For a woman, few things are scarier than realizing you're losing your hair. "Women are more upset about their hair loss because we have fewer choices—we can't go gray, we can't go bald," says Doris Day, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University. "And it's about our self-esteem. Losing our hair doesn't affect our lifespan, but it affects how we feel about ourselves." Although more than 30 million women in the United States struggle with thinning hair, it's less socially acceptable for women to lose their hair than it is for men. Hair symbolizes beauty, so the loss of it can be emotionally and psychologically traumatizing.
If you've found that your hair is thinning, don't panic—it's important to note that shedding hair is a part of life. In fact, it's completely normal to lose up to 100 strands a day! It's when you notice more strands on the floor or shower drain than usual or your part is suddenly more visible when you look in the mirror that it's time to get proactive. We spoke to the experts working hard in this field to find out why some women suffer from hair loss, as well the best way to treat it.
Figure Out the Cause of Your Hair Loss
Once you notice extreme shedding, it's important to see a dermatologist or a trichologist to find out the cause. Through a series of questions about your medical and family history, as well as tests such as blood work, doctors can pinpoint if your thinning is the result of a genetic predisposition (are your parents thinning?) or triggers such as stress, poor nutrition, having a baby, sudden weight loss, or a medical condition such as a thyroid issue.
What Is Genetically Driven Thinning?
The most common type of hair loss is androgenetic alopecia, or female or male pattern balding. In women, this type of thinning appears from the temple to the crown and is an indication that you're genetically dispositioned to hair loss. "In genetic thinning, the crown of the head has a sensitivity to the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT)," explains Michelle Blaisure, a trichologist and product specialist at Bosley Professional Strength. Ultimately, DHT causes hair follicles to become finer, smaller, and weaker. But even with this predisposition, Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Clinic in New York City, says thinning is often multifactorial, meaning lifestyle factors can accelerate it.
Manage Your Stress
Many health issues are caused or amplified by stress, so it's no surprise that stress is a main cause of hair loss, says Blaisure. Traumatic life situations such as car accidents, divorce, or death in the family can throw the normal hair cycle out of whack (typically 90 percent of your hair is in the growth part of the cycle; ten percent is in a resting or falling-out phase). In very high-stress situations, 40 percent of your hair will shift to that resting phase and will sit there for three to four months. Then, three to four months later you see hair shedding everywhere. Once the trauma passes your hair will self-correct.
However, daily stress like a demanding job can be damaging, too. "When you're under stress all the time, cortisol levels stay higher than they should," explains Blaisure. "And cortisol affects your thyroid, it affects your hormonal balance, it robs the body of nutrients, and digestion is affected." When these systems get out of balance it leads to more hair loss than normal. Experts underscore that stress management is key to a happier life and healthier head of hair. Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, exercise, or take up a hobby. Another crucial lifestyle switch: Make sure to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
Fuel Your System with Balanced Meals
You know how you skip breakfast every day? It's not doing you or your hair any favors. "Nutrition and hair are so interconnected," explains Phillips. "Hair is a nonessential tissue. So, if you're not getting the right nutrients, the body says, 'Look, this tissue doesn't matter.' It's going to take care of vital organs first." All this is to say that your hair is going to be last in line to get those key nutrients.
Phillips advice: Make sure to fuel your body well. Start the day with breakfast, and don't have any long gaps—over four hours—between meals. "The point is you're trying to avoid dipping and crashing," she says. And we don't mean grabbing a chocolate croissant or cereal bar on the way out the door. "You want to anchor breakfast and lunch with protein sources," says Phillips. "Color variety and balance is always key because you're broadening the pool of absorption of all kinds of minerals and vitamins." Great options include eggs or egg whites in the morning or a Greek yogurt with fruit and flax. And it doesn't work if you do it just do it here and there, consistency is key.
Stay on Top of Your Scalp Health
Treat your scalp the way you treat your face. "Your scalp is a tissue that benefits from being healthy and clean," says Phillips. So, skip the dry shampoo and make sure you're washing and caring for it enough. Plus, having a clean scalp will ensure whichever topical treatment you use gets absorbed.
Take a Supplement
Deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, and zinc may contribute to hair loss, and supplements can boost those nutrients in our system—but they should be taken in addition to eating a balanced diet. "We should look at supplements as supporting acts not replacements to the plates," says Phillips. She says this is especially important for vegetarians and vegans who often lack B12 and iron. Blaisure adds that supplements are also packed with hair-loss-fighting botanicals. At Bosley, clinicians use saw palmetto, a natural DHT inhibitor, sea kelp, and flax seed extract in their formulation.
There are several brands on the market, including Philip Kingsley and Bosley Professional Strength, that create topical products chock full of active ingredients to stimulate and support hair growth. And now Harklinikken, the buzzworthy Danish company with a customized hair extract, is expanding in the U.S. "Female hair loss is underserved," says Lars Skjoth, the company's founder and chief scientist. He's spent the last 25 years focusing his research on women. His extract, derived from a host of natural ingredients including milk from cows in Switzerland, calendula, and burdock, claims to increase hair density in four to six months. The before and after photos on the site are convincing enough to give it a try.
What to Know About Minoxidil
So far, there's only one FDA-approved drug for treating female pattern balding: minoxidil (the active ingredient in Rogaine). It's a topical solution that's applied to the scalp and delivers blood to the those shrunken hair follicles, increasing their size and slowing down thinning. Typically, people start noticing hair pop up in two to three months. It sounds great, but there's a catch: The product doesn't work on all women, and if it does, you'll have to use it forever, or until there's a cure for genetic thinning. "It's like if you're diagnosed as being diabetic. You know you have to [continue to] treat that in order to keep it under control. And it's the same thing for genetic thinning," says Blaisure. She recommends women start with the 2% solution over the 5% because it's a growth stimulator, and for some women it can cause facial-hair growth.
PRP Injects Blood Into Your Scalp
Typically, only about five percent of women qualify for hair transplants because their donor hair (the hair in the back of the head) isn't strong enough to transplant. A good alternative is PRP, platelet-rich plasma therapy, a new treatment that uses the patient's blood to stimulate hair growth (call it the vampire facial for your scalp). "With PRP, we take blood, spin it down, separate out the red blood cells—which are more inflammatory—and keep as much of the platelet-rich plasma [stocked with growth factors] that we then inject back into the scalp," explains Day, who has had great results with the procedure. Results will take a minimum of three to six months.
Keep Hope Alive
"Even [if your thinning is caused by genetics], it doesn't mean you're doomed to lose all your hair," assures Blaisure. You just have to optimize your nutrition, stress and health. "Eight out of 10 times when people are consistent and compliant, at three months they'll say, 'my hair is starting to feel a little better.' And at six to eight months they'll see their efforts come to fruition," says Phillips. However, she stresses that results take time and require that you really stick with the program you've chosen. "It's hurry up and wait," she says. Day suggests using this as an opportunity to address the issues that are driving your hair loss and find a way to be more fulfilled. "If you become more centered around yourself, and you adjust for you, you will do much better and your hair will grow."