Researchers found that exposure to common pollutants reduced the levels of four proteins responsible for hair growth and hair retention.
It also showed that the effect increased when the amount of airborne particles increased – suggesting that those living in cities or close to industrial works are at greater risk of going bald.
Air pollution has already been shown to increase the risk of cancer and heart and lung diseases and is estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths every year. It has also been linked to depression and low fertility.
The latest study, which was funded by a South Korean cosmetics company, is said to be the first to find a relationship between airborne pollutants and hair loss.
However, lead researcher Hyuk Chul Kwok, who revealed the results at the 28th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Congress in Madrid, said further research was required to confirm the effect outside the laboratory.
“Our research looked at the science behind what happens when the cells found at the base of hair follicles are exposed to common air pollutants,” he said.
“The research was undertaken in a laboratory and further research needs to be undertaken to understand just how quickly this affects people regularly exposed to pollutants in their day-to-day lives.
“It is possible to hypothesise that at certain levels of exposure this could lead to baldness, but further population-based research needs to be undertaken to confirm this.”
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The study involved exposing human follicle cells to different concentrations of fine dust particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or smaller and tiny diesel particles.
Researchers then used a scientific technique known as western blotting to detect the levels of proteins in the cells.
They found decreased levels of beta-catenin, a protein involved in hair growth and the process of generation and regulation of follicles.
Three other proteins responsible for hair growth and retention, cyclin D1, cyclin E and CDK2, were also affected, with greater decreases observed when the cells were exposed to higher levels of pollutants.
“When the cells on the human scalp were exposed to common air pollutants created from burning fossil fuels, the proteins in the cells that are responsible for hair growth and hair retention were significantly reduced,” said Hyuk Chul Kwon.
“The more pollutants that the cells were exposed to, the bigger this impact seemed to be.”
“Therefore, the results suggest that particulate matter may cause hair loss.”
The study did not consider any potential differences in hair loss between genders or ages.
Air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates, from Friends of the Earth, said: “This is the latest in a long sequence of scientific evidence showing the disturbing impact of air pollution on our bodies and health.
“Ministers must act with the strength and urgency needed to deal with this public health crisis, which also costs the UK economy £20bn every year.
“People need to be helped to switch to less polluting forms of transport. We need cleaner vehicles on our roads, and fewer of them, and greater investment in better public transport and safer cycling and walking.
“This will not only create cleaner and healthier towns and cities – it will slash climate-wrecking emissions too.”