Hair Loss In Women: Our Guide To Causes & Natural Treatments
Hair loss is an extremely common condition. If you're concerned about hair thinning and loss, read on to learn about a few expert-backed natural ways to both prevent shedding and promote healthy hair regrowth. That said, if you are experiencing severe hair thinning, or hair shedding in patches, it could signal an underlying health condition. In which case, you should make an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist as soon as possible.
What causes hair thinning and loss?
It's a general question with a complex answer, as many factors can contribute to and cause hair thinning and loss. Here are some of the most common ones:
You're in the telogen hair cycle stage.
"Our hair cycle is broken down into three stages," explains certified trichologist Penny James. Those three stages are technically called anagen, catagen, and telogen. The anagen phase is the growth phase, which can last anywhere between two and six years. "Eighty-five percent of a healthy person's scalp is in [the] anagen stage of the hair cycle," James explains. Next comes the catagen phase, a short window wherein the hair detaches itself from the bulb and essentially stops growing (this lasts about a week). Finally comes the telogen, or falling-out, phase, which typically lasts for three months before the whole process starts up again. It's important to note that we're talking about individual hair follicles here, not claiming that everyone goes bald every few years.
However, if a majority of your hair follicles do happen to be in the telogen phase, you will experience increased shedding—and, though it's unfortunate, it's also totally normal.
Aging is taking its natural toll.
It's a simple fact: Hair growth slows with age 1until, at some point, hair follicles stop growing hair altogether. Aging of the hair also affects its color and density (that is, hair turns gray and becomes thinner). "Our hormones change as we age, with women [experiencing] lower levels of estrogen and progesterone, [which] weakens the hair follicle and brings on hair loss," Penny explains. According to research, the age at which our hair follicles start to slow production is different for every individual2—for some people, it could be age 40; for others, age 70.
Postpartum hair loss.
Postpartum hair loss in females—i.e., increased hair shedding after giving birth—also has to do with hormones, as changes in the endocrine system3 can affect the rate at which hair grows. It's also completely normal.
"Our hair is highly sensitive to any kind of imbalance due to the fast rate [at which] it reproduces," James says, explaining that extra hair shedding for up to three months post-pregnancy is common. In order to help try to maintain any semblance of homeostasis in the body during such a profoundly transitional time, "it is often recommended that new moms stay on prenatal vitamins for at least six months after giving birth."
Increased feelings of stress.
Stress doesn't do anything good for the body or mind, period, and hair growth is no exception. The link between stress and hair loss4 is well researched and proven, and stress-induced hair loss typically manifests in one of three different disorders: telogen effluvium5, trichotillomania, and alopecia areata. However, it should be noted that these disorders are complex, each with their own unique mechanisms of action—and while stress certainly plays a large role in each, it is not the sole cause.
Why can increased feelings of stress lead to hair thinning and loss? This again ties back to balance, or homeostasis, in the body, specifically in relation to the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands6. "Both of these hormone [regulators], if out of balance due to high stress, will create hair thinning and loss," James says. The good news here is that turning your stress levels around can also profoundly reduce hair loss—the bad news, of course, is that that's much easier said than done (though we have some helpful tips ahead).
Read more about stress-related hair loss here.
You've recently had surgery.
"Any imbalance in the body can trigger diffuse hair loss," James says, including undergoing an operation. "Surgery can bring on diffuse hair loss, [which] should only last for three months, then correct itself." Not only can the stress of surgery trigger hair loss, but anesthesia, postoperative medications, and increased metabolic needs of nutrients like protein, zinc, and biotin post-surgery can contribute to this, says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.
You regularly wear very tight hairstyles.
Wearing your hair in very tight, pulled-back styles for lengthy periods of time can put lots of pressure on the hair follicles themselves and even pull them right out. The technical name for this is traction alopecia, and if the practice of wearing tightfitting hairstyles goes on for too long, it can cause permanent scarring7, according to research.
Yes, you read that right—more and more research is shedding light on the negative effects of air pollution, which extend all the way down to our hair follicles. According to one recent study done on human hair cells, exposure to common air pollutants (such as car and diesel exhaust) directly decreased the protein in our follicles7 that is responsible for hair growth. The same study showed that the more air pollution a hair follicle was exposed to, the bigger the impact it had on hair loss.
If you book a visit with your doctor about hair loss, they may take a blood sample to check for certain nutritional deficiencies—lack of iron, zinc, fatty acids, and vitamins D, A, and E are some of the most common deficiencies that can contribute to hair loss8, according to research.
It's well documented that nutritional deficiency can affect both hair growth and hair thickness, or structure. If you suspect that you're suffering from any nutritional deficiencies, make an appointment with your doctor before reaching for any supplements.
Healthy hair growth starts with a healthy scalp—and on the flip side, an inflamed scalp can contribute to hair loss and thinning. Things like oil, dead skin cells, and product buildup, combined with oxidative stress9 can seriously hinder the health of our strands. Too much buildup can actually suffocate the hair follicle's root, which is the source of every strand, so it's crucial to regularly slough off your scalp and maintain its health.
Serious underlying medical conditions.
In some cases, certain underlying health conditions—including thyroid disease and autoimmune disorders like alopecia and lupus—can manifest as hair loss and shedding. If you are experiencing hair loss in places other than the scalp (such as your eyebrows and eyelashes) or are concerned about the sheer volume of hair you're shedding, see a doctor who can help rule out any underlying medical problems. If this is the case, don't wait—these medical conditions are serious and can have much further-reaching repercussions than hair loss.
Hormones influence hair growth quite a bit. Notably during menopause, their estrogen and progesterone levels start to vary and eventually decline. "Studies have shown that decreases in these two hormones contribute to hair loss because they play a role in hair growth and the duration of time that the hair stays in the growth or anagen phase," biomedical doctor, hair expert, and founder of hair care brand Alodia Isfahan Chambers-Harris, Ph.D., tells mbg about menopause related hair loss.
What you can do to promote healthy hair growth.
It's important to note that, while the following tips are backed by experts and scientific research, everyone's body (and scalp) is different, and everything takes time (and dedication) in order to see real results. Nothing is immediate—and if something claims to be, it's probably too good to be true (or not safe to use). Here's what to do instead:
Maintain a quality scalp-care routine.
Just as you take care of your strands on a regular and timely basis, the same should hold true for your scalp. While shampooing, take care to actually wash your scalp and slough off any excess debris (bonus: it also stimulates blood flow, which in turn stimulates hair follicles). Also, don't rely on dry shampoo as a fixture in your daily hairstyling routine; remember that it's not a substitute for actual washing. (Learn more about why dry shampoos can be bad for your hair, plus what to do instead, here.)
Massage your scalp.
Back to that blood flow thing, regular scalp massages have actually been scientifically shown to promote hair growth10 in human studies. For just a few extra minutes every time you shampoo, use your fingers (or better yet, a scalp brush) to indulge in a scalp massage. Not only will it release scalp tension and feel enjoyable, but it will also promote increased hair growth and thickness. A win-win!
Try PRP Injections.
"Platelet-rich plasma injections are done by drawing a patient's blood, spinning it down to separate regenerative platelets, and injecting those back into the scalp," explains board-certified dermatologist Reena Jogi, M.D. The resulting platelet-rich plasma contains growth factors that promote hair growth in the base of the follicle. "This results in decreased shedding, increased growth phase of the hair follicle, increased density of the scalp hairs, and increased thickness of the hair follicles themselves," Jogi explains. The procedure can be a bit costly, but it works: As it's a relatively new treatment, research is still in its infancy, but the most promising of the research points to its hair regrowth properties. One randomized, placebo-controlled human trial found that after three sets of injections, the patients had significant improvement in hair density11. If you're interested, consult a board-certified dermatologist who can walk you through your options.
Take biotin and collagen supplements.*
Two supplements that have been shown to promote hair health and growth are biotin and collagen, both of which are packed with amino acids.* Amino acids, in case you need a quick refresher, are the building blocks of keratin—which is what hair is made of. Low levels of biotin have been linked to hair loss12, and other studies show that taking these supplements does support increased hair growth13 in women in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.* Important note: If you're taking any other medication or have an underlying medical issue, consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement routine.
Scalp oils and ingredients that promise hair regrowth are tricky, to say the least. At the moment minoxidil (the active ingredient in Rogaine) is really the only topical ingredient with proven research to support growth claims. And as for natural alternatives, the research just isn't there yet. That being said, caring for your scalp is always beneficial. Here are a few ingredients that might help scalp health:
- Aloe vera: The beloved skin care ingredient has many benefits for the hair and scalp. According to research, aloe can improve microcirculation14, which may promote hair growth.
- Hemp oil: As a trendy newcomer to the skin care space, we're still learning a lot about hemp oil's purported benefits. A 2014 review noted that the topical application of hemp seed oil strengthens the skin15 and makes it more resistant to infections, which could help promote scalp health.
- Lavender oil: While the research is still preliminary, one animal study showed that applying lavender oil once a day for four weeks to the backs of mice stimulated hair growth16 on all facets: from follicle number to depth to thickness.
You've heard all of it before, but we're going to say it again because it's that important: Take time every day to practice self-care. Eating a well-balanced diet, managing stress levels, and getting adequate sleep all inadvertently help promote healthy hair growth, James says.
The bottom line.
Hair loss is a very complex yet common issue. If you find yourself shedding more than normal, it could be from a variety of reasons—some simple and easily reversible; others, however, will require a doctor's visit and more intensive treatments.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.