Hair transplants: Istanbul's £1bn growth industry with a catch

Peter Smith looks at how Istanbul has come to dominate the world of hair transplants

Istanbul is known for many delights, but now it has a new honour of being the undisputed hair transplant capital of the world. 

Turkey’s biggest city hosts an estimated 2,000 procedures every single day, giving men and women a chance to recover from baldness. 

People travel from around the world, partly because the Istanbul package is relatively affordable compared to other destinations - and certainly much cheaper than most surgical options in the UK. There are viral videos showing lines of people with their post-surgery headbands in the departure lounge at one of the city’s airport - which has jokingly been rebranded online as a ‘hairport’ - ready to travel home on Turkish ‘hairlines.’ 

Yes, it looks unusual, and it’s the butt of a few lighthearted jokes. But it is seriously big business, bringing in around $1bn a year to Turkey. 

The sheer numbers coming in also mean the Turkish surgeons have become world-leading experts in their field. After all, practice makes perfect, and in Istanbul there’s no shortage of heads to practice on. 

At one of the city’s leading surgeries, Dr Kurshat explains to me how it works. 

“We get the hair from the back part,” he tells me.

“Then we are going to transplant it to wherever we need to on the front, to the middle, or the crown area.”

Hair transplants are big business. Credit: PA

He shows me the process and, in simple terms, it looks a lot like uprooting a tree from one area, roots and all, then carefully replanting it in another. 

“After 90 days, the hair is going to start growing slowly, slowly,” Dr Kurdshat says. “The final result takes one year.”

It is very much a growth industry, if you’ll pardon the pun. Hair transplants have been booming 12% year-on-year in Istanbul.

The chance to set up a profitable practice doing hair transplants is now attracting young Turks from medical jobs elsewhere. The training schools in Istanbul have waiting lists full of well-qualified people who’ve spent the last two years working flat out in Covid wards, more attracted to the idea of working fewer hours for more money and less stress. 

The pandemic is also partly responsible for the rise in demand: having spent so much time looking at ourselves on video calls or staring into the mirror during another work from home day, there is evidence Britons are emerging more body conscious. 

The phenomenon is called ‘the Zoom effect’ and one of the surgeons I met in Istanbul tells me it is real: the waiting list for a hair transplant at his clinic has trebled. 

However, the rise in demand has also delivered a rise in less experienced and sometimes less qualified operators trying to capitalise on the boom. 

Istanbul has seen a rise in unregulated surgeons, and I’m told about some who are performing hair transplants in their own home. 

The results can be devastating, leaving people physically scarred and psychologically distraught. 

Substandard jobs are also being done at clinics that have all the appearances of being professional. 

Seeing people recovering from a hair transplant is a regular occurrence in Istanbul. Credit: PA

The World FUE Institute is trying to set established standards for quality hair transplants, and their President, Dr Erdogan, is based in Istanbul. 

He tells me the industry in Turkey has simply become too big to regulate it properly. The Health Ministry doesn’t have the staff. 

Instead, he advises Brits to do their homework thoroughly before making a booking, and he offers some advice. 

“Check everything yourself before the surgery,” he tells me.

“Before deciding to go to any clinic, please don’t believe every photo you see on the internet.”

This kind of health tourism in Turkey is thriving and it might be sold by some as a simple cosmetic enhancement. In reality, it is a significant surgical procedure and there’s always risk when it comes to going under the knife. 

If you come only looking for the best value, you must be aware that the price you pay could end up more costly the money saved, with almost no recourse if things go awry. 

That doesn’t change the fact that Turkey remains a world leader in hair transplants for a reason. 

 And the majority who travel to Istanbul are heading home happy and hirsute.

Watch On Assignment on ITV at 10.45pm on Monday 28 March