I'm sitting in the Belgravia Centre, a hair-loss clinic near Victoria station, furtively checking the hairlines of the men in the waiting room. There's one whose hair seems to begin an inch or so above his eyebrows. Another has a thick head of hair, although the pronounced V of his quiff suggests a thinning at the corners. Then there is the redhead, who is most definitely receding. His brightly coloured jumper looks like a diversion.
I'm met by Johnny Harris, a 25-year-old in suit and blue shirt whose own hair is pushed up into a faux hawk. This is a family business. His dad started as a hairdresser, graduated to selling wigs and toupees then moved into treatment for hair loss. Harris claims to have been using hair-loss products for the past four years, and shows me a photo of the top of his head with what seems to be a thinning crown. On the after-picture, the crown looks fine. I note the light seems to be harsher on the first one, but perhaps I'm just being cynical. Politely he keeps his eyes off my own hairline, which frankly is not what it was. He picks up a torn-out story from the papers: Scientists find genetic key that could lead to a cure for baldness. Another day, another miracle cure.
"Look," he says, reading it. "The prospect of a baldness cure that actually works has moved closer." He flinches with annoyance. "That makes people think they can't do anything about it now and that's completely wrong. We can prevent further hair loss in nine out of 10 [cases], and in many cases the hair will get thicker."
There is a reason that cures for hair loss sell newspapers. Just ask David Yelland, who used to edit Britain's best-selling paper, the Sun. Yelland's hair fell out when he was about 10 and when he wanted to take off his jumper he had to head for the bathroom in case his ginger wig came off too. At school he haunted the corridors in a parka with the hood up. On a bad day, the wig would be pulled off by classmates. His search for a cure included squeezing lemon or pomegranate juice on his head. Once a week he would sit under heat lamps, in the false hope that they would stimulate hair growth. Instead he just burned his scalp. "It was incredibly traumatic. I can still remember when [swimmer] Duncan Goodhew won his gold medal, as if it was yesterday. I was crying my eyes out. The amount it meant to me that a guy whose hair had fallen out at the same time as mine had done that. But for every Duncan Goodhew there are a lot of people who suffer tremendously."
It wasn't until he was 31 and at the New York Post that he announced to a meeting that the next day he would be taking the wig off for good. "It is a very sweaty thing to wear a wig in a New York summer. It was uncomfortable, it itched, it smelled. Walking down 5th Avenue on a windy day, you'd have to put your hand on your head to stop it coming off. There were occasions when you'd put it on the wrong way round. It got to the point where I thought, I'm sick of this. I had a very good friend who was gay and came out around the same time. I thought if he can do that, I can do this."
There are few bald role models. In Hollywood, Billy Zane, Patrick Stewart and Bruce Willis are rare in having gone bald publicly, and websites devoted to guessing which actors have resorted to either wigs or transplants are legion. The politician Mark Oaten, somewhat improbably, blamed his visits to rent boys on hair loss, suggesting it had brought on a mid-life crisis. Infidelity damaged his career, but it had probably already been curtailed: bald men rarely make prime minister. It is still acceptable to throw out the odd "slaphead" remark, although changing fashions have made shorn heads more acceptable. For women it is worse. When Britney Spears shaved her head, it was universally accepted as a potent symbol of her breakdown.
Dr Pam Spurr, psychologist author of books including The Dating Survival Guide, says many men associate baldness with a loss of masculinity. The male grooming boom and increasing emphasis on physical appearance have made matters worse. "I have spoken to men for whom it induces a real gut-wrench. They feel that here go my looks, my masculinity, my youth. They can get very depressed about it. Hair is also one of the first things you notice when someone walks into a room. It's not something you can really hide, like a paunch."
Only two approved baldness treatments are available in Britain. Minoxidil, sold under the Regaine brand by Pfizer, was trialled for blood pressure in the 1970s. While it did little to lower blood pressure, it apparently helped hair growth and is now sold over the counter. Group marketing manager Darius Hughes says that in trials among 6,000 men, further hair loss was prevented in eight out of 10 cases and new hair seen in six out of 10.
Despite almost 8 million men in Britain suffering hair loss and the stress that losing hair can cause, Pfizer reckons sales of £6m a year have grown by just 4% in the past three years. "Awareness of the treatment is pretty low and people are very sceptical," Hughes says. "Everything out there says it is clinically proven and as an industry that's a bit of a problem." A trichologist is not medically qualified and apparently anyone can claim to be one. People can be put off, Hughes says, by the commitment required. Users rub the cream into their heads twice a day, indefinitely. Still, the company has recently launched a gel and a women's brand and an advertising campaign starts next week.
The other approved treatment is finasteride, a one-a-day pill branded as Propecia by Merck. It costs about £30 a month and starts working after about three months. Stop taking it and hair loss starts again. The company claims hair loss stopped in 83% of men using the drug, with hair growth stimulated in 66%. Propecia has been available only on private prescription and sales are small. But Boots launched a hair-retention programme in September that includes a consultation with a pharmacist permitted to prescribe the drug.
Sara Coakley of the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which approved both Minoxidil and Propecia, says proliferation of fake Propecia online is of concern. "We are very concerned because there is a lot of counterfeit stuff out there and goodness knows what people are getting."
The Belgravia Centre uses a combination treatment of high-strength Monoxidil and Propecia on prescription, and sells unlicensed supplements. It charges between £150 and £350 a quarter.
The other options are hair transplants (which can cost up to £10,000 with no guarantee of success), weaves or wigs. In the "breakthrough" news this week, US scientists claim to have awakened dormant genes in mice that caused them to grow new hair follicles. A drug is at least a decade away.
Yelland, for one, no longer regrets his hair loss. "It was the making of me. Rupert Murdoch came over to me the day after I took the wig off and shook my hand and said 'I think that's great.' If I had been a ginger-haired lad from Yorkshire I certainly wouldn't have been the editor of the Sun at 34."