Battling Baldness With Sandalwood: Synthetic Scent Stimulates Hair Growth

If you're looking to sprout some extra hairs, you may have encountered a wide array of high-tech, expensive and often painful tools that promise to bring some volume back to your locks. But the idea of a therapy based on scent might sound like hocus-pocus.

But scientists investigating a chemical that smells like sandalwood have discovered the woody, floral "odorant" can stimulate hair growth. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

"This is actually a rather amazing finding," Ralf Paus, research leader and a scientist at the University of Manchester, told The Independent. "This is the first time ever that it has been shown that the remodeling of a normal human mini-organ [a hair] can be regulated by a simple, cosmetically widely used odorant."

An "odorant" is an ingredient used to give a particular smell to a product. We experience these aromas via our "olfactory" receptors. Beyond the nose, our bodies are covered with these receptors, and they play important roles far beyond our sense of smell.

Paus and his team recognized the role of receptor OR2AT4 in the healing of wounds. Growing new hair, they thought, is a broadly similar process. So in an effort to see if OR2AT4 receptors might affect hair formation, they bathed patches of human scalp tissue in the synthetic sandalwood chemical for a number of days.

The researchers noted a big increase—25 to 30 percent—in a growth hormone released in the sandalwood-infused scalps. Natural death was delayed in those cells linked to hair production, the team reported. When Paus blocked the odor molecules from binding with the relevant receptors, this success was reversed. "The organ actually needs to be continuously stimulated by olfactory receptors for optimal growth," Paus told New Scientist.

"I had hoped that our daring working hypothesis would hold up, but to be honest, I did not really expect this to happen," he told Newsweek.

The team thinks its technique could soon translate into a viable baldness therapy, The Independent reported.

A clinical trial is taking place to test the product's effects, after some success in a small pilot study. Although the synthetic sandalwood chemical won't be able to cure baldness itself, Paus said, if these early results carry through to human trials, it could "definitely" offer a supportive treatment.

"It is a fascinating concept that the human hair follicle, as the authors put it, can 'smell' by utilizing an olfactory receptor," Nicola Clayton of the British Association of Dermatologists, who was not involved in the study, told the publication. But it's still unclear how much the synthetic sandalwood therapy would help patients, she added.

The results, Paus told Newsweek, open up plenty of avenues for further research. "Our study begs the question: which other olfactory receptors are functionally and clinically important in human skin and hair physiology and disease?" Paus said. "We have most likely only scratched the surface of an entirely new skin research frontier here."

Earlier this year, researchers found hope for a baldness cure somewhere even more bizarre—a chemical found in McDonald's fries. More recently, scientists discovered that a compound called D-PDMP could reverse some of the effects of aging—including baldness, graying hair and wrinkles—in mice.

This article was updated with a comment from Ralf Paus.