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What Causes Women’s Hair Loss?

Posted Mar 17 2012 12:34pm

Several factors can cause hair loss in women. Medication, genes, illness, infection, and chemicals are just a few of the reasons women experience hair loss. Most women start to notice visible or significant thinning or loss in their 50s or 60s, but it can happen at any age, even much sooner, due to a wide variety of reasons.

Female pattern baldness, or hereditary hair loss usually occurs later in life and impacts approximately 50% of the female population. By using magnification on the scalp, a medical professional can examine if a woman’s follicles vary in size – with some thick and others thin. These are two telltale signs of female pattern hair loss, also called androgenetic alopecia.

A lot of women also suffer hair loss in their younger days during pregnancy. During the months of being pregnant, high levels of certain hormones cause the body to keep hair that would normally fall out. When the hormones return to pre-pregnancy levels, hair falls out more drastically, often causing women the anxiety of going bald. After this stage,  hair growth cycle returns to normal, which means hair will fall out and re-grow at a normal pace.

Differences between genders:
Men and women have different hair loss patterns. Men’s hair tends to recede from the forehead or the crown of the head while women tend to notice thinning on the top third to one half of the scalp. More women have underlying medical conditions that may cause hair loss then men. These include treatable conditions like anemia and thyroid disease. In particular, women with a form of thyroid disease called Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis may suffer from hair loss because of it. These conditions are diagnosed by your physician and confirmed by blood tests. If you notice drastic or sudden hair loss, it could not hurt to pay a visit to the doctor to find out the cause. It is one thing to be suffering from female pattern baldness, but another to be balding from a medical condition or disease.

  • Causing further anxiety to women experiencing hair loss, are the many myths on why women (and men) lose their hair. For the most part, these myths are what they sound like- slightly ridiculous and scientifically unproven. But some hold degrees of truth in them, which is probably how these myths became so exaggerated in the first place. Some common myths on hair loss in women are: Frequent shampooing contributes to hair loss. Frequently washing or shampooing your hair does not make you bald. Too much washing can, however, strip the hair of its natural oils and thus may weaken the hair strands and follicles. Hair should still re-grow normally. If it keeps falling without growing back, there could be some other underlying conditions causing the hair loss.
  • Hats and wigs cause hair loss. Wearing hats and wigs cannot cause hair loss directly. Constantly covering your head with hats or wigs does, however, cut circulation to the hair follicles. This should not bring about sudden hair loss, but the hair can begin to thin from the lack of “breathing” so to speak. Ease up on the hat and wigs and you should be fine.
  • Brushing your hair 100 strokes each day creates healthier hair. This is unfounded, as no amount of hair brushing can make the hair healthier or grow faster, any more than it can make you bald.
  • Perms, colors, and other cosmetic treatments cause hair loss. An occasional perm, coloring or having extensions would not make one bald. However, perms and coloring solutions contain a lot of chemicals, and mostly toxic. If not administered and applied properly and professionally, the harmful chemicals can harm the scalp, and hair follicles residing in it. Weakened hair follicles can cause hair to fall out. Prolonged perms and coloring to your hair can cause visible damage. Protect yourself from permanent damage to your hair by taking precautions when getting these hair jobs done.
  • Healthy women are expected to develop significant hair loss. Healthy women are expected to have normal hair cycle, which means losing and growing hair in repeating cycles in their lives. Significant hair loss, not brought on by pregnancy, can be warning signs to a more serious condition.
  • Shaving one’s head will cause hair to grow back thicker. There is no proof that shaving the head can make hair grow faster and healthier, just as there is no proof that doing so can damage the follicles enough to stunt any growth. Best to leave that head alone!
  • Standing on one’s head increases circulation to the scalp and stimulates hair growth. Aside from dizziness, standing on your head does nothing to stimulate hair growth.
  • Dandruff causes permanent hair loss. Dandruff is on-the-surface condition that has to do with the scalp, and not the hair follicles. Dandruff has not found to be the cause or symptom of hair loss.
  • Some cosmetic products will cause the hair to grow thicker and faster. Some products intended for eyelash growth, might work on hair. But so far there hasn’t been any conclusive findings on such products. Then there are hair loss topical solutions, like Rogaine for women, which might help slow down hair loss and help regrow a little bit of hair back.
  • Stress causes permanent hair loss. Stress can strain a person emotionally, mentally and physically. While it is not the direct cause of baldness, stress can alter the chemical and hormonal balance in the body, causing hair follicles to weaken and hair to fall out. Once the stress is gone, the body should return to normal and hair should fall out less.
  • Hair loss does not occur in the late teens or early twenties. Hair loss can happen to anyone, at any age. The age of onset, and the degree of hair loss varies from person to person. A genetic predisposition to baldness can bring about hair loss earlier in life.
  • Hair loss affects only intellectuals. Hair loss can affect anyone, from any walks of life.
  • Androgenetic Alopecia (or male/ female pattern baldness) can be cured. Male/ female pattern baldness cannot be cured. No amount of medication or treatments would prevent it. They might be slightly effective in slowing down the balding, but hair lost due to androgenetic alopecia cannot be regained. The only proven solution to this is permanent hair restoration- hair transplantation.

Now that we have cleared some myths regarding hair loss, here are some real and common causes of hair loss in women.

  • Alopecia Areata.It is an immune disease that affects almost 2% of the population in the US. This type of hair loss appears in various degrees of severity — from small, round patches of hair loss that regrow without medical treatment, to chronic, extensive hair loss that can involve the loss of all hair on the scalp or body. Treatment of this type of hair loss includes therapies such as glucocorticoids, topical immunotherapy, anthralin, or biologic-responce modifiers, such as Minoxidil.
  • Telogen Effluvium. If hair follicles are uniform in size, or if the hair loss is sudden, it is likely to be caused by something other than heredity, like a medical condition. This can be caused by pregnancy, thyroid disorders , anemia, autoimmune diseases, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and skin conditions such as psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis . Other causes could be from extreme stess (mental illness, death of a loved one), physical trauma like surgery or intense illness, dramatic weight loss over a short period of time, and taking too much Vitamin A. hair loss can occur a couple of weeks to six months after any of these.
  • Anagen effluvium. It is hair loss caused by Chemotherapy. Since chemotherapy targets your body’s rapidly dividing cancer cells, your body’s other rapidly dividing cells such as hair follicles in the growing (anagen) phase, are also greatly affected. Soon after chemotherapy begins approximately 90 percent or more of the hairs can fall out while still in the anagen phase.
  • Traction alopecia – This is hair Loss caused by tight hairstyles that pull at hair over time. If the condition is detected early enough, the hair will regrow. Braiding, cornrows, tight ponytails, and extensions are the most common styling causes.
  • Andogenetic Alopecia. Women with this have diffuse thinning on all areas of the scalp. Men have more distinct patterns of baldness. Some women may have a combination of two pattern types. Androgenic alopecia in women is due to the action of androgens, male hormones that are typically present in only small amounts. This can be caused by a variety of factors tied to the actions of hormones, including, ovarian cysts, the taking of high androgen index birth control pills, pregnancy, and menopause. Just like in men the hormone DHT appears to be at least partially to blame for the miniaturization of hair follicles in women suffering with female pattern baldness. Heredity plays a major factor in the disease.

Finally, there are other types of hair loss in women that while not common, are deserving of attention all the same.

Some women may notice hair  loss that appears in patches. This can be due to fungal infections such as ringworm or other skin fungus. Hair loss can also be as simple as being a side effect of some medication.

The first key in finding a solution is admitting a problem exists, and not being ashamed of it. Bosley  encourages those who think they might be experience hair loss should talk to their physician first to eliminate any medical conditions.

Ken Washenik, M.D., Ph.D. is a Faculty Member, New York University School of Medicine, Department of Dermatopharmacology and a Medical Director at  Bosley  . He and a team of Bosley Doctors write articles to help educate the public on the facts about hair loss and the available treatment options.

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