Though we often think of it as an exclusively male issue, hair loss happens to women, too. While we all probably wouldn't be too shaken if we shed hair from our underarms and never got it back, female hair thinning and loss is a very real problem, and many women lose an excessive amount of hair from their heads for a wide variety of reasons — from stress to an inherited genetic condition. We've publicly discussed basically every aspect of aging at this point — for instance, we all finally admit that having sex into your 60s and 70s is basically commonplace — but the reality of female hair loss, and the fact that is happens to many women as they get older, remains taboo. Why is that, and what is really happening when our hair thins?
In many cultures, women's hair is seen as a powerful symbol of femininity and strength. Lucinda Ellery over at the Huffington Post penned a thoughtful reflection on the links between women, their hair, and their political and sexual power throughout the centuries. Men can go bald and still be considered sexy and charming by the culture at large (cue Patrick Stewart — though it's notable that neither Tom Cruise nor George Clooney show any sign of losing their luscious locks); but when we see a bald woman, we often assume that she is either undergoing chemotherapy or proving a political point, a la Robin Tunney in Empire Records. But given that, according to the American Hair Loss Association, around 40 percent of women will experience hair loss in their lifetimes, it seems there's an almighty societal mismatch between the fantasy of female hair and the realities.
So don't be scared if you suddenly discover more clumps on your hairbrush in the morning; you're far from the only one experiencing this. And science is here to help. Here's what really happens when hair begins to thin or fall out — and what we can do to stop it.
How Does Hair Loss Happen?
Though it may seem like all of your hair is growing all the time, your hair is actually more like a series of fields in a farm, with crops at different stages of growth. At any given moment, different sections hair are going through one of three growth phases. In the anagen phase, the follicle allows the hair in it to grow; in the catagen phase, the hair follicle shrinks, and growth stops; and in the telogen stage, the hair in the follicle falls out, allowing the follicle to rest before growing another hair. This follicle cycle is a natural part of hair life, which is why a little shedding is always OK – but on a young scalp, up to 80 percent of follicles are in the anagen, or growth, phase at any given time.
Why Does Hair Thin?
If the culprit behind hair thinning is usually androgenetic alopecia, the true cause is typically your genes. While it's not yet fully understood, male and female pattern baldness appears to be caused by an inherited sensitivity to a chemical called DHT, which is naturally produced in the body as a by-product of testosterone. If you inherited a specific gene combination, your follicles will be exceptionally sensitive to your DHT levels — and at a certain point, they will eventually shrink and stop working.
But that's not the only answer — at least, not for women. Most men can track their baldness to androgenetic alopecia. But there are also a host of other factors that can also cause baldness and hair loss, and some of them are specific to women. The Pill, for instance, can cause hair loss in certain circumstances, as can over-dyeing your hair or a severely restricted diet. Other causes of baldness are more gender-blind: auto-immune problems, chemotherapy drugs, anemia and lupus can all contribute to hair loss.
The old idea that your hair falls out overnight isn't an old wives' tale, either. There's a condition called telogen effluvium where the body, after undergoing severe stress, suddenly puts all its follicles into the telogen stage at once, and hair promptly falls out. Causes can include childbirth, a serious infection or an eating disorder — but in most cases, the condition is temporary, and the hair will grow back once the stress abates and the follicles are allowed to enter the anagen phase again.
And then there's a specific kind of hair loss caused by frequent pulling of hair, called traction alopecia. If you're constantly putting your hair under severe stress by braiding, cornrowing or putting extensions in it, traction alopecia could result.
Are There Any Cures For Baldness?
OK, here's where it gets a bit tricky. The causes behind hair loss in women are so varied that it can actually be reasonably hard to pin down what exactly has happened when a woman loses her hair. Men can pretty easily point to their genes, but for women, it could be genes or a reaction to anything from over-dyeing their hair to a sudden hormone fluctuation (menopause, for example). Follicles are sensitive to hormones, though we're not entirely sure how or why.
This is why the chances are that, if your hair begins falling out, your doctor will just tell you to wait and see if it grows back, try to reduce your stress, and put away the hair bleach for a bit. But while their advice is well-intentioned, they may not actually be on the forefront of hair loss solutions.
Rogaine and similar products use a chemical called minoxidil applied directly to the scalp, which is supposed to stimulate anagen growth in follicles. (We don't quite know how it works, but it seems to have a reasonable success rate.) But when it comes to hair regrowth, there are other scientific areas of inquiry that may also be promising.
A 2015 study by the University of Southern California lent truth to the old idea that plucking a hair grows four more in its place. By plucking around 200 hairs in a specific high-density pattern from mice, researchers found that they could get a regrowth rate of 1200 hairs. Plucking in this very special way, it seems, prompted the body's immune system to sense an attack and tell the follicles to regrow on the double.
But do not try this at home: the scientists used an incredibly detailed model of hairs on each mouse and stuck to a very specific plucking pattern — so it's not something you could recreate with your mom's tweezers on a Saturday night.
There have been a few big headlines recently about the amazing hair growth side effects of immunosuppressive drugs — though they obviously can't be prescribed widely for hair loss, or they'd wreak havoc on your immune system simply to help you grow out your tresses. But the most attention-grabbing hair regrowth research has been conducted with stem cells. Researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute released a study this February claiming they'd found a way to create new cells that encourage hair growth, transforming stem cells into dermal papilla cells that boost follicle activity. The experiment hasn't been conducted on humans yet, though, so we're still a way off from stem cells being a practical solution to hair loss.
The best option when you notice hair loss? Look at your family's history of hair thinning in women, regulate your nutrition, lower stress levels and go see your doctor to talk about how your hormones might be affecting things. And don't worry. It happens to almost half of us. You're not alone.
Images: Anna Demianenko/Unsplash, Giphy (3)