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Is Your Hair Thinning? Don't Worry, You're Not The Only One

Female hair loss is one of those beauty topics that's swept under the carpet more often than not. Why? I'm not so sure, because I have lots of friends

Female hair loss is one of those beauty topics that's swept under the carpet more often than not. Why? I'm not so sure, because I have lots of friends, acquaintances and family members that have dealt with it. An old colleague started losing her hair at age 22, only to be half-bald by 27, while another friend started losing big chunks of her locks when a close family member passed away.

While female hair loss is easier to hide than male pattern baldness, it's still a major problem, especially because most women know nothing about it. There are so many reasons why your hair may be thinning, and the good news is, there are ways to treat it other than gross follicle implants.

Recently, I chatted with medical journalist Candace A. Hoffmann, who covered the topic in-depth in 2007's Breaking the Silence on Women's Hair Loss. She shed some light on the topic:

Fashionista: What causes female hair to thin? Candace Hoffmann: There can be a number of reasons women lose hair. Female pattern hair loss (androgenetic alopecia) is the most common. How do you know if this might be the reason for your hair loss? Look around at your family. If you have parents, relatives with thinning hair or who are frankly bald --male or female--there is a good chance you could have the propensity as well. That being said, for women, it’s not so cut and dry. Men can easily discern such a connection, women can have multiple reasons for hair loss--sometimes, it's temporary hair loss (telogen effluvium). Here are some common reasons for hair loss in women that are not genetic:

  • Low iron levels. Women with heavy menses or who are anemic can experience hair loss.
  • Starting or stopping birth control pills. For some women BCP help slow hair loss, for others, they make it worse.
  • Stress
  • Anorexia/bulimia
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Certain medications
  • Wearing hair in tightly braided styles
  • Recent child birth
  • Thyroid problems, diabetes, other illnesses

Is this a bigger issue for the current generation? (I'm 27, and it feels like so many of my friends suffer from this.) Is it a nutritional thing? That’s an excellent question and I don’t know the answer. 30 million women suffer from hair loss. That’s 1 in 4 before age 50 and 2 in 4 after age 50. We might be more hyper aware of hair loss at an earlier age now just as we are more hyper aware of a need for a facelift at earlier ages. Thing that we used to take for granted, we do not. Genetic hair loss will manifest itself in the 20s, if not sooner. The good news is that there are more things available to help than before. Will they work for everyone, no. However, topical minoxidil (Rogaine) is good for helping maintain what you have. So at the first sign of thinning hair, it’s not bad to use even if the hair loss is temporary.

Nutrition can play a part. If you're not eating a well-balanced diet or are severely dieting or anorexic, it will affect your hair. However, if it is nutritional, it will be a temporary hair loss. Return to a well-balanced diet and hair should return in 4 – 6 months. Supplements must be used with caution and women must understand that vitamins in excess, even those purported to help grow hair, can be detrimental and have an adverse affect. In this day and age, people are rarely deficient in the hair loss vitamins folic acid and biotin. There would be other symptoms beyond hair loss. A B-vitamin rich supplement can help grow hair, but it might not make more hair. I advise using any supplement with caution and eating vitamin-rich foods instead. And ALWAYS tell your physician the vitamins, herbs, and medications (over the counter and prescription) you are using.

Why don't more people talk about it? Hair loss in women is called “the last taboo” by the American Academy of Dermatologists. The women I spoke to in my book felt ashamed to be losing their hair. While it’s acceptable for a man to lose his hair, for a woman it’s a stigma. Is something wrong? Are you sick? Fighting cancer? Illness?

In fact, most of the women I spoke with would not accept the diagnosis of genetic hair loss. They would rather have an illness. If a cure could not be found, at least there was a reason beyond their control. A woman appearing without hair because of a cancer fight is brave. What about those of us who are just losing our hair? There is no place for us, so we hide in shame.

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What can women do to treat it? As I note in my book, the first thing to do is to get a true diagnosis and find Dr. Right (for you). Women need to know that no stone has been left unturned. So the go-to person for hair loss is a dermatologist. Find a physician who is experienced in treating women’s hair loss. You should go there ready to tell the doc what’s been going on in your life--stress, recent pregnancy, severe weight loss due to dieting/anorexia/bulimia; current medications (over the counter and prescription), herbs, vitamins, birth control pills (start/stopping); HRT (start/stopping) and even habits such as wearing hair in tight buns, pony tails, corn rows etc. The physician should be able to tell if something is causing the hair loss and/or go on to a more definitive exam,which might include a scalp biopsy to rule out a fungus or other infection.

There are also autoimmune disorders--alopecia areata is considered an autoimmune disorder--that can cause the hair to fall out in round smooth patches. Some men, women and children lose their hair this way or lose all their hair over their entire body. This is a devastating condition that can often go into remission and the hair will grow back as suddenly as it disappeared. This is particularly difficult for young women and I interviews some women who told me they contemplated suicide.

One caveat: If the physician does not give you a good physical work up and really look at your scalp and just hands you a bottle of Rogaine, find another one. While Rogaine is about all we have for genetic hair loss, it should not be the first step without a good physical, history and scalp analysis.

Another caveat: What works for one might not work for anyone else. Hair loss in women does not have a clear cause as it does with men.

If hair loss is genetic or an autoimmune condition, available treatments night not be effective for regrowth, but there are hair systems that look like your own hair that can help. The hair is attached using surgical glue and the hair can be blow dried, dyed, straightened. You can swim, shower etc with it. While not your own hair, they can be truly wonderful. I met several young women who wore them and you couldn’t tell. Are they difficult to deal with? Yes. But at the very least they help. I interviewed several women who were fine with not covering their bald heads, but who felt compelled to do so for work and society in general. One woman, a teacher, told me she covered up because her student’s parents complained to the administration, concerned that she was ill.

A side note--the same companies that sell hair systems to men are marketing more to women now. Why? Because the young men especially see it as a fashion statement to just shave their heads. Women so far, unless they are in the music industry like Sinead O’Connor, cannot just shave it off and go out in public.

There are other things that might help some women. The laser comb appears to help at least keep the hair looking a bit better. Will it grow hair? The jury is out, but people do say it keep the hair that’s left looking better, thicker.

Hair transplantation may help IF the woman has enough donor hair. So far the only way we do hair transplant is to take hair from one area of the scalp – usually at the back, near the nape of the neck, and move some of that hair to the thinning areas. Women however, don’t lose in the pattern as men do and have thick hair still in the back. While we may lose in a pattern--widening part--we also thin diffusely, over all our scalp. So hair transplant might not be right for everyone. Again, this is a discussion with a dermatologist and a hair transplant surgeon. But have realistic expectations of what it can and cannot accomplish. I go into this at length in my book.

There are also camouflage treatments that help get rid of the shiny scalp. These usually have keratin particles that cling to the fine hairs and give a thicker look. I tried it once and I was okay until I ran my hands through my hair and had fingernails full of the stuff. Not good if you don’t keep your hands out of your hair.

The more women talk about their hair loss and say ‘’I’m losing my hair and I’m scared,” the better chance we have of being heard and taken seriously. We’re okay with talking about our facelifts, boob jobs, eyelifts and permanent makeup tattoos and yet, we pretend the thinning hair is not happening.