Struggling to find a solution for mid-life hair loss, Get The Gloss Editor Victoria Woodhall booked for an innovative hair microneedling treatment with Ricardo Vila Nova
“Wow, look at that!” says Ricardo Vila Nova as he peers down his microscope at a strand of my hair. The Hair Whisperer, as Ricardo is known, has been working his magic on my thinning hairline for months. “Come and look!” he beckons excitedly.
He projects an image of the hair onto his computer screen; it glistens purple, blue and green like a peacock feather (see below). It really is a wow moment, like opening a casket on a precious jewel.
Next to it, he places my ‘before’ picture of my hair taken when I first came to see it in search of help for my hair fall. In comparison, it looks like an ailing and malnourished worm. The microscope, which scans right inside the hair, shows up all the healthy inner protein structures as blues and greens, something which my old (i.e. pre-Ricardo) hair was clearly deficient in. My new hair strand is noticeably ‘pumped’; it’s thicker and full of protein, as though it’s been put through a body-building regime. And protein is the thing that gives the hair its youthful strength, bounce and resilience and gloss.
I’m now a year into seeing Ricardo Vila Nova every few weeks and I don’t plan on stopping. His unique drug-free hair boosting method is indeed like sending your scalp the gym. It’s an analogy he favours. “For the first few months, you work extra hard to build up your hair from the inside, and after that, it’s all about maintenance,” he says.
A trichologist and biochemist with his own unique hair DNA profiling method, whatever your hair or scalp concern, Ricardo will find it thanks to his deep understanding of the science of healthy hair and create a bespoke programme for you.
Pre-Ricardo my hairline hair was puny and refused to grow beyond baby fluff. I lacked what Ricardo calls ‘extension’, the ability to grow my hair longer than an inch or two. Now, have what could almost pass for a full fringe. I’m not, as I feared, on the inexorable slide to baldness. One side of my hairline, the right side, has responded better to treatment, sprouting forth new and hardy shoots, while left side is obdurate and needs more coaxing with Ricardo’s cocktail of microneedled peptides and growth factors. But all in all, he is extremely pleased.
He’s been watching my progress keenly, tuning in to my Instagram Rocket Yoga live classes purely to check how my hair growth is doing. He tells me that just as I keep up the yoga to maintain a strong body, I have to do the same for my hair. Like muscles, follicles can get lazy and shrink. It’s 'use it or lose it'.
At every visit, he would patiently answer all my 'why me?' questions as he set about administering my bespoke scalp treatment, hair steam and shampoo to get my scalp in good health before microneedling. I learned that there are many factors that cause hair fall and it’s Ricardo’s job to unpick that particular puzzle, which is different for everyone. He’s the person people turn to when nothing else works – and that’s my story.
What was causing my hair loss?
I first noticed my hair was thinning at around age 46. My mum had just died very suddenly, I was under a lot of work stress as the family breadwinner, my husband had lost his job, my kids were quite small, and I was writing a book on yoga (irony not lost) at weekends. I thought my hair fall was understandable. I’d had a shock; it would grow back. Ha!
I threw everything at it: hair growth supplements, scalp tonics and peptide hair serums. I had several rounds of PRP (platelet-rich plasma) scalp injections at Dr Justine Hextall’s Tarrant Street Clinic, Sussex and Dr Johanna Ward at Vitalize in Kent, which helped. I embraced scalp brushing with the Hayo’u Jade Body Comb, £42 stopped heat styling my hair and found silicone-free hair products for my curl type thanks to Michael Van Clarke’s 3’’’ More Inches Life Saver. Charlie Double at colour specialists Four London tinted my fragile hair with care, just enough to cover the grey.
I mourned my once-thick wavy locks that were robust enough to cope with highlights, and the fringe I could no longer grow. I noticed with annoyance that those irritating ‘have you booked your funeral?’ ads I was spammed with once I hit 50, only ever featured grey-haired women whose hair was really, really thick. ‘Thinning and old’ is not something that advertisers care to present us with. Real life says different, however; I noticed everywhere mid-life women like me, with partings as wide as the Red Sea and hairlines like outgoing tides. Many had opted for the generic ‘this'll do’ sensible crop that both my mum and grandmother had – and both hated. A ‘hair style’ wasn’t something they felt that they, with their thinning hair, could aspire to.
I could also have added add hormone shifts to my hair fall charge sheet. Even five years ago, the conversation about perimenopause was non-existent. Hair thinning is one of at least 40 possible symptoms of perimenopause as we now know thanks to a more open national conversation and a raft of new books on menopause.
I’d been told by doctors that topical medical treatments such as Finasteride and Minoxidil (Regaine) would definitely work to stimulate growth, but was reluctant to go there, because I knew I’d be on them for life and that they only worked for as long as you took them. If I stopped, I could experience even worse shedding than before, warned Ricardo.
“They create a dependency,” he says. He’s not against them but he prefers to try to achieve the same effect of waking up the hair growth naturally in what he calls a ‘bioidentical’ way. He treats the scalp dermis (where the living tissue is and hair growth begins) with proteins, vitamins and growth factors, which he microneedles in, sometimes also using PRP, having first treated the scalp with bespoke shampoo and mask to get the ‘soil’ in which the hair grows, to full health
I put myself in Ricardo’s hands at his salon in fifth floor room in Harrods, London. I liked his philosophy of training the hair to grow by itself rather than relying on hormonal treatments and the idea that this was also a pamper treatment with plenty of head massage and hair steaming. If you walk in feeling down about the state of your hair, you walk out feeling good and hopeful.
Finally – a hair thinning diagnosis!
To diagnose the reason for my hair thinning, Ricardo took a hair from the thinning section on my head and one from my unaffected hair to see in what way my hair was behaving abnormally and work out a treatment plan. He could see from the hair scan that I was absorbing decent protein from my diet and supplements (keep them up, he says) but that diet alone was no match for the triple whammy of issues that he could see that I was facing namely genetic hair thinning, menopause and ageing.
I’ve clearly inherited male/female pattern baldness from my parents and my genetic tendency for hair fall was triggered by stress and potentially perimenopause in my mid-40s. So, what could be done? I asked Ricardo to explain his treatment approach for my issues, which I’m sure I share with many mid-life women, and the other main causes of hair loss.
Hair loss and hair thinning causes
Hair loss issue 1: Thinning crown and hairline? It could be genetic hair thinning (androgenic alopecia)
Where is your hair thinning? If it’s around the hairline (and also on the crown for men) then that is a tell-tale sign of genetic thinning. As my mother and grandmother had it too, and my dad is bald, it’s no surprise that I have it, although my sister seems to have escaped it. It’s luck of the genetic draw.
When does genetic hair loss kick in? Ricardo says that post-puberty, any genetic tendency for hair loss can start to show but it’s different for everyone as to if and when, Often, it can be triggered by other factors that can affect your hair growth; in my case the trauma of my mum’s death and menopause (see below).
What happens to the hair when you have genetic thinning (male or female pattern baldness)? People with genetic hair loss experience miniaturisation: the cuticle (the ‘seed’ of the hair that becomes the outer layer as it grows) becomes thinner, your hair gets ’weedier’ until you get a bald patch. A hair transplant is then your only option, says Ricardo. Yes, women have these too, as model Yasmin Le Bon revealed recently.
If you intervene to boost the protein by microneedling it directly onto the hair follicle while there’s still hair/cuticle production there, all is not lost and you may be able to thicken the hair and extend its growth, which was what my treatment focused on.
The solution: Microneedling for hair loss
Like a bodybuilder, my hair needs extra protein, not from diet but directly onto the scalp. Ricardo deposits proteins (growth factors and peptides) directly into the scalp dermis via microneedling. It’s like aerating the lawn and adding fertilizer to coax my baby hairs into ‘extension’. If I wasn’t absorbing enough protein, he would recommend an IV vitamin infusion or supplements.
He uses a dedicated hair microneedling tool (starting at 1mm and going up to 1.8mm, it’s a bit prickly, not painful) which has more flexible bristles than a face tool. Don’t try this at home, though. Many topical scalp products aren’t designed to go deep into the dermis (where you have blood supply) and you may be needling in ingredients such as alcohols, that are designed to stay in the upper layers.
Hair loss issue 2: Dry, breakable hair and thinning all over (diffuse thinning) and post-40? It could menopause
I loved having thick hair in pregnancy. The body is flooded with oestrogen which keeps the hair in its growth phase (anagen). In menopause, the opposite happens; we’re actively lacking in hair-loving oestrogen and hair becomes finer and thinner and the scalp (the soil in which your hair grows) becomes dry, just like your skin everywhere else as oestrogen is responsible for water retention. Thinning tends to happen all over (diffuse thinning) and because of the lack of moisture in the scalp hair can become dry and prone to breakage.
If you have genetic predisposition for hair loss, as above and as I do, your follicles are more sensitive to the male (androgenic) hormone DHT (dihydrotestosterone, a derivative of testosterone) which can make you lose hair faster and earlier. “Because the drop in oestrogen levels around menopause means that you have a higher ratio of testosterone in your body, allowing it to have a stronger negative effect on your hair follicles” says trichologist Anabel Kingsley. Doctors can issue prescriptions for scalp drops containing anti-androgenic hormones.
HRT (hormone replacement therapy) can help restore lost oestrogen, although in my case HRT has not given me back my former crowning glory. Who knows, I might have been bald without it!
Good news, though. Diffuse thinning might be temporary. Some women experience hair loss in menopause only during the period of hormonal instability, says Ricardo. “You might go through a period of instability and might feel the hair shed, or a change in texture or the hairs themselves become thinner.”
When the hormones settle down again, the hair may grow back. Unless, like me, you have a genetic tendency for thinning, in which case menopause might trigger thinning in the classic genetic pattern of around the hairline.
What can you do? “Scalp is skin” says Ricardo, and we should look after it in the same way we do our face. It has a skin barrier, called the ‘hydro-lipidic film’ which gives it balance and resilience. Mine was a little low, which tallies with my dry skin generally and the fact that I’m menopausal. He mixes up scalp masks and treatments containing light oils such as tsubaki oil, collagen and vitamins and adcises me to use a mask that is suitable for scalp and hair. I like Rahua Scalp and Hair Mask, £40 and Espa Pink Hair and Scalp Mud, £28.
Diffuse thinning can respond very well to microneedling, says Ricardo. “When we are just empowering the hair constitution the response is much higher as genetics are the hardest to fight against,” says Ricardo. “To boost protein or increase growth or strength, microneedling the elements your hair is lacking will have a super rapid response.”
Hair loss issue 3: Hair finer and thinner all over and won’t grow as long as it used to? It could be ageing
Our metabolism slows down as we age and that affects hair growth too. Hair has a very high energy demand. As we get older, the scalp becomes drier, there’s a limitation in the length that the hair will grow. “Like every organ in our body, as time goes by, the level of regeneration decreases and very often our cellular performance creates a pattern, that if we don’t trigger into regeneration our body can become ‘lazy’,” says Ricardo. He likens it to our bodies – we may have to work harder to keep weight off as we get older and our metabolism slows. “The same happens to the roots. If we allow the hair cycle to lose the power of growth in length, then the hair will create a vicious cycle. We have to take it to the ‘gym’ in order to change the genetically programmed hair cycle.”
Eventually, the follicles run out of growth capacity, and they shut up shop. Ricardo’s solution: needling and growth factors will help keep the follicles active for as long as possible
My colleague Ingeborg Van Lotringen, who like me is post-50 and menopausal, wrote very eloquently about how her long hair had suddenly become very fine and makes some product recommendations in her article on how to make fine hair look thicker.
Hair loss issue 4: Sudden hair fall aka telogen effluvium? It could be trauma, dieting, illness, medication or post pregnancy
Not something I suffer from but a common cause of hair loss, which many people experienced post-Covid. Hair is ‘secondary tissue’ says Ricardo and it’s one of the first things that the body deprioritises when there are other crises to deal with such as recovery from illness, crash dieting or trauma.
When this happens, the growth cycle is interrupted suddenly, but afterwards, hair often grows back. Nutrient deficiency, hormone changes such as post-pregnancy and certain medications can also trigger hair fall. This type of hair fall happens evenly all over the head. Ricardo says women tend to notice that their ponytail is suddenly not as thick as it was. But if you have a genetic tendency for hair loss (as above) regrowth may need a little more intervention.
In pregnancy, the body is flooded with oestrogen, which keeps the hair in its growth cycle. “Post-pregnancy hair loss is a temporary reaction due to the hormonal rebalance and renewal of the hair,” says Ricardo.
Chemotherapy and certain medication may temporarily cause this kind of hair loss, likewise vitamin deficiencies. Hair is non-essential and so last in line for nutrients. ‘If there is a decrease in protein (ferritin or iron) hair will be suppressed absorption [in favour of more important bodily functions] causing the hair to thin and decrease density, strength and length,” says Ricardo.
Thyroid issues hair loss: “In some cases, thyroid imbalance [over or underactive thyroid] can also affect the metabolism of the body, decreasing the amount of cell production - or cuticle production when it comes to the effect on the hair. Knowing how to diagnose the causes of hair loss may lead to addressing other underlying issues that can be medical.”
Hair loss issue 5: Hair coming out in patches? It could be scalp inflammation
The scalp is the soil in which the hair will grow and a compromised scalp – one with build-up from too much product, flaking and inflammation – can actually clog up the follicle and cause thinning in itself. Ricardo told me of a male client who came in recently for thinning hair and it transpired that he was applying mousse repeatedly to his hair and to his scalp resulting in the build-up on the scalp, which was contributing to his thinning.
Infections, inflammation and scalp atopic conditions such as psoriasis or eczema can lead to scar tissue and affect follicle production. In some cases, it can lead to permanent follicle reduction [ie bald patches].”
Autoimmune disorders and stress - “if your body finds itself under attack” - can create patches of hair loss too. “The glandular production becomes super active, and the cellular renewal becomes supercharged. As a defence, your body rejects the hair prematurely and in patches," says Ricardo.
Ricardo’s solution is to make the scalp more resilient with masks and shampoos that reduce inflammation, build up the skin barrier and remove build-up without stripping, restoring my scalp barrier (the hydrolipidic film) with pH-friendly shampoos and masks.
My verdict 12 months later
What have I learned? Hair is a fickle beast. Luscious locks are not a survival priority for the body and so often it’s the first thing to go when there’s an imbalance and this may need the careful eye of a trichologist or a doctor. It’s so multifactorial that everyone’s issues are different. I know that for me, supplements are never going to be my magic bullet, although keeping my levels topped up and by eating the right foods (such as these ten best foods for thicker hair) is essential.
I asked Ricardo why, in theory, I couldn’t see him every week if I could afford it. Would that not speed up results? “We don’t want to create a dependency on the treatment,” he says. An important aspect of this is kickstarting my hair to work harder for itself.
I’m looking after my scalp more, keeping it as hydrated and balanced with serums and masks, as I do my face. And I’m realistic about my results. No, I haven’t got back my full fringe, and there’s still a patch on one side that doesn’t seem to want to ‘wake up’ but I know I’m not on the slide to baldness and when I look in the mirror, I’m happy with what I see.
A hair scan treatment with Ricardo Vila Nova at Harrods costs £175. The programme is based on the results of the scan and fully personalised to each client and starts from around £350.