`I thought I was a freak'


Ever had one of those really bad hair days? You know, one of those days when you don't want to face anyone because your crowning glory has been taken over by a poltergeist? That's bad enough - but what about when you start to lose your hair? Elizabeth Steel was 30 years old when she had one of the worst hair days you can imagine. "I was having my hair cut when the hairdresser spotted a bald patch. I was absolutely devastated and shocked," she says. "I didn't know baldness happened to women. I thought I was a freak and that the end of the world had come."

Hair loss is experienced by approximately 700,000 adults in Ireland and of these, around 150,000 are women. Alopecia can take many forms - from male pattern baldness and women with thinning hair to toddlers who lose all their locks - but 90 per cent of all hair loss is a result of androgenetic alopecia, or common hereditary hair loss. "Loss of one's hair can be a frightening and depressing experience," says senior psychologist at St James's Hospital in Dublin, Dr Tony Bates. Premature hair loss can lower self-esteem and affect every aspect of our lives.

For Steel, losing 90 per cent of her hair meant the end of her career as a TV presenter and the condition took over her life: "It was the first thing I thought about in the morning. I even wore a wig at night in bed because I was so proud, and then I'd take it off in the dark because it got so hot." While acknowledging there are far worse medical problems, she believes that the pain and suffering caused by alopecia should not be ignored: "It may sound trivial, but people are affected badly. It affects careers, marriages and has even caused suicide."

Steel founded Hairline International, the Alopecia Patients' Society, and received 80,000 calls in the first year. In a survey of female members, 78 per cent said they no longer felt like women and 40 per cent said their marriages were badly affected. One young woman told her: "My husband said he couldn't stand the sight of me, I was so repulsive. He left me and our two young children."

Most men check regularly for a receding hairline or hairs in the comb, but although male pattern baldness is a common occurrence, men find it difficult to talk about it honestly. "Men laugh about it in the beginning," says Dr Bates, "then they admit it does bother them. Then they say they feel bad because it bothers them. It's not just a question of vanity; it's about our body image and how we see ourselves. We live inside our bodies and we're affected by them."

Paul Hayes (25) recently took the brave step of "coming out" as a balding man. "There is a feeling that people with hair get on better," says Hayes, an account manager with a corporate identity firm, who decided to do something about his receding hairline and emerging bald spot and began using the hair loss treatment, Regaine. Regaine is a clinically-tested treatment which offers some hope to alopecia sufferers. It is said to prevent further hair loss in 80 per cent of cases and to reactivate growth in 40 per cent of users. Available without a prescription, Regaine is a clear gel which is sprayed onto hair. But it could be a lifetime commitment - when use is discontinued, hair loss will resume.

Steel spent eight years wearing a wig before her hair grew back, and her advice for anyone suffering from hair loss is to carry on as normal: "Have a good cry in private, then spoil yourself - spend as much as you can afford on a good wig and plonk some Regaine on your head. Then forget about it."

For further information, contact: Hair Loss Awareness campaign office 01-6761941. Regaine Information Line LoCall 1850-444 222.