Sandalwood for hair loss- can one whiff do the trick?

When it comes to hair loss remedies, you’d be right to be sceptical. A lot of the products out there are all talk and no action, with rarely any promising scientific evidence to accompany them. That’s not to say we haven’t tried and tested our fair share of hair growth oils, masks and creams- both the shop bought kind and the DIY recipes (mayonnaise hair mask, anyone?), with varying results. We were confident we knew of every hair growth ingredient out there… That is, until we found out about a new potential baldness treatment- sandalwood.

In case you didn’t know (and we wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t), sandalwood oil has a warm, woody odour and is commonly used as a fragrance in incense, cosmetics, perfumes, and soaps. It’s something you’re more likely to find at your local massage parlour than in your bathroom cupboard- but you may want to rethink that, if you’re struggling with hair loss, or you just want a way to grow your hair faster.

So what’s the hype about? Well, to go back to basics, new research has uncovered something pretty revolutionary: that human hair follicles express an olfactory receptor of their own called OR2AT4, and when OR2AT4 comes into contact with the molecular structure of a specific scent –synthetic sandalwood, as it turns out – it stimulates hair growth.

Lost? Us too. In readable terms, your hair follicles have the ability to “smell”, and if they sniff out the right chemical (in this case, sandalwood), it could be a radical new way of preventing hair loss.

If you’re feeling sceptical, the team did test the theory by using samples of human scalp donated by volunteers who had undergone facelift procedures, and immersed them in synthetic sandalwood odorant for six days. When they checked up on their experiment, they found a small but promising 25 to 30 per cent increase in the secretion of a growth hormone in the scalp. In other words, the hormone plays a key role in promoting hair growth.

So what’s in it for the future? Does that mean we should all take to Amazon and stock up on a generous amount of synthetic sandalwood to rub on our heads? Not so fast- the theory is still in it’s early stages, with the next step being to see if that result can be replicated in a larger clinical trial, which the researchers hope to conclude in January next year. As in, wait until the experiment can at least be tested on real skin attached to real human heads before we all deem it safe enough to get DIY-ing with.

Still, even if we can’t get too excited as of yet, things are looking promising- according to Nicola Clayton of the British Association of Dermatologists, the initial data is “very exciting”, although from clinical perspective she could only speculate about the extent to which such a treatment would improve outcomes for patients.

"It is a fascinating concept that the human hair follicle, as the authors put it, can 'smell' by utilising an olfactory receptor," she told The Independent.

We’ll be sure to follow up on this one as soon as we get a whiff (sorry) of more developments.

(Picture credit: Natural Food Series).

Laura Shallcross