What it is
Hair loss afflicts millions of people and not just men, though their hair loss is often the most noticeable. Most women, too, experience some degree of hair loss as they grow older.
Hair is not living tissue like the skin but is composed of a protein called keratin, which is also the building block of fingernails and toenails. Each hair grows from a root enclosed by a follicle, a small pocket in the skin, that is nourished by blood vessels. Hair grows according to a genetic program (hormones are also involved), about half an inch a month; each hair grows for two to six years.
Part of your hair is growing and part resting at any given moment. After the rest period, the hair falls out. It’s normal to lose from 50 to 100 hairs a day (not many out of 100,000 in the average youthful head). When a hair falls out, a new one presumably grows in, but the catch comes when it doesn’t when more falls out than grows back in. Genetic baldness is caused by the body’s failure to produce new hairs. Nearly two-thirds of men develop some form of balding, and at least two-thirds of women have some form of hair thinning.
By far the most common form of hair loss is androgenetic alopecia, usually called male and female pattern baldness. (Alopecia is the scientific term for hair loss.) About 35 million American men have male pattern baldness, the receding hairline that eventually turns into a bald pate (sometimes with very fine thin hairs replacing the original growth).
By age 50 half of all men of European origin will experience this kind of hair loss, which can begin as early as age 20. Some other genetic groups Asians, some Africans and African Americans, and Native Americans seldom or never get bald in this manner. Though the exact process that shuts down the hair follicles has yet to be explained, the male hormone testosterone plays a role.
Female pattern hairlessness commonly starts at about age 30, turns out to be visible around age 40, and may be even clearer after menopause. The pattern of feminine hair loss is normally a general diminishing about two hairs where five used to be something than a bald space on topmost part of the head, however women may have a retreating hairline, too. It’s supposed that about 20 million American females have such hair loss. As in males, hair follicles just shut down, with hormones playing certain role in the procedure.
- In men: Receding hairline and progressively widening bald spot on the crown of the head (male pattern baldness).
- In women: Overall hair thinning.
- Sudden hair loss in sharply defined circular patches (a much rarer condition called alopecia areata).
What causes it
Hereditary pattern baldness is determined by our genes and hormones. Sudden, dramatic hair loss, however, can have many causes. Li women, contributing factors can be the hormonal changes of pregnancy and its aftermath, as well as oral contraceptives (taking them, or ceasing to take them, though this problem is less common with the newer pills). In both-men and women, severe emotional stress, fad diets if pursued to the point of malnutrition, thyroid disorders, anemia, and various drugs and medications particularly chemotherapy for cancer can cause hair loss. Large doses of vitamin A may also cause the problem.
Hair loss caused by constantly wearing tightfitting wigs or hats is called friction alopecia. Traction alopecia is hair loss caused by pulling hair too tight in ponytails or braids, so that it falls out. In most cases hair begins to grow again once the underlying problem is corrected or corrects itself.
More serious is alopecia areata, which causes loss of hair in patches and is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. It can proceed to complete hair loss and affects about 2.5 million people in the United States. This condition can sometimes be treated successfully, and anyone who suffers from it should see a dermatologist. Occasionally, it simply goes away by itself and new hair grows in.
What if you do nothing
It’s impossible to prevent male and female pattern baldness, and in most people the baldness will almost always become more noticeable as they age. For hair loss caused by illness, medication, radiation therapy, or hormonal fluctuations, hair will usually grow back when the condition or treatment has ended.
If your hair loss is male or female pattern baldness, there aren’t any nonmedical approaches that will halt hair loss or restore your hair. The following hair-care practices and cosmetic remedies can help you protect the hair you have, slow hair loss, and make the most of your appearance—and are at least less expensive and less risky than drugs or surgery.
Choose your shampoos wisely
Avoid alkaline pH shampoos. Use baby shampoo, and shampoo no more than once a day.
Dry your hair with care
Avoid excessive toweling. If you use a hair dryer, keep it on a low setting.
Always handle your hair gently, particularly if it is thinning. Combing is less injurious to hair than brushing.
Don’t over brush
If you must brush, do so when it’s dry. Grandmother’s hundred strokes a day wasn’t great advice, particularly if your hair is thinning. Be sure to disentangle the hair from the brush. Avoid hairbrushes and combs that pull your hair. Use either a natural bristle brush or a nylon brush with rounded edges.
Protect your hair
Avoid bleaching, hot combs, excessive sun exposure, permanent waving, and straightening.
Products to avoid
Products containing lanolin, vitamins, or such ingredients like wheat germ oil are harmless when applied to the head, but they won’t make hair grow or prevent it from falling out Products with large amounts of estrogen might stimulate hair growth (though the evidence for this is poor). Unfortunately, there are almost always unpleasant side effects.
Resort to camouflage
Especially for women, a short haircut and hair cosmetics such as sprays, gels, and mousses can hide thinning. Hair dyes can minimize the visual and psychological effects of hair loss. Permanent dyes, of course, can dry out the hair shaft if they are used over long periods, but they won’t injure the root or promote additional hair loss. Whether using a dye at home or going to a salon, don’t skip the patch test for possible allergic reactions. At home, follow package directions carefully.
Buy a powdered eye shadow the color of your hair and apply it lightly to your scalp in the thin spots. It’s harmless and may make thinning hair less noticeable.
It’s impossible, at present, to prevent male and female pattern baldness.