At airports around Europe, particularly those with flights to and from Istanbul, it’s not uncommon to see men, their heads freshly shaved — some wearing caps intended to cover red scabs, others wearing forehead bands to prevent postoperative swelling — and all showing the unmistakable signs of recent hair transplant operations.
Although clinics offer hair transplants in most major European cities, the undisputed capital of this thriving industry is Istanbul, Turkey’s capital, with hundreds of flights arriving and departing with pre- and post-operation patients at what is now known as “the hairport.”
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The national flag carrier Turkish Airlines is jokingly called "Turkish Hairlines” and the airport is plastered with hair transplant and cosmetic medical advertisements.
Turkey's health ministry says that it expects two million health tourists this year (including plastic surgery, dental care and other procedures) and hopes to snare $20 billion in revenue from the sector.
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Hair transplantation is the most popular procedure right now with more than 2,000 performed daily.
”From the first signs of baldness, growing numbers of young men do not hesitate to have their hair implanted,” writes Le Monde, reporting on the monthly boom in flights from Parisian airports to Turkey every month. “Direction: Turkey, its unbeatable prices and its chain operations.”
Of course, patients arrive not just from Paris and French young men are not the only seekers of hirsute heads. Baldness, according to studies, affect one of every four men, is more likely to occur among Caucasian populations and has even been measured by country.
Countries with more baldness
A research by the World Population Review, based on data from Vantage Hair Clinic and published by the Daily Mail, ranks the 21 ‘baldest countries’, with the United States and Europe high on the list.
“Male pattern baldness, which typically begins with a receding hairline or bald spot on the top of the head, eventually affects two-thirds of men. The good news is that there are some promising new treatments and fresh surgical techniques available,” according to the story.
The Czech Republic with 42.8%, has the most bald men in the world. Spain, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, U.S., Canada and Belgium follow in the ten first places with percentages ranging from 36% to 42 % of the male population experiencing some degree of hair loss.
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Depression and social stigma
The prevalence of baldness that seems to be affecting men at younger ages plus the associated psychological impact and social stigma have impelled a thriving industry that ranges from aspirational products to prevention to treatment and, finally, to hair transplants directed toward millennials who are more ready to talk about their hair loss and to look openly for solutions.
According to The Guardian, “men said they would rather have a small penis than go bald.”
Thus, the boom in what seems to be the most effective treatment offered in different countries — an adjunct to the growing industry generally known as ‘wellness tourism’ that includes tailored vacation packages with flights, hotel deals, clinic appointments, transportation, meals and some sightseeing.
Clients predominately from Arab, European and, more recently, from Asian countries and the U.S. often come in tour groups.
The offers are plenty on the internet, media ads and health publications — as are warnings from health experts.
The most popular procedures
In one of the hair transplant techniques known as ‘follicular unit transplant’ (FUT), a a patient under local anesthesia has a strip of his scalp cut out and transplanted to an area of hair loss.
Another method, allegedly less invasive, is the Follicular Unit Excision (FUE), also known as “hair-by-hair technique,” during which individual follicles from the sides and back of the head are re-implanted one by one on the barren areas of the scalp.
There are all kinds and sizes of clinics and other health-related establishments offering one or the other interventions or both in most countries. But in recent years, the business has exploded and hair tourism has become a fad with cosmetic clinics in countries including Turkey and Tunisia that offer unbeatable prices and by “health tourism travel agencies” offering equally tempting packages.
Turkey's weak exchange rate and medical expertise are increasingly drawing foreign seekers of hair transplants not only from the west. The price of a hair transplant in Istanbul is one-sixth that of Japan and half of that in South Korea, for example, according to Nikkey Asia.
“Chinese and Japanese visitors are a relatively new phenomenon boosted by both Turkey's affordability and its growing international reputation,” the paper adds.
Straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey also offers one of the continent’s most lenient policies for international arrivals.
The fact that many celebrities, including well-known soccer players, have chosen Turkey for their transplants, has added popularity. The paper reports that in November, Italian soccer star Francesco Totti became an investor in a plastic surgery clinic in Istanbul where many players from Italian, German and Spanish leagues are now having transplants.
The trend inspired a 2022 Spanish comedy film, ‘Por los pelos’ (By the hair) about the insecurities of three friends who, suffering hair loss, can’t stand the social pressure any longer and decide to go to Turkey for transplants.
“Transplant surgery has gotten extremely good—and extremely expensive. But in Turkey, a brand-new hairline (and a stay in a plush hotel) are available for a fraction of the cost of a stateside clinic,” writes GQ magazine in an article about “ How Istanbul Became the Global Capital of the Hair Transplant.”
“A doctor I’ve never met is about to cut 4,250 holes in my head. He might be a doctor. I think he’s a doctor? The procedure will take six hours. I have no friends or family within 5,000 miles,” worries the writer.
“But in other ways, I’m not alone. Thousands have joined me. We’re from the U.S. and the U.K. and the rest of Europe and we’ve flown to Turkey, which is now the hair transplant capital of the world. Surgeries that cost $20,000 in New York can be found for $2,000 on the shores of the Bosporus. We come here with sad hairlines and skimpy crowns. We leave with our heads shaved and raw, red, and scabby—and with hope of newfound youth.”
The Turkish alternative can be “an asset for tight budgets. But it’s advisable to find out as much as possible about it before embarking on such a trip,” recommends the French publication DNA.
Frauds and risks
The ISHRS (International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery) has a site warning about the risks and dangers associated with medical tourism for hair transplantation. In its campaign “Fight the Fight” (for Fraudulent, Illicit, Global Hair Transplants) it warns: “When performed by a licensed + trained medical doctor, hair transplants are a safe hair loss solution. However, non-doctors, with little-to-no training, are also performing surgeries. They promise low prices plus guaranteed results, yet can deliver terrible results.”
The site offers access to some of those bad stories.
Their recommendation: “Your safety and well-being are at risk if you don’t research your doctor. Before making your decision, get as much information as possible and ask yourself the right questions, especially regarding post-operative follow-up.”
It is, indeed much cheaper to get new hair in Turkey than in any of the other western European country or the U.S. “In most clinics in the United States, hair transplants can cost well over $10,000, even $20,000,” according to GQ.
The article goes further to explain that although there are also cheap procedures offered in plenty of hair clinics in Mexico, Thailand and the Caribbean, among others, “at least, according to the Turkish clinics, they’ve set themselves apart with the quality of their doctors.”
Ali Caglayan, founder of tourist guide IstanBeautiful, explained to the magazine that the Turkish Ministry of Health saw an opportunity to boost medical tourism. “So they offered tax breaks and reimbursements for things like medical equipment, digital marketing, and even patients’ comped hotel rooms.” The plan worked: Turkey now sees 1.5 - 2 million medical tourists per year, many for hair transplants.
‘Turkey has turned into a kind of El Dorado. From around the world, “patients’ flock to undergo hair transplants” writes l’Independent. “But the sanitary standards are not the same as in Western Europe. In any case there are share of risks.”
Various European embassies have issued alerts about the risks of “baldness tourism,” advising potential travelers to be cautious and to research the centers offering treatment.
“In the event of a trip to Turkey to undergo treatment of this type,” warns the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “it is strongly reiterated to have the utmost caution and to verify the level of quality of the center and the doctors chosen.”
The Turkish Health Tourism Department’s website offers a 24-hour, international patient call center and a contact e-mail, answered in English and Turkish, to field questions about hospitals, treatments, doctors and agencies and to report complaints. It includes lists of clinics and various authorized fees.
Some experts recommend the hair transplant surgery to be a last resort and advise men to try the shaved look first.