Some men might be coy about why, seemingly overnight, their bald spot magically vanished or how that once receding hairline now looks so dang robust. Not Brett Wolfe.
Wolfe, a real estate developer in New York, loved the results of the hair transplant he received in Turkey during the winter of 2020 so much that everyone in his circle not only knows about it but some have even followed his lead.
“I’ve recommended a dozen people to my doctor,” he says. “More than that! Twelve have gone.”
“I can’t say enough good things about it,” he continues. “If you think you need a hair transplant, the truth is you’ve needed one for five years and you’re just now admitting it to yourself.”
“This is what I tell people,” says Levi Pharaoh, a Los Angeles–based P.R. professional who went to Turkey for a hair transplant back in 2017. “It almost made me religious. The amount of times I said, ‘Thank you, God.’”
Wolfe and Pharaoh are part of the growing number of men answering the siren call of Turkey’s exploding medical-tourism industry. It’s estimated that upward of 200,000 visitors pour into the country to get their scalps re-invigorated each year, spending somewhere around $1 billion dollars.
That’s because what may easily set you back $15,000 or more in America will cost you roughly $3,000 there. This includes the surgery, transportation to and from the airport and medical center, and accommodations, often at an ornately outfitted luxury hotel.
It’s for this reason that, in Istanbul, it’s not uncommon to see men walking around with bandaged, bleeding scalps. No, really. The airports, I’m told, are virtually a sea of blood-stained gauze, so much so that many people now refer to Turkish Airlines as “Turkish Hairlines.” The phenomenon has even inspired the Spanish-language road-trip comedy Por los Pelos.
“I was a bit embarrassed and, to be honest, scared,” said a screenwriter in Los Angeles—whom I’ll call Nick—regarding his hairline restoration, done soon after travel restrictions eased in the early days of the pandemic. “But, literally, as I got off the plane, there were all these guys with their bandaged heads in the airport. And more in the hotel lobby. It just made me feel a lot more relaxed about the whole situation. The day after my surgery, I was eating breakfast at this big buffet at the hotel, and half the tables were guys like me, eating alone with their bandaged heads. It was like the Brotherhood of the Bloody Heads or something.”
Nick had long been thinking about hair transplants, and the pandemic gave him perfect cover. The procedure requires patients to shave their head and allow the hair to naturally re-grow—not terribly desirable for those looking to be discreet. While he has had to fend off some oblique questions as to whether he did “anything different with his hair” from some friends and family, no one has asked him flat out about his magically fuller hairline, which has gained a full inch and a half of ground in the last year. And he’s even told some of his closest confidants about the procedure. “I still feel a bit of shame,” he says. “Even though I shouldn’t. Look at the Kardashians—they’re proud of all their plastic surgery.”
Many people now refer to Turkish Airlines as “Turkish Hairlines.” The phenomenon has even inspired the Spanish-language road-trip comedy Por los Pelos.
Turkey is able to offer such attractive prices because it remains a developing nation, and crucial business costs such as rent and salaries remain well below what they are in the States. Adding to that is the fact that, as the industry expands, so does competition, helping to keep rates competitive. And yet Turkey is equipped with some of the most cutting-edge technology in the hair-transplant industry, most notably the popular procedure F.U.E., or follicular-unit extraction, which pulls follicles from one area (usually the sides or back of the head) and plants them individually into the area of thinning or loss. It’s a time-intensive procedure, but it yields an appearance that’s far more natural-looking than the “hair plugs” of decades past.
The biggest drawback is that, unlike the U.S. or the U.K., Turkey lacks an official governing body that oversees and regulates the industry. A common complaint is that nurses often do the implants, not doctors, in an effort to see as many patients as possible. Indeed, look hard enough and you can find horror stories of transplants gone awry, ranging from the follicles not “taking” to scarring or infection.
Pharaoh, for his part, sat through a nine-hour surgery while awake, albeit anesthetized, to have a bald spot filled in and his hairline reworked. He said that that and the 48 hours post-surgery were difficult, but for him the reward was well worth the risks. “My best friend’s cousin was thinking of doing it, and he rang me up, and I told him, ‘Just go.’ And he did, like, the next week.”
Pharaoh estimates he paid around $5,000 for the surgery and premium-economy plane ticket. He paid for his own hotel room outside of a package because he wanted five-star accommodations (which he thinks was only around $70 a night) and to leave time for sightseeing. And just as the doctor, Ilker Apaydin, predicted, about 80 percent of the transplants took. Pharaoh says he’ll likely go back for a second round.
“Anyone thinking about it, I 100 percent recommend it,” he says. “It’s an investment, but it’s worth it.”
Max Berlinger is a Los Angeles–based journalist