Just your normal morning routine: drag your half-conscious butt out of bed, shower, get dressed, start brushing your hair… What the crap?!? Did all that come from me!?!?
If you’ve ever glanced down at your hairbrush and found a sizable clump of freshly-pulled hair, or looked at your hair and realized it appeared way thinner than it used to be, you know how frightening it can be. For many women, our hair is closely tied to our self-image. We style it to express our personality and style; bad hair days can leave us feeling crappy and dirty hair is one of the first things that makes us crave a shower. With all that in mind, imagine how frightening it would be to have to deal with your hair thinning and falling out on a daily basis!
Hair loss is actually a growing phenomenon in young women. Contrary to popular belief, men aren’t the only ones who endure some type of thinning or hair loss. According to Livestrong.com, hair loss actually affects around 40-50% of women! According to a recent article in Marie Claire, the average age of women experiencing hair loss is 30. If you heard it was something you only had to worry about post-menopause, you’re wrong! The only thing women are spared from is the receding hairline characteristic of many balding men—women usually see a general all-over thinning, with perhaps a slight concentration of hair loss at the center part.
Whether you know someone who’s dealing with this, or it’s your own hair that’s starting to thin or fall out, here we cover some of the most likely culprits. You should definitely talk to your doctor if this is happening, but—good news—chances are it’s something that’s easily treatable.
What’s Normal Hair Loss?
The average woman has around a hundred thousand hairs on her head, which grows an average of half an inch a month. When hair falls out—which is does naturally after around four years of growing—it is eventually replaced by a fresh hair in the follicle. On a daily basis it’s normal to lose between 50 and 100 strands, but if you’re seeing large clumps of hair coming out all at once or noticing a gradual thinning on the scalp over time, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.
What’s Causing It?
There are dozens of health conditions, as well as a variety of lifestyle factors, that can lead to hair loss or thinning. Sometimes it’s just genetic—this is the sad truth behind many cases—but here are a few other likely culprits behind your hair falling out:
Little known side effect of birth control: the hormones suppressing ovulation can cause hair loss. It’s more likely if you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, i.e., if you have family members who have experienced hair loss. Sometimes hair loss will actually begin after you’ve stopped taking birth control pills. The American Hair Loss Association (yes, that’s a real thing) has a list of oral contraceptives that have been linked to hair loss. The major factor is the “androgen index,” or the level of the hormone androgen, which in itself can cause hair to thin in some women. If you think this is happening (maybe you’re on birth control for the first time, maybe you just started a new kind of birth control), talk to your gyno!
Problems with the thyroid—the butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the throat—are a typical culprit that doctors look for when examining a patient suffering hair loss. The thyroid is responsible for producing hormones that monitor everything from your metabolism to your heart rate to even your moods. A blood test can tell you quite effectively whether or not you have hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid.
Yes, wearing your hair in tight, restricting styles that pull on your scalp can not only give you a headache and wrinkles, but can also damage your hair follicles to the point where your hair starts to thin. If you style your hair in cornrows or tight braids, be warned: this type of hair loss can be permanent, because you are doing direct damage to the hair follicle itself, preventing its ability to re-grow the strands that come out. Go easy on your scalp and try to opt for loose styles like a messy bun, or simply use clips or scrunchies instead of more restricting hair elastics. Your hair will thank you. If you have to use an elastic, try Sephora’s Snag-Free Hair Elastics or Goody Ouchless Gentle Hair Elastics.
A traumatic event or even simply a buildup of stress over a long period of time can lead to a variety of physical symptoms. As if you’re not dealing with enough, your hair can also start to fall out. Meg, a student at George Brown College who had been facing a lot of stress from school, says, “For about six months or so, I was losing a lot of hair. Not like clumps or anything, but way more than the average 100-220 hairs a day. At first, I thought it was because of a new shampoo/conditioner that I had been using, but when I bought less harsh products for my hair, I was still losing quite a bit of hair.” She then proceeded to try (1) cooling her regular shower down from scalding to lukewarm, (2) no longer using her blow dryer, (3) changing her eating habits, and (4) protecting her hair and scalp from the sun. None of these worked! “It was only until school and life in general mellowed out that my hair was starting to get a lot better. It’s finally at a point where I’m losing less hair than the average amount. Actually because I changed my habits (eating, showering, etc.) my hair is actually healthier than it was before.”
The risk of hair loss greatly increases if you lose more than 15 pounds, or if your diet becomes too low in protein or too high in Vitamin A, according to WebMD. Iron deficiency is another cause of hair loss—in fact, one of the first things doctors check for is anemia when patients come in complaining of hair loss. Malnutrition may not be obvious at first. This was the case with Olivia*: “I experienced mild hair loss for a few months during high school. It wasn’t ever visibly noticeable during the day, but when I showered and shampooed, I saw more hair come out than normal. In my case, I wasn’t treating my body well at all. I ate a very low calorie diet, and what I did eat wasn’t necessarily packed with nutrients. It was definitely a form of disordered eating. My hair loss, coupled with other physical symptoms like always being cold and bruising very easily, were my body’s signals that I needed to focus on becoming healthy again. Once I started eating more normally and gained about ten pounds, I stopped losing my hair (and now I get complimented on how thick it is all the time!).”
Lupus—a chronic autoimmune disease—has a variety of symptoms, and hair loss is a major one. If you notice painful or swollen joints or a rash, in addition to hair loss, see a doctor immediately. Anemia, Alopecia Areata, and Hashimoto’s Disease are other autoimmune diseases that can lead to hair loss. All are quite serious, but they have their own unique symptoms, and if you notice that your hair loss is accompanied by other symptoms—anything from headaches to a cold, puffy face—see a doctor right away! Hollins University undergraduate Ashlee says that she experienced hair loss as a direct result of having lupus. She had to shave all her hair off because of the disease! Thankfully, it grew back, and three years later she has full, curly mid-shoulder hair.
Make It Stop!
Once the problem is addressed, hair usually grows back in time, assuming it’s not just genetic. The follicles themselves still work properly, and your body will naturally replenish the strands that were lost. Even if the hair loss was caused by a disease, with time (and possibly medication, depending on the cause) it will grow back. According to Dr. Tony Nakhla, dermatologist and author of The Skin Commandments: 10 Rules to Healthy, Beautiful Skin, “Hair loss, or alopecia, can be divided into two types, scarring and non-scarring. Scarring alopecia is permanent where as non-scarring may be reversible.” Luckily, scarring alopecia is rare, diagnosed in less than 3% of people experiencing hair loss. And don’t worry: none of the causes of hair loss previously covered in this article—with the exception of chronic lupus—lead to permanent loss, so regrowth is possible with time, medication, or the lifestyle changes described above.
As always, talk to your doctor. If it’s stress that’s causing your hair to fall out—according to Registered Nurse Bernadette Parker, this is the most common cause of hair loss in young women—simply modifying your habits to guarantee that you are eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and staying organized to avoid being overwhelmed by work, the thinning should stop in a matter of weeks or months. Continued hair thinning or loss over a long period of time is definitely reason enough to go to a doctor. It’s good to get tested for lupus, anemia, thyroid deficiencies, etc., to see if you can figure out the cause.
Make sure you’re taking a multivitamin with iron and Vitamin E to strengthen your hair. Flax oil and fish oil are also friendly supplements that help your hair—the recommended daily dose of these is 1000mg. Dr. Nakhla also recommends, “Biotin, gamma linoleic acid, glucosamine [are] all great supplements to consider taking to help strengthen hair and nails. Also L-ergothioneine and Vitamin D.” Check out your local pharmacy to find these supplements.
As for your daily treatment of your hair, try to avoid using heat products like straighteners and blow dryers on a daily basis to protect your hair from heat damage. Always brush your hair gently—never yank or tug, and try to use a comb instead of a brush on wet hair to prevent breakage. Use fortifying and conditioning hair products, such as a leave-in conditioning treatment or heat protectant serum, which you can find at a pharmacy or beauty supply store). And last but not least, know that if you’re experiencing hair loss (or even just a bad hair day), you are not alone!
*Names have been changed.