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NY Times touts ‘compelling’ results for unproven hair loss product

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3 Star

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Is This Treatment the Cure for Hair Loss?

Our Review Summary

This story covers a Swedish company called Harklinikken moving into the U.S. hair loss market, “meaning you’re likely to hear more about it.” That’s the news peg for this take on an unproven product, which appears in the paper’s Fashion and Style section.

To its credit, the story acknowledges that there’s no published research behind this treatment and quotes an independent dermatologist saying she can’t recommend the product to patients. It helpfully reports that the company differentiates itself by selecting customers who are likely to comply with the time-consuming treatment regime and by tracking customers’ hair growth, along with the fact that positive results may stem from the fact that most customers are women, who can lose hair due to hormonal changes and see it grow back naturally, without treatment.

But those caveats come in the last half of the story, after a positive anecdote and language that reads like marketing copy. Also, the headline is farfetched in suggesting this mystery potion might constitute a “cure” for hair loss.

 

Why This Matters

Hair loss is extremely common and often distressing, affecting millions of men and women. While not harmful, plenty of people would like to see their hair restored, though there are few effective treatments for pattern baldness and those that exist offer modest improvements. The web site Reviews.com said it recently examined more than 200 hair loss products and found just three that had FDA clearance and were supported by clinical studies. As it points out: “The hair loss industry is crazy dishonest.” News stories about products not backed by reliable evidence risk contributing to marketing hype.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story barely rates satisfactory by calling this an “$88-a-month serum.” It would have better served readers by giving the total cost treatment, which well exceeds $1,000 annually and isn’t covered by insurance.

While patients are described seeing results after three or four months, there’s no mention of the fact that the company’s web site recommends “continuing application” to maintain results. And while the story says patients “must also use the company’s shampoo, conditioner and styling products,” it doesn’t say what they cost.

Further, when HealthNewsReview.org requested an online consultation via the company’s web site, we were notified of a $49 “start-up cost” if we qualified for treatment along with $29 for each “follow-up” consultation. Those costs aren’t mentioned in this article. There’s also no cost comparison with other hair loss treatments. We found a year’s supply of minoxidil on Amazon for as little as $54 for an annual supply.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The company doesn’t give detailed data on how much hair growth their customers experience and what types of people benefit, and there’s no independent analysis of its product. That’s a problem, and the story should have pointed out this lack of reliable data. Instead, the story says its “results are certainly compelling.”

The story does attempt to give readers an idea of the scope of the claimed benefits, modest as they may be. It states:

After four months of daily application — that is, working the tea-colored tonic into the hair section by section, then letting it sit on the scalp for six hours — most users regain at least 30 percent of lost density, and some as much as 60 percent, according to company figures.

But the story relies heavily on two anecdotes: a 42-year-old woman who replied that after three months of use, “You can’t see holes in my hair anymore.” Another user, a 35-year-old man, said he “started seeing peach fuzz after four months.” There’s no interview with someone who didn’t achieve a benefit.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Potential harms of this mystery substance aren’t addressed. The story quotes a dermatologist who says “the best she can tell patients who ask — and a lot of them do — is that Harklinikken won’t do any harm.” But how does a dermatologist — or anyone — really know since the company won’t say exactly what’s in its product?

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

This unproven treatment calls for a more skeptical take. The story use two anecdotes that bolster the company’s claim that this stuff works, calls the results “compelling,” and doesn’t caution readers about a lack of objective evidence until halfway through, when it states:

Panos Vasiloudes, a Tampa dermatologist and Harklinikken’s medical director, said the company has double-blind, placebo-controlled studies it hopes to publish next year in peer-reviewed journals. Such studies are the one thing some dermatologists say they need to recommend the product to patients.

“Hopes to publish” is a red flag. If a company — which according to the story has been in business for 25 years — is forging ahead with a multinational marketing push, it ought to be able to share its research and allow others to try to replicate it.

There’s also no mention that products like this don’t require an FDA review, so there’s no government check on safety or efficacy.

To its credit, the story mentions the possibility that many users could be women whose hair would have grown back “even if they’d done nothing.” This point deserved more emphasis.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There’s no disease mongering. However, we take issue with the use of the word “cure” in the headline because it’s ill-defined; even the company says users achieve no more than 60 percent restoration of their lost hair. And it’s debatable whether hair loss is a disease that needs to be cured. The story also plays into the firm’s marketing mystique by calling the treatment “a customized hair extract that’s given only to those who pass a fairly rigorous selection process” and saying it “inspires great loyalty.”

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The story quotes a dermatologist and researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, who says she’s unable to recommend the product to patients because of a lack of data. Given the extensive commitment involved, including nightly applications of six hours, input from a patient who didn’t achieve hair growth from this product would have been a great addition to this story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story doesn’t directly compare this product with other hair loss treatments such as minoxidil, laser treatments, and finasteride, a prescription-only medication marketed as Propecia. It mentions Rogaine (minoxidil) and a hair thickening shampoo as things one woman tried without success before turning to Harklinikken. The story does mention that for many women the hair will regrow on its own, which is a strength of the piece.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story says the company “is beginning an aggressive expansion into the $3.6 billion hair-loss market in the United States, meaning you’re likely to hear a lot more about it.” It also mentions clinics has a physical presence in New York City, Florida and Beverly Hills, Calif., and plans to “have a presence in every state in the next two years.” The product also appears to be available online.

The story also says that the company is “offering a customized hair extract that’s given only to those who pass a fairly rigorous selection process,” and its products “are not available to anyone with autoimmune illnesses like alopecia or baldness from scarring, or anyone who is unlikely to see at least a 30 percent increase in growth.”

The story also mentions that the treatment requires nightly six-hour applications, which could be prohibitive for some people.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Applicable

Since the company won’t disclose what the product contains, we can’t establish how novel the treatment is, so we’ll rate this N/A.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 9 Satisfactory

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