A normal, healthy person sheds about eighty to a hundred and fifty hairs per day. This is nothing unusual: some of your follicles are just resting and will start to produce new hairs once they’ve recovered.
However, sometimes and for a variety of reasons, your hair just starts falling out as if declaring war on your shower drain. For men and even more so for women, this can be embarrassing, prompting many to buy unproven creams and lotions advertised on TV.
Because this is such a touchy topic, few people realize that almost everyone suffers from hair loss at some point in their lives.
Knowing what to do when this happens can help you recover that much more quickly, or at least accept the inevitable. Let’s bite the bullet and learn more about how hair loss works and what you can do about it.
Hair: How It Grows, and When It Doesn’t
You’d think that hair strands just sort of grow continuously.
This is how it’s supposed to work. At any one time, in a person with healthy hair, about 10% of follicles lie dormant. Occasionally, though, something disrupts the cycle in a larger number of them, at which point hair loss changes from finding a few hairs on your pillow in the morning to something more alarming.
In other words: talking about hair loss really means discussing follicle health.
There’s also a difference between hair loss and hair breakage. Both can detract from your appearance, but hair loss typically refers only to hair falling out at the root. Hairs can also break due to rough handling, for instance using a hair dryer that’s not appropriate to your hair type, but brittle hair isn’t associated with the same kinds of problems as hair loss.
These health problems can be serious, in which case your hair falling out might be the first sign that you should visit a doctor. Don’t, however, panic. Most cases of hair loss usually get better by themselves. There is no effective treatment for many of those that won’t, so worrying will gain you nothing. You are certainly not alone if you’re suffering from hair loss, and there are some very nice hats for sale these days.
The Different Types of Hair Loss
It might seem obvious what the symptoms of hair loss are: there’s really only one, and it involves a person having less hair than they did before. That’s true, and a good enough definition for everyday use, but doctors and others interested in hair loss like to look at these things in a little more detail.
This is why they’ve defined several different symptoms of hair loss and given them Latin names. If you’re worried about hair loss, figuring out which of these describes your problem best might be a start to determining the cause and perhaps find a solution.
via Wikimedia Commons
It’s no secret that as your biological clock ticks on towards closing time your body undergoes a number of minor and major changes. One of these is balding. You might develop patches of completely bare skin, especially on the top of the head, or just see a general thinning out in your hair.
This kind of hair loss is permanent.
via Wikimedia Commons
This type of hair loss occurs in localized patches when your body’s own immune system attacks your hair follicles. Why exactly this happens is still not well understood, but it’s thought that genetics play a role.
The affected spots usually start growing hair again within a few months, even without any treatment.
via Wikimedia Commons
Usually, hair follicles on the head function differently from those on other parts of the body; this is why a bald man can still resemble an orangutan below the neck. It is, however, possible for a case of alopecia areata to be so severe that the entire scalp as well as the rest of the body is depilated.
Like normal alopecia areata, this is usually not serious beyond the cosmetic aspect. The hair follicles themselves aren’t damaged, and hair growth normally resumes after a couple of months.
Some people have a nervous habit of twisting or pulling on their hair, and not in a flirty way. Others compulsively pull out strands of hair, either from their head or some other area.
This surprisingly common psychological condition can be treated through counseling and behavioral modification.
As we’ve learned above, each hair follicle extrudes hair for a few years before discarding that strand and going to sleep for a couple of months. Normally, follicles take turns resting, so the only way you’ll notice this is by looking at your hairbrush.
When a whole bunch of follicles stop working simultaneously, up to 70% of hair all over your scalp can fall out, leaving it noticeably thinner. Telogen effluvium can have a number of causes, most of which mean the rest of your body is under unusual strain.
Like telogen effluvium, involutional alopecia involves follicles going into their dormant state, but in this case it’s not a question of a large number of them going on strike at the same time. Rather, hair all over the scalp grows less often and falls out more frequently.
This often happens as someone gets older and leaves hair thinner and sparser. Since each strand spends less time growing, it also forces a person to choose a shorter hairstyle.
In a small minority of cases, hair follicles are actually destroyed instead of their function just being interrupted. This is the result of any of a variety of medical conditions that range from the otherwise minor to the fairly unpleasant.
With cicatricial alopecia, hair loss usually occurs in patches and may also be accompanied by skin irritation. Since this kind of hair loss is both permanent and uncomfortable, it’s a good idea to seek medical help as soon as you suspect that you may be suffering from it.
Is There a Difference Between Female and Male Baldness?
Acute, temporary hair loss like the types mentioned above can affect both men and women, and for the same reasons. When it comes to androgenic alopecia (ordinary baldness), things are a little different.
Both genders will lose some hair and perhaps develop a bald patch on the crown as they get older, but women are more likely to see a gradual, even thinning of their hair starting from about the age of 30. Baldness in men tends to be more localized, starting on the crown and forehead and expanding as time goes on.
Why Is Hair Loss More Common in Men?
About 40% of women experience permanent hair loss at some point; the figure for men is almost double that at 70%. The reason for this all comes down to testosterone.
Some males actually start losing hair as soon as puberty causes their hormone levels to hit the roof. Whether in their teens or later in life, such hormonal changes tend to be fairly rapid. Hair loss in men therefore happens quickly, and is also more apparent due to being concentrated in particular areas. In women, hair thinning is caused not so much by an increase in testosterone but by less estrogen being produced, which happens only gradually even after menopause.
Hair below the neck is of a different type and isn’t affected in the same way. This also makes it unsuitable for hair transplants. While some balding men have found these to be helpful, all they can accomplish is moving follicles from one part of the scalp to another.
What Causes Hair Loss?
Explaining why exactly a particular person is shedding hair is often a difficult task. A trichologist or general practitioner will typically start by asking questions about a patient’s lifestyle and family history. This might be followed by a blood test, particularly to check thyroid function, iron, and vitamin B levels, and for signs of any underlying disease.
Your doctor might pull out a hair to examine the root, or a scalp biopsy may be performed if something like alopecia areata is suspected. In this procedure (which only hurts a little bit), a small portion of the skin is removed and studied under a microscope.
Even after all of this, the real cause of hair loss might still be unclear. Sometimes, despite all science can do, it’s actually best just to address the most likely causal factors and then wait for the problem to go away on its own.
Some men are almost totally bald by their 30th birthday; others end their days with a full head of hair. Although other factors can play a role, this is often just a result of your family history.
The same applies to women too, but as you know by now, it doesn’t manifest in the same way.
The bad news is that this kind of hair loss, which will only get worse as you get older, is inevitable and irreversible. Procedures like hyperbaric oxygen therapy may lead to brief periods of renewed hair growth, but this isn’t a cure. The main result is to give you an itchy scalp as dormant follicles are revived. A person who’s genetically prone to baldness will often also be more affected by other factors contributing to hair loss.
Any hair loss not caused primarily by heredity – by far the most common type – is called “reactive”. Unlike with almost any other organ, the human body can function perfectly well without hair. Retaining it is simply not a priority when your mortal shell is struggling to adapt to any natural change or external stress – though the mirror may disagree.
Like many external symptoms, hair loss can be a sign that all is not well with your health. If you’re experiencing sudden hair loss, something inside you is almost certainly out of whack and, if you can’t find and fix the cause yourself, it might be time for a visit to the doctor.
This gender distinction is also a generalization, though. All men produce estrogen and all women have testosterone in their bodies; it’s just that their respective typical quantities of each are different.
Pregnancy, menopause, birth control, and puberty can all cause changes in the relative balance of these, in addition to other hormonal changes. Fortunately, a person’s hair growth will usually return to normal after that part of the life cycle has passed and your body regains its natural balance.
Though you should certainly take any drug your doctor prescribes, many of them list hair loss as a possible side effect. Whether this happens to you is kind of a lottery: as with most unintended reactions, there’s usually no way of determining in advance who will be susceptible.
Cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, are notorious for causing hair loss. If the therapy is successful, the hair usually starts growing back just like before between six and twelve months after the course is complete.
When the body is struggling with a severe problem and needs to conserve resources, hair growth isn’t high on its priority list. For this reason, major infections, chronic illnesses, high fevers, and severe injuries can all lead to hair loss. You’ll probably only notice that it’s happening weeks to months after the fact, though your follicles can take up to six months to recover from the shock.
Thyroid problems are worth a particular mention here, as these are frequently associated with hair loss. Hypothyroidism can also lead to anemia (too few red blood cells), which will further aggravate the problem. Fortunately, many thyroid conditions can easily be treated with medication.
Even rapid weight loss can lead to temporary baldness. Hair follicles need protein and energy, preferably from complex carbohydrates, to do their work. Depriving them of these can cause your hair to fall out, which is yet another reason crash diets aren’t advisable.
While there’s a huge difference between hair loss and hair breakage, their practical effects on your appearance are pretty similar. Brushing your hair too vigorously will yank some strands out by the root, while tight braids and similar hairstyles place strain on your follicles and cause hair strands to fall out sooner. Wearing a hat or long hair does not, however, contribute to hair loss.
Brittle hair can be caused by heat (e.g. using a flat iron) and harsh chemical treatments like curl-relaxers. If there is one good reason to pay a salon for something you can do at home more cheaply, it is to avoid unnecessary hair breakage.
Stress and Shock
If something scared you really badly, you might use the phrase “turned my hair white” when describing it. This is, of course, impossible: unless what shook you up was an encounter with the Bleach Fairy, hair color is set at the follicle.
What may physically happen is that your hair starts falling out about two months after a traumatic event, which can be either emotional or physical in nature. Consistently high stress will also contribute to hair loss, especially when combined with another cause.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that your mental state has an influence on your health (as well as vice versa). One way this happens is when stress disrupts your endocrine system and hormones. Mental tension can also cause you to eat less, more, or differently than usual.
If you’ve recently suffered a sudden physical or emotional setback, it might be a good idea to take a few days’ rest to recover. You probably won’t need to wait for your hair to start falling out to know that your body needs some me-time without unnecessary distractions. Equally, if you know that you’re stressed all the time and your hair starts falling out, it’s time to re-evaluate your lifestyle. Stress really does kill, including through heart disease.
Ways of Preventing Hair Loss
Sometimes, hair loss is just inevitable. Often enough, though, it can be avoided or delayed by making a few changes to how you treat your scalp.
In America, Land of the Free and Home of the Hamburger, malnutrition – eating too much of the wrong stuff and too little of the right – is surprisingly common.
This contributes to hair loss.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and perhaps taking a good-quality multivitamin can easily make your hair grow in fuller, even if you didn’t realize you suffer from abnormal hair loss.
In particular, vegans should watch their vitamin B12 levels. In this regard, we should also mention drinking enough water: 75% of people in the U.S. are chronically dehydrated, which does your follicles no good at all.
Here are some hair-healthy nutrients and where you can find them:
Placing too much physical strain on follicles can lead to them getting damaged. This means that tightly-wound hairstyles like topknots, dreadlocks, cornrows, and even too-tight ponytails can cause temporary hair loss.
Normal shampooing, perming, and coloring do not, however, damage follicles to any significant degree. A new hairstyle can also be a great help in covering up any damage that’s already been done – just no comb-overs, please.
Things to Try If You Notice Your Hair Thinning
If you have less hair than you used to, trying new hair-care products can work wonders for your appearance. Try switching to a darker shade, or apply mousse for more volume. Just make sure to use high-quality products, since some cheaper brands may end up doing more harm than good.
- Keeping your hair clean and using a shampoo appropriate to your hair type can prevent fungi and parasites from gaining a foothold. Scalp infections aren’t always obvious; any itchiness or flakiness can be a bad sign. There is some anecdotal evidence that “phytolium” shampoos can also strengthen hair roots; however, there’s no proof that any non-rogaine shampoo actually encourages hair growth to a significant extent.
- Avoid the sun. Certain wavelengths (meaning colors, including those too red or too blue for us to see) of light can damage your follicles. This is sometimes done deliberately to permanently remove unwanted hair, but too much exposure to the sun can also cause hair thinning.
- Rogaine (minoxidil) is an over-the-counter medication that can help with preventing hair loss. Do please follow the usage instructions and don’t expect results overnight: typically, you might notice an improvement after three months or so. Finasteride (propecia) is another option, but costs quite a lot and also takes a long time to work.
- In addition to seeing a trichologist (or dermatologist), you can also try some safe but relatively unproven iRestore Hair Growth System. The theory goes that carefully controlled laser light can stimulate your follicles into becoming more productive. The helmet-like contraption also allows you to pretend that you’re a character in Star Wars, which is probably all the excuse you needed anyway.
People in many Western cultures seem to be deathly afraid of ever looking older than 30. Is this really the way to live your life? Some hair loss as you get older is perfectly normal, nobody is going to laugh at you, and in fact it’s perfectly possible to stay attractive without trying to disguise yourself as a teenager.
If you’re experiencing abnormal (i.e. non-androgenic) hair loss, however, you should at least acknowledge it. There’s a good chance that it’s really nothing, but it could also be the first visible sign of something like thyroid disease or anemia. If it persists for longer than a few weeks, taking the time to make a doctor’s appointment may save you a great deal of trouble later on.