It’s something that is rarely talked about, and yet is becoming increasingly common. Female hair loss is a problem for millions of women around the world (30 million in the United States alone, according to the American Academy of Dermatology) and its various causes are often quite different from those that result in male baldness. For decades, doctors believed that the androgenic alopecia that accounts for 95% of male hair loss was the culprit for women’s hair loss as well; now it’s widely accepted that for women, it can be caused by many factors – including hormonal problems like PCOS, extreme stress, severe illness, thyroid disorders, genetics, negative reactions to medication, and more.
“We don’t even like to use the term “androgenic alopecia” in women anymore – instead we call it female pattern hair loss – a broader term that encompasses many possible causes, some of which are likely to be directly linked to an excess of testosterone, and some of which are not,” Dr Ted Daly, an American dermatologist specialising in the treatment of female hair loss, told WebMD.
Indeed, while the hereditary androgenic alopecia is still the most common cause of hair loss in women, there are many other types of alopecia that are not caused by the presence of male hormones (androgens) at all.
Traction alopecia, for example, is caused by excessive pulling on the hair’s follicles, usually from tight hairstyles like cornrows, or from using hair extensions. Similarly, alopecia areata is not caused by male hormones either, but by the woman’s own immune system attacking the roots of her hair follicles, which causes the hair to fall out.
Then there’s the hair loss that follows significant changes in the woman’s body, such as those that occur during childbirth, severe illness or extended periods of major stress. This is known as telogen effluvium, wherein the hair that has been in the growing or transitional phase will shift to the resting phase. Given that around 90% of your hair is in the first two phases at any one time, having it all shift to the resting phase means that it will be coming out in handfuls.
And of course, there’s the hair loss associated with chemotherapy and other harsh medications, which is known as anagen effluvium. This hair loss occurs when the cellular-level mitotic or metabolic activity of the hair follicle is impaired by the medication the patient is taking, causing the hairs that are in their growing phase to fall out.
There are plenty of other forms of alopecia, some with known causes and others that still have doctors scratching their heads. What is certain, however, is that when it comes to female hair loss, a self-diagnosis will not do. Any woman who is experiencing the distress of hair loss should take herself to the doctor immediately.
“The number one rule of treating hair loss in women is getting the correct diagnosis – if there is an underlying physical problem it has to be corrected first,” Dr Michael Reed, an American dermatologist, told WebMD. Doing so will often take away the need for additional hair loss treatment, he says, as the root cause of the hair loss will have been identified.
To read more on this subject, check out the following great articles which contain a more scientific analysis of the various causes – and effects – of female hair loss.