Hair loss is a reality for millions of women, so you're not alone if you've noticed thinning patches or a receding hairline, even in your 30s. The onset of excessive hair loss or hair thinning over the scalp has many causes – and just as many high-profile treatment options, ranging from over-the-counter and prescriptive medications, to low level laser light therapy (LLLT) for hair re-growth.
Why do women lose their hair? Common misconceptions include wearing hats, washing your hair too often or, inevitably, you will lose your hair when you're old and there is no cure, says Tiffany Masiello-Helt, a certified managing cosmetologist with Precision, a clinic in Cleveland, OH, for hair restoration.
"The facts are not nearly as sensationalistic – the myths can actually be dispelled by understanding exactly what hair loss is," Masiello-Helt says. She has worked in the industry for almost 20 years to help clients repair thinning hair.
Baldness in both men and women is caused by a single chemical called DHT, a by-product of the hormone testosterone. Too much DHT inhibits the cells of your hair follicles from receiving necessary nutrients. Because of DHT's connection with testosterone, more men are susceptible to hair loss. However, since women produce both female and male hormones, they are at risk as well.
"Your hair literally begins to starve to death. When a hair follicle starts down this road, you may notice texture changes, brittleness and then the hair shaft begins to shrink, reducing in length and diameter until it seems to disappear," she explains. The last stage of hair loss occurs when the follicle goes completely dormant and stays that way. No hair will grow from that follicle again.
Excess DHT is genetic, she says, so if your parents have lost their hair, you may be at risk as well. Age comes into play, but if you don't start losing your hair until you're older, it only means that it took many years for your genetic predisposition to DHT sensitivity to activate.
Men go bald in the same pattern, a thinning hair line that moves to the top of the head, often leaving the back intact (oh, yes, we know that look!). Women can lose hair gradually all over the head. Women are also susceptible to certain diseases, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), where hair loss is a symptom.
"There is no cure for baldness, a truly dormant hair follicle, but there's a lot you can do before that happens," says Masiello-Helt.
Lifestyle choices can affect the rate at which you lose, or don't lose, hair. Stress and poor diet, for example, can accelerate hair loss, Masiello-Helt says.
"When you don't eat enough food or avoid the necessary vitamins, your hair will lose the nutrients that make it strong and beautiful. If you wear tight hair styles such as braids or ponytails all the time, you can actually develop traction alopecia, where the hair is constantly pulled until the hair falls out."
She cautions against using perms or coloring, that contain strong chemicals such as peroxide and lye, and shampoos and styling products with sodium lauryl sulfate and silicones because these ingredients can exacerbate scalp and follicle problems.
If you're noticing an unusual loss of hair, see your doctor to rule out any serious medical conditions. With a doctor's approval, you can take various cosmetic avenues, from medication to low level laser therapy, widely known as "cold laser therapy." Cold lasers have been commonly used to heal wounds and treat edema.
"The strength of cold lasers lie in their power to accelerate cell processes – and research done in the last 10 years has shown that lasers can stimulate and reactivate dormant cells within the hair follicle," Masiello-Helt says. The laser system used at her clinic has been introduced to physicians throughout the US.
One option for treatment, the Precision Laser Therapy system, uses infrared light therapy and laser technology, housed in a large plastic hood that looks much like a salon hair dryer. It directs light on the scalp to "awaken" cells within the hair follicle from dormancy. This stimulates cell metabolism, leading to hair growth.
"Most importantly, don't ignore [thinning hair or hair loss]," Masiello-Helt says. "Many women stay in denial for too long and let it get worse than it should have been."
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