Toppik on 15 December 2014

Wigs, toupees and hairpieces – now the hair loss industry likes to call them hair systems. Call them whatever you will, but the principle is always the same: synthetic or human hair fibres attached to a base, the base then attached in some manner to the bald scalp.

There are some very good examples of hair systems. Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery have all worn totally undetectable hair systems in movies. In Hollywood, hair systems are made from superfine bases, the hair is expertly matched to the thickness and density of the actor’s surrounding hair, the edges are integrated by trained makeup artists before every shoot, and the end of each day they throw it away and start with a new one the next day.

In the real world things are a bit different. The best quality hair systems used to be handmade one at a time, similar to a tailored suit. They were made from the highest-quality European hair and painstakingly crafted by an expert wigmaker. The hair was expertly matched to the client’s existing hair and then knotted into the base, either singly or in a small group of hairs. The end result was generally very credible in appearance, but the costs were high: a single hairpiece would cost $5,000 to $6,000 and the wearer required at least two, so one could be cleaned and maintained while the other was worn.

The hairpiece became mass produced in Australia between the late 1970s and early 1980s and is now marketed by all manner of sporting identities. It is by far the most common form of hair replacement in Australia today, for a number of reasons. The initial cost is reasonably affordable at around $1,500 to $3,000, the change in appearance is virtually immediate, and there is no surgery, which is a big plus for many people.

The mass production of hairpieces drove the cottage industry manufacturers producing a low volume, high quality product out of using oriental hair that is sourced from countries such as China and India. The hair is bleached and stripped of its cuticle and then recoloured in various shades to approximate western hair colouring. It is then knotted into the base, generally taking one person a couple of days to perform the entire knotting process.

The problem with this hair is that it is thick and coarse and very rarely blends with the texture and consistency of the wearer’s own hair. Due to the extensive processing the hair becomes brittle and breaks after continuous wear for only a few months. For this reason, hair systems are generally made with far more hair in them than is natural to account for the future loss, resulting in the wearer looking like he or she has an unnaturally thick head of hair.

Some of the disadvantages of the hairpiece that have been relayed to me by clients are:

1. Unsatisfactory Frontline

As with any form of hair restoration, including hair transplants, the front hairline is the most difficult area on which to achieve a totally natural appearance. In the past, manufacturers created hairlines that we so full of hair for longevity reasons that the result couldn’t possibly pass for natural. Recently the industry has been experimenting with replaceable fine lace hairlines for hairpieces, where you detach the front and detach the front and attach a new one to the existing hairpiece. They have had varying success.

2. Permanent Attachment

Without doubt, nearly all companies mass-marketing hairpieces will try to permanently attach the hairpiece to the wearer’s scalp, generally using glue. There are a number of reasons for this: if it is permanently attached it is not necessarily a ‘wig’ in the client’s eyes, the client must come back to the place of purchase to have it removed and cleaned, and it will wear out much faster.

3. Hair Breakage

Due to the type of hair used and the process it goes through, the hair tends to be very brittle and breaks at the base within a few months. It will generally require extensive repairs by the six month mark.

4. Hair Fade

This would have to be one of the biggest problems facing any hair system wearer – trying to maintain a natural colour that is the same as the surrounding hair. Because the hair is so heavily processed, it can be coloured and look quite natural on the day of the maintenance visit but after six months of continuous wear and colouring, the hairpiece, in many cases, can no longer hold its colour for more than a couple of weeks.

As the hairpiece begins to fade, there will be an appreciable colour difference between the wearer’s own naturally growing hair and the colour in the hair system. This is generally the problem you see when you notice a hairpiece that is light red-brown on top and the person’s growing hair around the back and sides is dark brown.

5. Lifestyle Restrictions

While the adverts show people water skiing, swimming at the beach and so on, most hair system wearers wouldn’t dare do such things with the hairpiece they have paid over $1,500 for. And yes, you can do all these things in a hairpiece, but the colour fade and breakage would see it destroyed within a couple of months. These restrictions stop wearers swimming with their kids and other activities they would like to do.

The other problem clients have noted is that as they perspire, their own growing hair becomes wet with perspiration but the hair system on top remains completely dry, as the perspiration does not permeate the base. This effectively stops many clients going to the gym or means they have to wear a cap.

6. Fear of Detection

Without doubt, the biggest fear associated with wearing a hair system is that your friends or work colleagues will realise you are wearing a ‘wig,’ as they call it. As one client so succinctly put it, ‘It only takes one bad hair day for everybody at work to figure out you are wearing a wig.’

7. Ongoing Cost

While surgery is expensive, the hair system has a lower entry cost. However, the costs continue on year after year – maintenance once a month can often cost in excess of $100 and two new units every two years will add a further $3,000 to $6,000.

The Attachment Process

A number of ways have been devised for attaching hairpieces:

Double-sided Tape is used to adhere the hair system to the bald, or in some instances shaved, areas of skin. This method allows the user to remove the system at his leisure, for example, so he may sleep without it and not shower with it everyday, which can lead to premature wear.

Clips attached to the perimeter of the hair system allow the wearer to attach and remove the system at his leisure. Problems arise because the pulling on the hair by the clips can cause traction alopecia, a permanent form of hair loss.

Bonding or fusion basically involves gluing the hair system to the scalp. The wearer is unable to remove the system for himself and is reliant on the seller to perform maintenance, commonly termed ‘refusion.’ This involves removing and re-attaching the hair system every four to six weeks as it becomes loose on the scalp. Proper hygiene is vital when using this method. Wearers must thoroughly rinse underneath the unit daily to avoid infection and a build-up of sebum and shampoo residue, which can result in a strong odour under the hair system.

The points listed above are not intended to discourage you from wearing a hair system, but they are intended to inform you of some of the considerations you must weigh into your decision to proceed with a hair system. Over the years I have seen some excellent examples worn by everyday people.

Hairpieces are the best solution for people who:

  • Have an inadequate supply of donor hair
  • Are too young to accurately gauge future hair loss
  • Do not wish to go through surgery
  • Do not wish to pay the higher entry cost level involved to restore naturally growing hair

Artificial Hair Implants

While not strictly related to the hairpiece family, artificial implants deserve a mention because they fall into the ‘be very careful’ category.

The basic principle involves inserting a polymer fibre with a loop on the end into the upper dermis of the skin. To fill in a bald head, 5,000 to 8,000 ‘hairs’ may be required.

Problems arise for the following reasons:

Chronic Infection: The skin can never properly heal while an artificial fibre is protruding through it. As a result, the patient must endure constant infection in the recipient area, with pus being secreted from the base of many of the fibres.

Breakage: Because the fibres are a manmade product and not regenerating, any friction – such as sleeping – will cause them to wear. 20% to 25% breakage at the base of the scalp is not uncommon, leaving the loop and a small amount of fibre protruding from the scalp, continuing the infection problem.

Permanent Hair Loss: Infection and ensuing inflammation can cause permanent hair loss in areas close to the recipient site.

Appearance: The artificial fibres do not simulate the appearance of real growing hair, generally being far too shiny and coarse to the touch.

Maintenance: Approximately every month the patient must return to the clinic to cut the original growing hair and remove plugs of dirt and sebum from the base of the implants.

One doctor in Australia is currently performing artificial hair implants, only available after careful assessment and a small trial to ascertain if the client is a suitable candidate.

If you are offered this option, you should be aware of the potential problems.

Summary

Hairpieces are viable alternatives for those affected by significant hair loss (generally Norwood 5 or greater). However, for a continuing natural appearance you must be prepared to:

  • Endure the costly and time consuming monthly maintenance required
  • Purchase two new hairpieces every 12-18 months
  • Accept some restrictions in lifestyle, such as not being able to go swimming
  • Accept the stigma that surrounds wearing a wig

Artificial hair should be considered very carefully in light of the infection concerns and ongoing maintenance.

The hairpiece became mass produced in Australia between the late 1970s and early 1980s and is now marketed by all manner of sporting identities. It is by far the most common form of hair replacement in Australia today, for a number of reasons. The initial cost is reasonably affordable at around $1,500 to $3,000, the change in appearance is virtually immediate, and there is no surgery, which is a big plus for many people. However, there are a number of disadvantages you must weigh up before deciding on one.

As an alternative Toppik are firm believers in the quality and results from their cosmetic hair fibre products. If a hairpiece doesn't feel like the right choice then consider the cheaper alternative which is hair thickening fibres. Made from all natural keratin these hair fibres are especially useful for people with thinning hair on the basis that they bind themselves to other hair follicles. Find more information on Toppik hair thickening fibres here