The young and the bald pay a very heady price
Sun Zhuo tried everything to keep from losing his hair: hair-loss shampoo, scalp-massaging combs, and diets said to boost hair growth.
His retreating hairline finally pushed the 28-year-old programmer from Jiangsu Province, in east China, to visit a cosmetic clinic to inquire about hair transplant surgery.
"If this hair loss continues, it would be hard for me to find a girlfriend," Sun said, who blames his lack of dates and confidence on the thinning hair.
Once a condition commonly associated with elderly or middle-aged men in China, balding is stoking anxiety among the country's young generations, from office clerks in their late 20s to juvenile students facing head-scratching exams.
China Central Television cited a survey as reporting that up to 250 million people, or one in six, were believed to be suffering from hair loss in China, and the problem was increasingly affecting the young.
"Today, balding patients are mainly people in their 20s and 30s, especially those around the age of 30," said Liu Haiyan, a hair loss specialist at Hunan Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine Affiliated Hospital.
The hair angst is palpable on social media. Douban, a popular networking site, has dozens of chat groups on hair loss, with the biggest one gathering more than 23,500 users to share their prevention and treatment experiences.
Off the Internet, the appearance-savvy young are fueling the demand for a plethora of hair-loss products, from shampoos and wigs to more expensive hair transplants.
On China's popular e-commerce platform Taobao, wigs like "seamless hairlines" and hair toppers are touted as quick solutions to the "signs of aging" and "your partner's snub."
One 800 yuan (US$125) hair topper supplier sells more than 400 pieces a month.
Helen Xu, a 24-year-old postgraduate student in Beijing, has spent more than 5,000 yuan on hair loss solutions, including Minoxidil sprays, herbal medicines and hairline powder, over the past seven years.
"Sometimes I used my cellphone to take photos of the top of my head, but I usually deleted the pictures after a glance," she said. "They were horrifying."
Xu, who attributed her hair loss to a lack of sleep and an irregular lifestyle, started to take the problem seriously after her boyfriend, much taller than her, stared at the top of her head and said: "You should see to it."
The student started by seeing a doctor, but instead of following the prescription that involved taking medicines for months and years, she opted for quick solutions. Once, she was even "cajoled" into paying 500 yuan for a haircut that allegedly made her hair look lush.
The ultimate solution, Xu says, may lie in hair transplants, which extract follicles from the back of the head to fill the balding area.
The costly surgery is quickly gaining popularity among young balding consumers seeking a quick fix. Data analysis agency iiMedia Research says China's hair transplant market surged from 5.7 billion yuan in 2016 to about 20 billion yuan in 2020.
Sun is already saving for a 40,000 yuan surgery. He deems the outlay "a worthy investment in one's looks."
"It is not easy to change my work patterns and lifestyle in the short term, which are the root causes of my hair loss," he said. "But now money can buy me a solution, so why not?"