If you can remember as far back as 2011, then you might remember one Wayne Rooney – then a spritely 25-year-old coming down from the footballing high that had made him a global superstar – announcing in the most extremely Wayne Rooney way ever (i.e. a badly worded tweet) that he’d had a hair transplant.
“Just to confirm to all my followers I have had a hair transplant,” he tweeted, “I was going bald at 25 why not. I’m delighted with the result… I had it done in Harley street hair clinic London. Thanks to all the staff who looked after me.”
At the time, the general consensus was a big fat ‘fair play, mate’. Maybe even a ‘class that, lad’ because of Rooney’s pioneering attitude towards openly discussing his hair transplant surgery which, eight years ago, was pretty taboo.
It’s hard to believe that Wayne ‘Wazza’ Rooney would be the one to break down the stigma attached to male cosmetic surgery but fast forward to 2019, and it’s fairly commonplace for men to discuss getting work done. According to a 2017 survey from the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery (ISHRS), hair restoration surgeries increased by 60 percent between 2014 and 2016, with over 635,189 surgeries performed in 2016.
Hair transplant surgery typically involves taking strips of the scalp where hair grows freely, like the back of the head. The balding part of the scalp is punctured and the hair follicles from these strips are inserted, where they grow naturally as hair. Although it was rumoured that Rooney’s surgery cost him in the region of £30,000, some practitioners now offer transplants for as little as a grand.
As the appetite for hair transplants increases, so too does the number of unlicensed hair transplant clinics. These practices operate with no oversight and sometimes botched results, destroying men’s already brittle confidence and scamming them out of thousands of pounds in the process. Last year, Glasgow-based clinic KSL Hair, which worked on former Westlife singer Brian McFadden and Celtic footballer Anthony Stokes, shut down after multiple allegations of substandard transplants, with ex-patients claiming their doctors were unlicensed.
KSL Hair may have shuttered but many other dodgy hair transplant clinics still operate in the UK. Paul*, who lives in London, was recommended a hair transplant clinic by a friend who said that it was “much cheaper than usual.” However, the surgery did not go to plan.
“For months, my hairline was crusty and bloody, and I had lots of jokes made at my expense. One colleague even thought I had syphilis,” Paul tells me. “My girlfriend was and still is very unhappy and embarrassed to go out with me in public.”
Anthony*, also based in London, had a similar experience after visiting an unlicensed hair transplant clinic. “My hair is completely ruined,” he says. “I have to wear a cap all the time and luckily, I am a chef, so I wear a hat at work. My friends ask me what has happened to my hair when they see it. It is difficult and I’m quite sad about it all.”
“My girlfriend was and still is very unhappy and embarrassed to go out with me in public.”
Clinics like those visited by Paul and Anthony are not registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), an NHS regulatory body that keeps medical standards in check. Dr Roshan Vara, managing director of licensed hair clinic The Treatment Rooms in London, tells me that "this does not necessarily mean that they operate as a black market clinic, but certainly by UK standards, are illegal.” He adds: “They often work in tandem with a clinic broker who refers patients to them, which is a poor clinical practice not held in high regard by the General Medical Council as the patient has little to no contact with their surgeon.”
And as with any black market operation, marketing and word-of-mouth are crucial to the success of unlicensed hair transplant clinics.
“Many of the illegal clinics have sophisticated websites ranking high with Google paid ads to attract the consumer into a clinic that appears on the surface very professional,” says Ricardo Mejia, chair of the ISHRS Committee. “However, the reality is that your surgery may be done by someone with no medical training.”
Paul says that he “had one consultation and paid straight away” for his hair transplant, with the procedure starting as soon as he handed over the cash. All of which should ring alarm bells in terms of patient care.
John*, another victim of a botched hair transplant at an unlicensed clinic, met his doctor “while having drinks.” He explains: “He said to come in for a transplant. I decided to have it two days later. Everything was so rushed, they didn’t give me any instructions on how to take care of my transplant at home after the operation.”
Anthony’s procedure was similarly confusing. “It was difficult to know who was operating on my head as the surgeon introduced themselves at the beginning, but they were not in the operation room when I was having my transplant done,” he says. “I just wanted to have my head full of hair again. Lots of people were getting the treatment so I thought I could too.”
Alongside the growing popularity of hair transplant procedures in the UK, there has been a huge increase in Western Europeans travelling to Latvia, Poland and Romania specifically for hair transplant surgery, while countries like Turkey even offer government discounts for patients who fly with Turkish Airlines. Due to slacker laws around health practitioners in these countries, men who have operations here put themselves at a greater risk.
“One patient came to see me because he had a wound on his head’,” says Vara of a patient who received a botched hair transplant surgery. “The ‘wound’ he was worried about was a large area of skin necrosis [dead and dying skin] that had scarred over and was unable to grow any hair.”
If skin necrosis doesn’t sound bad enough, Vara explains that bad treatments can result in “skin and hair infection after the transplant, visibly poor healing of the skin” and in some cases, good old-fashioned “death”. But it’s not just physical effects.
“They took £1,800 for the treatment but really I’d rather be bald again,” says John. “I always have to wear a hat and I have a huge scar on my head that I can’t do anything about. I went to the clinic for help with my hair but it worse than before. I’m devastated.”
As a bald guy who started to lose his hair at 16, I’ve always wondered what my life would be like if I had a massive bonnet – like Antonio Banderas in Desperado, or Tom Jones in your nan’s imagination. Maybe I’d have a regular role in Coronation Street as a lovable scamp called Jonny Steve. Maybe I’d be married to a glamour model. Maybe I’d have a best-selling Christmas single. Hair can seem like a powerful thing to men, and even though I’ve made my peace with being bald and not appearing on Corrie (ALTHOUGH I’M STILL OPEN TO IT, IF ANYONE’S READING), I can understand the desperation with which men still cling to their hair; one of the most overt barometers of youth.
Of course, all this makes balding men more susceptible to the quick fix of a cheap hair transplant, and shows why unlicensed clinics are so dangerous.
*Names changed to protect identities.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.