5 Causes of Hair Loss in Women

At a certain point, hair loss happens to almost everyone. Here, expert insight into what’s expected, what’s excessive—and how to handle it.

Photo by Paul Sunday

It can be alarming when your brush seems to hold more hair than your scalp does. The good news is that some hair loss is to be expected (the average person loses up to 150 strands a day). If you’re shedding significantly more than that, however, any number of physiological or psychological factors could be to blame. But you don’t have to tear your (remaining) hair out. Whatever the cause, there are strategies that can help.

What’s Normal…

First a bit about your hair’s natural growth cycle: Each strand grows for several years, then enters a resting phase for three to four months before it is finally shed. Next, the follicle begins to grow a new hair, and the cycle begins again. Different strands of hair are in different phases of the growth cycle at any given time, which is why you don’t go bald every few years. As you get older, “hair can grow back in more sparsely, and the strands may be thinner than they were when you were younger,” says Doris Day, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University.

...And What’s Not

If you notice your part widening, your scalp showing through at your crown, or the hair at your temples receding, you may have an issue. Here are a few possible culprits. Consult your doctor, who can help you get to the root of the problem.

Hereditary hair loss affects approximately 30 million women in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Female-pattern hair loss—a.k.a. androgenetic alopecia—is the most common form and causes the hair on top of the head to thin. The over-the-counter preparation Rogaine, which contains the active ingredient minoxidil, can help. Applied directly to the scalp twice a day, it “can slow or stop hair loss in most women. In some cases, it can even help regrow hair,” says Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, a clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. “But the benefits are lost when you stop using it.” A newer over-the-counter regimen from DS Laboratories—which is composed of Revita Shampoo, Revita.Cor Conditioner, and Spectral.DNC-N (a scalp treatment)—includes antioxidants and stem cells and has been shown to stimulate and maintain healthy new growth. (Prices start at $31; dslaboratories.com for salons.)

Hair loss can occur after a significant physiological strain, such as a prolonged illness or crash dieting, which may leave you deficient in iron, B12, or protein—all vital to healthy hair growth. An emotionally trying event, like a divorce, can also lead to allover thinning three to four months later, when the hairs that were forming under the scalp at the time finally make (or don’t make) their appearance. Usually the hair will grow back in a few months. If a nutrient deficiency is the cause, your doctor can help you supplement your diet.

Some oral contraceptives, antidepressants, anticoagulants, and hypertension, acne, and cholesterol medications may cause temporary patchy hair loss. Again, talk to your doctor.

Brushing or Pulling
Brushing hair too vigorously or wearing tight braids or ponytails can pull hair out in patches, a condition called traction alopecia. “The hair will grow back when the repeated tugging stops,” says Nicole Rogers, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine, in New Orleans.

The Immune System
With alopecia areata, a woman’s immune system attacks her follicles, resulting in round patches or clumpy hair loss. Cortisone injections can help.

Short-Term Solutions

Regardless of what type of hair loss you are experiencing, volumizing hair products can make it less noticeable. The newest generation, applied before blow-drying, coats strands with polymers that can make them appear fuller. Try John Frieda Luminous Volume Blow-Out Spray ($10 at drugstores).