scalp SPF is a must as retinoids make your skin more photosensitive. “The negative side to it is that your skin becomes more sensitive. If you have any kind of sensitivities or inflammation on your scalp, that can actually do the reverse and cause inflammation and hair loss.”
If you want to try it, the guidance is low and slow: “If you're using your retinol a few times a week, you can extend it to your hairline and it will probably be fine,” says Reavey, “but prolonged use over time could cause irritation and that irritation causes inflammation.”

What can I put on my scalp for hair growth?

Both Reavey and Onuoha recommend using skin-care ingredients like salicylic acid and peptides. “If people aren't ready to invest in scalp care because they don't really understand it, I always say, use what's already in your skin care,” offers Reavey. She suggests skipping the retinoids and using salicylic acid instead. “Salicylic acid is more gentle,” Reavey says. “It unblocks the hair follicles, stimulating blood flow. It's a similar mechanism, but there are more downsides to using retinol.”
For anyone looking to add salicylic acid to their scalp routine, Reavey recommends a pre-cleanse like Act+Acre Scalp Renew, a scalp treatment with low-dose salicylic acid that you rinse off for gentle short-contact application. For best results, she recommends following it with the brand’s Apple Stem Cell Serum, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
As simple as it seems, finding the right shampoo to keep your hair and scalp healthy and balanced is important, too. Onuoha recommends shopping for a volumizing shampoo formulated with peptides. “Rhyme & Reason has a Volume and Boost range that has scalp-care ingredients,” says Onuoha (she’s a spokesperson for the brand). “Peptides are important because they help to absorb and retain moisture in the scalp. It also has a bioactive complex that is really soothing for the scalp.” Better Not Younger Full Transparency Pure Revitalizing Shampoo is a gentle, fragrance-free option that utilizes nourishing chia seed extract to support scalp health. Klorane Strengthening Shampoo with Quinine and Edelweiss promises to curb hair fall and strengthen strands at the root via a complex of nourishing plant-based ingredients.
When it comes to “quick and easy” hair growth hacks, remember: If it sounds too easy or too good to be true, that’s because it probably is.
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