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Rakugami, kuzume: When you’re happy, your hair grows; / when sad, your fingernails
— Japanese proverb

There would be no haircuts were the hair not wont to grow. The head-top crop is characterized by this fact, which makes the hair of human beings distinct from that of other animals. Were we to allow our head hair to grow unimpeded at its normal rate of about 1.3 cm per month, it could eventually reach extravagant lengths of up to 3.7 meters or so. Most of us cut our hair before it reaches this point, for hair this long is cumbersome and even dangerous. Long hair gets caught on things and gives an enemy something to grab onto.

It is thought that prehistoric humans must have learned to cut their hair early on, probably by using sharpened stones as blades. Those whose religions prohibit them from haircuts, such as the Sikhs and the Rastafarians, devise ways to bind the hair so it doesn’t get in the way. Women of medieval Japan were obscured, weighted down, and virtually immobilized not only by their many layers of silken kimono, but by the heavy curtains of long hair with which they were cloaked.

On the ordinary head, each hair’s growing cycle lasts for between two and six years, at the end of which time the follicle goes dormant and the hair is lost, to be replaced by a new hair. At any given time, 15 percent of the hair is “fallow,” and 85 percent is growing. The hair’s growth rate, health, shine, color, and thickness are all influenced by hormones and youth, along with diet, exercise, degree of stress and circulation. Hair growth, most rapid between the ages of 15-30, declines markedly between 50 and 60.

An increase in the rate of hair loss in either sex can be the result of illness or stress, but the most common form of hair loss, seen in two-thirds of all males, is testosterone-related and is linked with increasing age. Though baldness is found in only 12 percent of 25-year-old men, the percentage rises to 65 percent among 65-year-olds. Baldness occurs when an enzyme converts testosterone on the scalp to dihydrotestosterone, and hair follicles shrink and disappear.

Stress-related alopecia is the type of hair loss most likely to occur in women. Some women also experience male-pattern hair loss after menopause, but not usually to the same degree as men. Womens’ hair growth and loss patterns are influenced by hormonal changes during pregnancy and birth, with an increase in growth rate during pregnancy often followed by a moulting some weeks after the birth. Anemia and an underactive thyroid gland can also cause hair loss, while an abnormal increase in hairiness can sometimes occur with hormonal imbalance.

On an obvious visual level, then, we instinctively equate thick, shining hair with health and youth, and hair that is less so with aging, stress and illness. Whatever the arguments which equate baldness with a powerful male sex drive, most men would prefer to have hair, and studies show that a man’s hair is an important feature of his attractiveness to women.

Many societies have tried unsuccessfully to remedy baldness. During the third dynasty in ancient Egypt, Queen Schesch is said to have applied to her head a mixture of date blossoms, heel of Abyssinian grayhound and asses’ hooves boiled in oil. Other Egyptian baldness remedies called for special fats taken from cats, snakes, horses, crocodiles and ibexes. Like these remedies, antibaldness recipes from many times and places often resemble witches’ potions in the strangeness of their ingredients; there is still a magico-medical tinge to some modern ones. What follows is a short list of the more feasible down-to-earth ones. I can’t guarantee they work, but they have been around for centuries!

The sea-salt strategy

This consists of diluting a small handful of pure sea salt in 750 ml of boiling water. When this is cooled, rub onto scalp. Store the salt water in the refrigerator and apply daily, shampooing as usual. Presumably, swimming in the ocean would work just as well!

The onion secret

This one exists as a folk remedy for hair loss in East as well as West. Slice an onion in half and massage the scalp with the cut surface just before going to bed. Then wrap the head in a night-cap of some sort, and shampoo in the morning. This should be done nightly for an extended period of time. I’d say this one might be best for those who sleep alone …

The rice-bran conditioner

This is said to help preserve the hair and keep it beautiful too. Simply use a rice-branbag (nukabukuro), first soaked in warm water, as a conditioning aid. You may even shampoo with it, though your hair won’t be squeaky-clean as with detergent-based shampoos. Add a drop of camellia oil (tsubaki abura) to the final rinse water.