When Shi Yang was studying and working in France several years ago, most of his colleagues were bald—which made his own thinning pate more tolerable. But since Shi’s return to China in 2011, the 26-year-old Shanghai engineer’s hair loss has become an issue. “You will definitely stick out more back in China,” explains the bespectacled engineer, who says he has a better chance of landing a girlfriend if he has a thick thatch of hair. That’s why after raw-ginger scalp rubs and walnut snacks failed to counter his receding hairline, Shi says he’s ready to give Western drugs a try.
Treatments such as Merck’s (MRK) Propecia and Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) Rogaine are gaining ground in China, where a full head of hair is a sign of health and virility. Sales of Western hair-loss treatments, most of which contain Rogaine’s active ingredient, minoxidil, jumped 90 percent to 100.7 million yuan ($16.4 million) in the five years through 2012, according to researcher Euromonitor International. That’s almost double the growth rate of China’s broader 33.6 billion yuan market for hair-care products. Hair-loss drug sales are still small because baldness is only now being seen as a problem requiring pharmaceutical help, and Western companies have only recently begun to seize on the concern.
“China’s hair-loss treatment market is still in the development stage, and patients have many misconceptions about the treatments available,” Jane Wu, Merck’s communications director for China, said via e-mail. The drugmaker started a program with the China Association of Health Promotion and Education, a government-supervised body, two years ago to promote the use of doctor-prescribed hair-loss treatments.
“When we started our hair-loss clinic in 2000, we probably saw three patients a day, and now I get about 30,” says Yang Shuxia, a dermatologist at the Peking University First Hospital in Beijing. “There is increasing awareness that baldness is a medical condition that can be treated.”
Yang says she commonly prescribes Propecia (approved in China since 2001) and generic versions of Rogaine for her male patients and generic forms of Pfizer’s (PFE) Aldactone for women. Her patients are typically college students who say losing their hair “affects their chances of getting jobs, finding a girlfriend, or successful matchmaking,” she says.
The China Association of Health Promotion and Education surveyed 1,280 balding men in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu last June and found 47 percent of respondents had used hair-growth shampoos, visited hair-loss centers, or even swallowed snake gallbladders. More than 80 percent said they were “dissatisfied” with those treatments.
The top-selling treatment for hair thinning in China last year was Da Fei Xin, a minoxidil solution made by a unit of Shanxi Zhendong Pharmaceutical, with a 23 percent market share, reports Euromonitor. BaWang International Group (1338:HK), the Chinese maker of herbal shampoos endorsed by thick-maned movie star Jackie Chan, posted three straight years of losses after a 2010 report said a substance linked to cancer was found in two of its products—sending sales plunging.
L’Oréal (OR:FP), the world’s largest cosmetics maker, is trying to woo Chinese with products such as arginine lotions (touted to reduce fallout by strengthening the hair) and its Kérastase shampoo line (designed for thinning hair). The Paris-based company is pushing to expand its products beyond Beijing and Shanghai to second-tier cities in China, which “gives us a huge reservoir of growth for the years to come,” L’Oréal Chief Executive Officer Jean-Paul Agon said on a Feb. 12 analyst call.
Cellmid, a drugmaker in Sydney, also plans to start selling a plant extract-based treatment in China this year. “When I looked at the numbers, I was astonished,” says CEO Maria Halasz, referring to China’s market potential. Halasz said she suffered from excessive hair loss herself in the past and is counting on women being her main customers based on her observations of hair-thinning in cities such as Shanghai. “Going up and down the escalators, you really see women, even thirtysomething women, where there’s thinning on top of the head,” she says.
About 21 percent of adult males and 6 percent of females in China suffer from hormone-driven hair loss, a study by the Peking University People’s Hospital published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2010 found. Hair loss may be more visible among Asian women because they have thicker strands of hair but fewer hair follicles, says Rodney Sinclair, a professor of dermatology at the University of Melbourne. “Because their hair is very strong, it sits up away from their scalp,” he says. “When they have diffuse hair thinning, it’s instantly noticeable; whereas in Caucasians, they can comb it over and conceal the hair loss much better for longer.”