Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/14/2023
Hair transplants: the most extreme option for hitting “undo” button on the genetic typo known as male pattern hair loss.
Two in three U.S. men will experience some hair loss by the age of 35, and by age 50, approximately 85 percent will have “significantly thinning hair,” according to the American Hair Loss Association. In other words, there’s a good chance you’re part of this club (congratulations, right?).
Real talk? Hair loss sucks. Luckily, there are plenty of options out there for reclaiming some of the hair you’ve lost to time, and hair transplants are one of those options.
Our goal is for you to make a confident decision about whether the procedure is the right option for you. So, if you’re considering getting a new head of hair, the information below can help you understand the process, costs, risks and recovery associated with a professional hair transplant.
Right off the bat, there are some misconceptions we need to squelch about hair transplants. Forget the horror stories your brain is inventing — no one is taking hair from a cadaver and stapling it to your scalp. In fact, most of the time, the donor hair is actually your own.
Getting a hair transplant simply means taking hair from the areas of your scalp that aren’t affected by male pattern baldness and moving it to areas that are thinning or bald.
Hair transplants work because not all of the hair on your head is affected by dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, the primary hormone believed to cause baldness. DHT is a byproduct of testosterone associated with hair loss, and high levels of it have been connected to male-pattern baldness (and female-pattern hair loss).
DHT sensitivity basically signals doom for many hair follicles on your head, so by moving DHT-resistant hairs from the back and sides of your head to the front, a hair transplant surgeon may be able to give you a thicker, fuller head of hair.
Hair transplants are a mixture of plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures — there’s a knife and a needle, but you’ll walk out the same day you walk in.
Originally, hairline transplants involved removing and transplanting hairs using "plugs," which were groups of hair follicles in clusters. However, they often looked unnatural because of awkward cluster groupings and “gaps” of hair that would sometimes be noticeable between plugs.
Today, hair transplants are much more sophisticated in treating a receding hairline.
Surgeons can harvest hairs in multiple ways and transplant them in groups of one to three hairs, creating a hairline that looks and feels natural.
From an aesthetic perspective, assuming you have enough donor hair available and the ability for hair growth on the areas of your scalp that need it, skilled surgeons can practically recreate your natural hairline.
There are two generally accepted approaches to hair transplants:
Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE)
Follicular Unit Transplantation (FUT)
Each method produces a similar result, albeit with a few differences.
FUE is a more recent development in hair restoration surgery. It involves removing singular follicular units — or individual hair follicles — and transplanting them to a new area. To do this, a surgeon uses very small “micro punches” to remove the hairs from the scalp with minimal scarring.
The advantage of FUE is that it doesn’t produce a large scar. Instead, it creates hundreds of tiny scars. These scars are much less visible after healing, especially for people with light hair that might not be able to completely cover a traditional "strip method" hair transplant scar.
FUT involves harvesting a strip of healthy hair from somewhere less noticeable (generally the back of your head) and moving it to the thinning part of the scalp.
The advantage of FUT is that transplanted hairs have a higher survival rate than hairs transplanted using the FUE method. However, the downside of FUT is that it creates a larger scar on the back of the head that’s visible with some short or shaved haircuts.
Understandably, FUE can take longer than FUT and is often most suitable for smaller areas of treatment. However, minus the scarring — which shouldn’t be visible if the hair on the back of your scalp is dark and thick — both procedures produce the same natural-looking results in the hairline and crown area.
It’s also important to note that the success of either procedure depends on the surgeon or dermatology provider performing the cosmetic surgery.
If you're interested in learning about hair implants vs. hair transplants, you can read our blog on hair implants for men.
“So, what’s this gonna run me?” Fair question, bud.
How much you pay for hair transplant surgery depends on numerous factors, including:
the local market (or where you live and where you have your surgery performed)
whether you opt for FUT or FUE
whether you have to travel for your surgery
the surgeon you choose and the complexity of your case
Ballpark estimates of hair transplantation are plentiful, and most of the internet’s estimates range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. That number is going to change based on any number of factors, though, so you won’t have a good idea of your estimate until you select a surgeon.
Generally speaking, FUE is the more expensive practice, and in fact, it can range as high as three times the price of FUT procedures.
Because hair transplant surgery is generally considered cosmetic, it’s unlikely your insurance company will help pay for it. If your hair loss is due to an illness or injury, however, coverage may be possible.
This, by the way, is why many people with disposable income (but not endless wealth) consider getting their procedures done in another country — a practice known as hair transplant surgery tourism.
If you’re looking at hair transplant surgery, the best thing to do is contact your insurance company to see about your options for coverage.
Short of an Invisible Man-like head wrap, all hair loss procedures are actually pretty quick and easy. Both FUE and FUT hair transplant surgeries are done in an outpatient setting.
You’ll generally receive local anesthesia to numb your scalp but will remain awake during the surgery.
We’ve already covered how each procedure works in theory, but in practice, your donor follicles will be removed and stabilized in some sort of fluid while the transplant area is prepped for their arrival.
Prep is generally done with needles, where new holes will be made and the follicles will be dotted into place. These new follicle locations are typically (read: hopefully) created in a random pattern to simulate natural hair growth. So, if you see someone with a head of hair resembling a Battleship® board, they may have gone with a budget surgeon.
The procedure is a little like placing the tiny stickers on a model kit, except there’s no adhesive to speak of — just bandages and fluids.
Quite literally, the follicles be pressed in place by a wetted Q-tip® or other surgical tool and then the surgeon will move on to the next one — and repeat this process until all donor area follicles have places to call home.
Hair transplantations actually work. The hair you’ll be transplanting and growing will continue to grow, and within reason, they can be a success.
“Within reason” is the key piece of information here, and a good surgeon will explain to you that your expectations need to stay realistic. A hair transplant, after all, may make several changes to your scalp from the hair you remember having before.
Remember that transplanted hair:
Will have a different texture than your original hair
May behave differently when styling
May have irregular patterns from what you remember
In some cases, could potentially fail
If you’re willing to accept that it won’t be perfect (but almost definitely better than straight-up bald), you’re well on your way to a happy ending to this journey.
Here’s a tough reality of hair transplant timing: there isn’t a clear-cut answer on when you’ll be done and your cut will start looking full and fresh again.
The American Academy of Dermatology estimates the procedures take anywhere from four to eight hours depending on the number of grafts, and some transplants could take a few sessions over more than a single day.
In most cases, a hair transplant will be done in phases. So, while each procedure will be rather quick, you may have to do several of them — especially if your hair loss is more advanced.
The good news is that after each of those procedures, you’ll heal quickly.
Generally, people can expect to begin washing their hair again as early as the next day, and be back to work within one or two days. Full recovery and healing may take longer, but it won’t leave you bedridden or wrapped up like the Invisible Man.
Most people wonder (fairly) if there’s any point in transplanting hair on a person who is balding. The fact is that paying thousands of dollars for a full head of hair would be really stupid if it only lasted for a few years.
That’s not to say people aren’t kinda stupid sometimes, of course (Hey, we’re just sayin’!). But you’re not — you’re asking the right questions.
Here’s the good news about transplants: the transplanted hair is always taken from regions of the body where the follicles aren’t susceptible to DHT’s withering effects. Part of the reason donor hair is taken from the back of the head or other areas is that those hairs survived in the first wave of hair loss, remember?
That’s not to say that at 130 you’ll still have any hair left on your head, of course. But transplant follicles are selected specifically for this purpose, so staying power is one worry you don’t have to bring to the operating table.
In addition to the financial cost of a hair transplant, there are physical costs to any surgery. If you’re bandaged, you’ll need to be cautious when removing the dressings at home, as they can stick to the wounds (and your new hair follicles).
Recovery time varies between FUT and FUE. With FUT procedures, you can expect your surgical areas to heal in two to three weeks and you can resume regular activity in a similar amount of time. with FUE, your surgical sites can heal in one to two weeks and you can resume regular physical activity then.
You’ll likely experience a few things as you recover:
Swelling can occur in the origin and areas of the scalp where the hair has been transplanted, which steroids can lessen.
Washing your hair can be okay sooner, but experts advise against wearing pullover clothing (including t-shirts) for several weeks.
A topical minoxidil regimen post-surgery may treat these little transplanted seed hairs like fertilized seedlings, though you’ll want to follow their instructions closely as any topical product could cause irritation at the surgical sites.
Your surgeon will discuss the possible complications of hair transplant surgery with you. Common complications may include:
Pain and swelling
Cyst development at the suture site
Heart problems during surgery
Before you consider a hair transplant, you should also know the following:
If your hair is genetically sensitive to DHT, it may continue to fall out after you get a hair transplant. This could mean that the hair around the transplanted areas gets thin, while the transplanted hair remains thick and healthy.
A hair transplant doesn’t create new hair. Instead, it involves moving hairs you already have into a new location. If you’ve already lost most of your hair, you probably won’t be able to restore your original hairline and hair thickness with a transplant.
However, for most men, a hairline transplant can produce a significant improvement in the appearance of their hair. Just make sure you have realistic expectations based on the amount of hair you still have left.
While surgery is a possible course of action for hair restoration, there are less invasive (and more affordable) options that have also been shown to be effective.
Two medications — minoxidil and finasteride — are approved by the FDA to treat hair loss in men. These hair loss treatments can slow hair loss and increase hair density, according to an article published in the Journal of Aesthetic & Reconstructive Surgery.
Both drugs — minoxidil, which is typically applied topically (but sometimes taken orally), and finasteride, which is taken orally (but sometimes applied topically) — are backed by years of scientific research.
If you’re not ready to commit to taking a finasteride pill every day for hair health, applying a topical solution directly to your scalp may be the right option for you.
Additionally, topical finasteride is also backed by research that says it works just as well as the oral option.
Getting a hair transplant is a significant decision that requires research and patience. Like all medical procedures, it’s important that you understand the effects, costs and limitations of the procedure before you go ahead.
Some things to keep in mind:
Hair restoration surgery can be effective for men looking to take back their luscious locks,
It’s not without its caveats — it’s costly, can take time to heal and the process can be exhausting (and perhaps a bit painful).
The results are real, and they generally are successful procedures.
Want to take action today? Our guide to stopping a receding hairline explains the root cause of male pattern baldness and lists a range of tactics you can use to stop hair loss and keep as much of your hair as possible.