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The facts about hair loss in women

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Woman feeling through hair for a story on hair loss in women

Nearly a third of women will experience hair loss at some point. Find out what causes it and what to do about it. There are treatments that can help.

Jennifer Howze

By Jennifer Howze

Hair loss is equal opportunity when it comes to gender, striking both men and women. But for women, seeing your hair thin, your part widen or your hairline recede can be especially disturbing. Hair — its color, length, style — is often a big part of a woman’s identity.

Hair loss can also be a sign of a larger health issue, so naturally it’s a concern if you notice more hair than usual in your brush. In some cases, hair loss can develop gradually. But other times a bald area might appear almost overnight.

All of these scenarios are common. In fact, around 30% of women will experience hair loss, or alopecia, sometime in their lives, according to Harvard Medical School. And after menopause, up to two-thirds of women will develop bald spots or thinning. But that doesn’t mean hair loss is inevitable or that once it develops you have to suffer through it. Here’s what to do if you think you’re suffering from hair loss.

What causes hair loss in women?

We all shed anywhere from 50 to 100 hairs a day. Hair typically goes through a yearslong growth phase and a shorter, monthslong rest phase, which ends with the hair being shed. It’s normal to see hair in your brush, on your pillow or in the shower that’s come out during the rest phase. But beyond normal shedding, women can lose hair from a variety of causes. 

True hair loss in men and women is most commonly caused by genetics, says Rajani Katta, MD. Dr. Katta is a specialist who works on the voluntary clinical faculty at Baylor College of Medicine and the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas at Houston. But hair loss can also be an indication that something else is going wrong in the body. In this case, it’s important to address the underlying issue.

Will my hair regrow after hair loss?

The answer depends on what’s causing it and how quickly any underlying issues are addressed. And some of the treatments for hair loss in women can be different from men. Here are the most common types of hair loss in women and treatments for each.

Types of hair loss in women

Female pattern baldness
What it is: Also known as androgenetic alopecia, female pattern baldness has the same causes of male pattern baldness: hormones called androgens. The best known of these is testosterone (yes, women have testosterone, too). “Female pattern baldness is extremely common as people get older,” says Dr. Katta. “There’s a hereditary component, but you can also develop it without family history at all.”

Female pattern baldness shows up in slightly different ways from male pattern baldness. Instead of a receding hairline or a bald spot on the crown, women typically experience overall thinning and a widening hair parting.

How it’s treated: Minoxidil (known by the brand names Rogaine® and Theroxidil®) is the only medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat female pattern baldness. It's available over the counter. It comes as a liquid you apply with a dropper or a foam you can apply with your hands. To see the benefits, you have to keep using the product — hair loss will resume if you stop.

Bioflavonoids like mulberry root extract may help as well, says Leo Galland, MD. Dr. Galland is a New York City internist who specializes in autoimmune, allergic, infectious and gastrointestinal disorders. He is the author of The Allergy Solution.

Alopecia areata
What it is: Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the hair follicles, even if the person is otherwise healthy. It usually begins as a small, round bald spot and can occur anywhere on the body, including the eyebrows. It frequently starts during childhood or teenage years, though it can begin in adulthood as well. After genetics-related alopecia, it’s the most common cause of hair loss.

How it’s treated: Your doctor will examine the patch and possibly run blood tests to diagnose it. Treatments can include minoxidil, corticosteroid creams or injections, or anthralin cream applied to the area (brand names include Drithocreme®, Dritho-Scalp®, Psoriatec®, Zithranol®, Zithranol-RR®).

If you already have a hair-loss prescription, you can fill it through the Optum Store and have it sent directly to your home for free. Prices start at just $3/month. No insurance or coupons needed. Learn more.

Telogen effluvium
What it is: The mind-body connection is real, and it can play a role in our hair health, too. Intense stress or trauma — physical or mental — can cause hair to fall out. That stress could include a breakup, losing a friend or family member, or a serious illness. With stress-related hair loss, or telogen effluvium (TE), the follicles are sent into hibernation. This is the resting phase (telogen phase) of hair growth, and hair simply comes out when combing, washing or styling. This then leads to overall thinning.

TE usually shows up about 3 months after the stressful event. Other triggers can include an emotional event such as a divorce, surgery, even COVID-19.

Another big stressor on women’s bodies: childbirth, which can result in a roller coaster of hormonal ups and downs that can also trigger TE. But post-partum hair loss is usually related to excessive shedding and is typically temporary. “A lot of women can experience it after childbirth,” says Dr. Katta, who experienced it 3 times due to pregnancy and weight loss.

How it’s treated: While treatments like minoxidil might help for TE, “the best thing is time,” Dr. Katta says. “In most cases, the hair follicles will wake up by themselves. But it can take 6 months or longer for this process to reverse itself.”

What it is: Scalp inflammation can lead to redness, pain, scaliness and eventually hair loss. While the inflammation can come from a scalp infection or skin condition, “inflammation is usually systemic,” says Dr. Galland. That means it’s a body-wide inflammation that’s now affecting your scalp and hair growth cycles.

Inflammation can start in the gut — where your microbiome is and which interacts with your immune system — and requires a full-body approach, he says. Inflammation can also show up as psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff, for example) and contribute to hair loss.

How it’s treated: A doctor or nutritionist can help you determine if you’re suffering from inflammation that causes hair loss. Dr. Galland, for example, often evaluates gastrointestinal symptoms and runs tests to assess overall health and markers of inflammation to figure out which steps to take, nutritional or otherwise.

Traction alopecia
What it is: Cornrows, weaves, braids or tight hairdos such as ponytails and buns may look good. But they can damage the scalp by pulling on follicles, leading to a type of hair loss called traction alopecia. If caught early enough, hair will regrow. But if it happens over months and years, the hair follicle can become permanently damaged and stop growing hair.

How it’s treated: The best strategy is prevention. Switch up your hairstyles, take out braids after 2 or 3 weeks, don’t wear styles that are painful and avoid accessories that pull, such as uncoated rubber bands. If you’ve been wearing these styles for years and noticing hair thinning or balding, you may benefit from a topical medication or a hair transplant.

Hormone imbalance
What it is: Hair loss as a result of a hormone imbalance is pretty common, says Dr. Galland. “It’s very important to look at thyroid balance.” Your thyroid gland produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism. There’s a range of healthy levels of those hormones — but too much and too little can lead to hair loss. Hair loss is most common in cases of hypothyroidism, in which the gland produces too little thyroid hormone.

How it’s treated: Your doctor can run a blood test to check your levels and may determine you need treatment with thyroid medication.

Nutrient deficiencies
What it is: Being very low, or deficient, in certain nutrients (including zinc and iron) can cause hair to fall out and slow growth. “Iron in particular is a mineral that’s needed to support the way cells divide to support healthy hair follicles,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin, RD, author of How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook. Not getting enough protein or enough calories in general can also lead to loss.

How it’s treated: Have your health care provider check for any deficiencies. You may need to supplement on a specific nutrient based on the results. (Shop the Optum Store for all your supplement needs. We also carry a wide range of over-the-counter health care products for the whole family.)

Who can help with hair loss?

For many patients, the first port of call will be a dermatologist. A general practitioner can also assess the health of your scalp, look for inflammation or infection, and run blood tests for a hormone imbalance or nutrient deficiency.

Most important, if hair loss is concerning you, see someone sooner rather than later. The sooner it’s addressed, the more likely hair loss can be slowed, stopped or reversed. (Read more about how to cope with the stress of hair loss.)

The good news is, there are treatments that work. Working with a health care provider to figure out what’s at the root of your loss is the first step in restoring growth and regaining confidence.

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Additional sources
Statistics on hair loss in women: Harvard Medical School. Treating Female Pattern Hair Loss.
Post-partum hair loss: American Academy of Dermatology. Hair Loss in New Moms.
Alopecia areata: American Academy of Dermatology Hair Loss Types: Alopecia Areata Overview
Hair loss and Covid-19: Irish Journal of Medical Science. 2021 Covid-19 Infection is a Major Cause of Acute Telogen Effluvium
TE: Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 2014. Telogen Effluvium: A Review.
Mulberry Root Extract: Pharmaceutics, 2021. “Morus alba Root Extract Induces the Anagen Phase in the Human Hair Follicle Dermal Papilla Cells”
Traction alopecia: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Traction Alopecia: A Type of Hair Loss and Skin of Color Society Traction Alopecia.
Thyroid disease: Cleveland Clinic: Thyroid Disease.
Psoriasis: National Psoriasis Foundation. About Psoriasis.