Seeing hair on your hairbrush or going down the shower drain is normal for many people. But losing too much hair means something else is going on, either with how you treat your hair or with your health. Knowing what’s causing your hair loss can help you learn whether you can prevent it or treat it.
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What Is Normal Hair Shedding?
It’s normal to lose 50 to 100 hairs each day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. It’s called shedding and it’s not a sign of hair loss. It’s part of a natural cycle where your body gets rid of old hair and replaces it with new growth.
But what if you lose more than that? If you notice overall thinning, hair falling out in clumps, or a widening part, it’s cause for concern. These are all signs of hair loss.
What Causes Hair Loss in Women?
Alopecia is the medical term for any kind of hair loss, no matter what the cause.
Alopecia is not the same thing as alopecia areata. That’s a type of hair loss where your immune system targets hair follicles. It leaves bald patches on your scalp, sometimes causing complete baldness.
With alopecia areata, you may also lose your eyelashes and eyebrows.
There are many reasons why women lose their hair. Some are temporary and preventable. Some result from an underlying health issue that may need treatment.
As you age, some hair loss is normal. That’s because hair follicles eventually stop growing hair. As they get older, women may notice thinning hair and a receding hairline. Their hair also begins to lose color.
Taking a look at your family members can offer a clue to why you have hair loss. That’s because the most common reason for hair loss in both women and men has to do with the genes you inherit. The medical term for hereditary hair loss is androgenetic alopecia.
You’re more likely to develop hair loss if someone in your family has the condition. In women it’s called female pattern hair loss, or FPHL. It’s different from male pattern hair loss, which causes the hairline to recede, thin, and form an “M” shape.
In women with FPHL, the hairline stays the same. But the hair gradually thins overall and the hair part continues to widen.
You may start noticing signs of FPHL in your 40s and 50s. For some people, hereditary hair loss can start as early as their teen years.
Stress is a common reason for temporary hair loss. The medical term is telogen effluvium. It’s a scalp disorder where you shed excessive hair without any signs of scarring.
Telogen effluvium affects both women and men. But women are more likely to experience hair loss caused by stress. Elderly women are more at risk of stress-induced hair loss after a fever, trauma, hemorrhage, or psychological stress.
Acute telogen effluvium is when it occurs for a short period of time, less than six months. In this case, excessive shedding starts two to three months after a stress trigger.
In 95% of cases, hair loss from acute telogen effluvium grows back. Most people regain normal fullness in six to nine months.
Common physiological stress triggers include:
- Chronic illness
- High fever
- Surgical trauma
Common emotional stress triggers include:
- Getting divorced.
- The death of a loved one.
- Financial difficulties.
Chronic telogen effluvium is when stress-induced hair loss lasts more than six months. With this disorder, which mostly affects middle-aged women, hair thickness is normal. But the hair at the front of the hairline and around the temples becomes shorter and begins to recede.
Pregnancy increases certain hormones that cause you to develop a fuller head of hair. Following childbirth, these hormones go away, and so does all that excess hair. It can feel like hair loss, but it’s really just the hair returning to normal.
But pregnancy and childbirth can also trigger stress-induced hair loss known as telogen gravidarum. It’s a type of acute telogen effluvium. It often occurs two to five months after someone gives birth.
Changes in hormone levels when a woman stops menstruating can trigger hair loss. Female pattern hair loss is most common in those who have gone through menopause.
Certain medications you take can cause hair loss. Excessive shedding usually starts 12 weeks after starting these drugs or after increasing your dosage. Drugs that can cause hair loss include:
- ACE inhibitors
- Oral contraceptives
Diet and Nutritional Problems
What you eat also impacts your hair health. Poor nutrition, also known as malnutrition, can cause hair loss.
Dieting, severe calorie restriction, and restricted diets can deprive your body of the nutrients it needs for healthy hair growth. If you aren’t getting enough biotin, iron, protein, or zinc, you may experience noticeable hair loss. Your doctor may order a blood test to determine if you lack these nutrients.
To prevent hair loss, eat a well-balanced diet. Once you get enough of these nutrients, your hair will start to regrow. Your doctor may also recommend taking a multivitamin.
Underlying Health Conditions
Several health conditions can increase your risk of hair loss. These include:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome. This long-term hormone condition affects up to 10% of women in the U.S. and can cause thinning hair.
- Thyroid disorders. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems, according to the American Thyroid Association. You may notice your hair comes out in clumps when you brush it.
- Eating disorders.
- Inflammatory bowel disease.
- Liver or kidney disease or failure.
Hair Styling and Hair Treatments
How you style your hair plays a role in hair loss.
Pulling too hard on your hair when you brush it can cause it to rip out of the hair follicle. Constantly pulling your hair too tight with a ponytail, barrette, or other hair accessory can lead to permanent hair loss. The medical term is traction alopecia.
Hair treatments are chemical stress on your hair. Coloring or perming your hair or using hair relaxers or straighteners may cause lasting damage to hair follicles.
You can prevent this type of hair loss by changing how you style and care for your hair. But reversing the damage already done often isn’t possible.
How to Prevent Hair Loss
Hair loss can cause worry, embarrassment, and self-esteem issues. How you prevent and treat hair loss depends on what is causing it.
The sooner you notice hair loss and get help, the better chance you have at correcting the problem. If chronic telogen effluvium goes on too long, it can become more difficult to identify the trigger.
If you experience excessive shedding, ask your doctor for a referral to a dermatologist. These are specialists who treat hair and scalp disorders, including alopecia. They can help identify what is causing your hair loss — and recommend prevention and treatment options.
Prevention and treatment options may include lifestyle changes, medication adjustments, and surgery.
American Academy of Dermatology. Hair Loss: Who Gets and Causes. Link.
American Academy of Dermatology. Hair Loss: Diagnosis and Treatment. Link.American Academy of Dermatology. Hair Loss: Tips for Managing. Link. American Academy of Dermatology. Do You Have Hair Loss or Hair Shedding? Link. Interventions for Female Pattern Hair Loss. Cochrane Database System Review. 2016. Link. Telogen Effluvium: A Review of the Literature. Cureus. 2020. Link.
General Information. American Thyroid Association. Link.
The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.