You may have seen headlines suggesting that there’s a new cure for baldness in town. Sorry to say, but we’re not quite there just yet. A new study, however, does give us some insight into how hair growth is both interrupted and encouraged, and reveals that synthetic sandalwood, of all things, might play a role.
Even weirder, it appears that olfactory receptors – those that primarily deal with smell – also factor into things too. So, scientifically speaking, what the hell is going on here?
Writing in Nature Communications, a team from the University of Manchester and Monasterium Laboratory’s Skin and Hair Research Solutions explain that olfactory receptors aren’t just found in the nose. They are expressed by a wide range of cells throughout the body, and perform functions unrelated to smell.
One receptor, OR2AT4, has been previously shown to boost the production of cells, named keratinocytes, in the skin. These cells manufacture keratin, a strong, fiber-like protein that forms a major structural component of, among other things, hair.
This receptor can be found in cells around hair follicles on the skin. Could this, perhaps, be influenced in some way to stimulate hair growth?
In order to find out, the team looked at human scalp sample donations. Don’t worry, people weren’t just willingly removing bits of their head; as spotted by New Scientist, they had undergone facelift surgeries and had leftover scalp bits they no longer needed.
Then, for six days, they immersed them in a solution containing synthetic sandalwood.
Now, sandalwood is sourced from a specific genus of tree, but synthetic variations are often used in fragrances and perfumes. The team noticed that its chemical structure meant that it was likely to attach itself to the OR2AT4 receptor.
In fact, Sandalore, the brand name for the synthetic, is the specific chemical that activates OR2AT4 in order to produce a biological response. Natural sandalwood doesn’t have the same effect. So what does it do?
Previous experiments have shown that Sandalore seems to promote the migration of those vital keratinocyte cells. These new experiments appeared to boost the emission of a hair growth factor in the scalp samples, suggesting that it may kickstart some hair growth itself. It also inhibited cell death.
It’s worth noting that, apart from the fact that long-term hair growth wasn’t demonstrated, the team took an ex vivo approach. This means that they looked at things not connected to living human bodies.
That doesn’t mean the results can’t be applied to humans, nor does it mean that synthetic sandalwood won’t one day play a role in hair regrowth treatments. It does, however, mean you shouldn’t waste money spraying sandalwood-scented fragrances on your balding head just yet: this is a cool study, but not a cure for hair loss.
Hair loss, by the way, is complicated. It’s related to one of multiple factors, including genetic predisposition, hormonal changes, medication use, stress, and even certain hairstyles and treatments, per the Mayo Clinic.
This study definitely indicates that synthetic sandalwood boosts growth hormone production, but it doesn’t have any say as to whether it can reverse hair loss, whatever may be causing it.
The paper also notes that many questions remain unanswered. What substances originating within our own bodies have the same effect as Sandalore, an artificial substance? What precise biochemical mechanisms trigger that outburst of hormones?
Until such queries, and many more, are answered, don’t expect baldness to be consigned to history, or miraculous hair growth therapies to crop up, any time soon.