Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Hair Loss—and How to Live With It
If you’re experiencing serious shedding, you’re not alone.
Actress Ricki Lake recently made a splash in the news with an emotional Instagram post of herself sporting a buzz cut, revealing that she has suffered from hair loss for decades. While this public admission garnered lots of attention, Lake, and actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who made a similar announcement in 2018, join an estimated 50 million women who will suffer from significant hair loss, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The bottom line: hair loss in women is a VERY common problem, but one that still carries with it quite a bit of stigma, and, as Lake and Pinkett Smith attest, can come with emotional repercussions. Ahead, experts weigh in on exactly what causes hair loss in women, possible treatment options, and how to live with it.
Causes of Hair Loss in Women
“Hair loss and hair changes over your lifetime are complex, and more so in women than in men,” explains Dominic Burg, the chief scientist and tricologist for Évolis Professional. A variety of potential causes and factors come into play, including, but not limited to, hormonal changes, diet, genetics, stress, age, illness, and styling damage. Hair challenges, including hair loss and shedding, should really be viewed as a reflection of a combination of these factors, Burg adds. Case in point: Lake cited pretty much all of these when talking about her situation.
It’s also important to remember that a certain amount of hair loss is normal. It all comes down to the hair cycle, the unique pattern of growth, shedding or falling, and regeneration, which takes about seven years, notes Burg. “Every hair goes through this process on its own time, which means that of the 100,000 or so hairs on your head, anywhere from 100-150 will fall out and be replaced by new ones each day,” he adds. In other words, seeing a few strands in the shower drain or in your brush is totally and completely normal. That being said, if it seems like you’re losing way more than that, or if the amount of hair falling out suddenly and drastically increases, you’ll want to see a dermatologist to help you determine why this is happening, advises Howard Sobel, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and director of Sobel Skin.
To that point, here’s a bit more about what that "why" might be. All of the below disrupt that hair cycle, shortening the growth phase. “When the growth period becomes too short, hair falls out too quickly, excess shedding occurs, and the regenerating hair that does come in is finer and less substantial," says Burg. "This can lead to a degenerative process called miniaturization, in which the hair follicles eventually stop regenerating and disappear entirely."
Whether it’s post-baby, after going on or off the pill, or during menopause, changes in hormone levels can impact the hair growth cycle. And it’s not just sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. Metabolic hormones, like thyroid hormones, can also play a role, says Burg, who adds that hair loss and thinning are often associated with thyroid conditions. Stress hormones, aka cortisol, is another culprit.
On that note, if it’s ever seemed like your hair was suddenly much thinner after a super stressful life event such as divorce or the death of a loved one, that likely wasn’t your imagination. Stress triggers high levels of cortisol, which can result in the body shutting down hair growth in favor of other organ functions, Burg says.
“Genetics is another common cause of hair loss in women, and results in what is known as female pattern hair loss,” says Dr. Sobel. (According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 30 million women experience this specific type of hair loss.) Unlike suddenly noticing more shedding, this manifests more gradually, starting with thinning hair at your part, and usually gets worse as you age.
“Yo-yo or extreme dieting can lead to hair loss in many women, as the body shuts down hair growth to direct nutrients to the organs,” says Burg. A wide array of nutrients are important for healthy hair, including B vitamins such as biotin, zinc, iron, and vitamin E.
Constantly sporting tight styles, such as ponytails and braids, leads to constant pulling on the hair, which can result in what’s known as traction alopecia, says Dr. Sobel. Heat and chemicals can also cause inflammation that alters the hair growth cycle, adds Burg.
Treatments for Hair Loss in Women
At the end of the day, there’s no one-size-fits-all option, and which treatment path you take will largely depend on how severe your hair loss is, as well as the underlying cause. (Which is why it’s important to seek professional help to first get to the root of the issue, no pun intended.) “Hair loss and hair changes are complex, so you may need a few treatments in a combination that’s tailored to you,” says Burg.
“Your hair is a holistic reflection of your internal health, so if you’re taking care of your body, your hair will usually follow, at least to some degree,” says Burg. That means everything from eating a well-balanced diet to minimizing stress to exercising.
This is the only FDA-approved drug clinically proven to regrow hair, notes Dr. Sobel, though how it fully works isn’t entirely known, despite the fact that it’s been around for quite a while. It can be very effective, but the caveat here is that you have to keep using it regularly in order to see and maintain results. Find it in Women’s Rogaine 5% Minoxidil Unscented Foam ($41; amazon.com).
During this in-office procedure, your own blood is separated to remove platelet rich plasma (PRP), the part of the blood that’s rich in growth factors and signaling molecules. Injecting it into the scalp is thought to kickstart the hair growth cycle. “It may be more effective and have faster results than other treatments for those with more severe hair loss,” says Dr. Sobel. But keep in mind that it is a bit invasive, can be pricey, and needs to be repeated regularly.
Other Topical Products
There’s no shortage of shampoos, conditioners, scalp sprays, and more that promise miraculous hair growth results. While these won’t actually regrow hair, they “can improve your overall hair health, restore resilience and strength, and boost the appearance of fuller looking hair,” says Dr. Sobel. In other words, in tandem with another treatment, they can have some beneficial effects. Try Évolis Professional Reverse 3 Step System ($121; evolisproducts.com), which works by blocking FG5, a signaling molecule that shortens the hair growth cycle. Or try Dr. Sobel’s pick, Foligain Triple Action Formula for Thinning Hair for Women ($19; amazon.com), which infuses the hair and scalp with key nutrients and botanicals for healthier-looking, thicker-looking hair, he says.
Living With Hair Loss
Remember that you’re not alone in dealing with this. “More than 30 percent of women will experience hair loss before they are 40, and as we get older, hair loss happens to all of us to some degree or another,” says Burg. Be patient and cut yourself some slack (after all, stressing about the hair you’re losing will only exacerbate the situation). Hair grows slowly and results from any kind of treatment take time, so give yourself at least four to six months, he adds.
In the meantime, there are plenty of easy styling tips and tricks you can use to help create the illusion of thicker, fuller strands. “Many of my clients come in complaining about hair loss and thinning,” says Michelle Pasterski, a stylist at Chicago’s 3rd Coast Salon. “I often suggest they dust on a colored hair powder at their part or wherever the hair is thinning. It covers a white scalp and makes hair look fuller." She likes: Color Wow Root Cover Up ($34.50; amazon.com). The right cut can also help, though what that cut is depends largely on your existing length and texture. Pasterski suggests discussing with your stylist what’s best for you. Or play with fun accessories, like scarves and headbands. “Both are super trendy right now and can help mask a bad hair day as well as thinning hair,” she says.
At the end of the day, own it. Maybe you don’t need to shave your head like Ricki Lake, but being open and not ashamed of what you’re experiencing—and knowing that there are so many women that are in the same boat as you—will hopefully make dealing with hair loss at least a little bit easier.