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Despite the fact that hair loss is a natural part of growing older, many people feel anxious about the thought of losing their hair – especially women. The good news is that hair loss is not always a cause for concern, other than on an aesthetic level.
Most cases of hair loss are associated with male or female-pattern baldness and are a natural part of the ageing process, mostly affecting men and women over 50. This kind of hair loss poses no threat to your health, and is not a sign of an underlying illness or condition, or any unhealthy lifestyle factors.
Sometimes, however, hair loss in women can be associated with certain health conditions or hormonal changes. If you are have been experiencing unexplained hair loss, it’s usually a good idea to speak to your GP. To find out about the various causes of hair loss in women, read on.
What causes hair loss in women?
There are a number of reasons why women may experience hair loss. The first and most obvious cause, as discussed above, is female-pattern baldness. This is a genetic condition, which is thought to be related to levels of male and female sex hormones in the body.
Female-pattern baldness is most common in older women, although it can affect women in their 20s and 30s. It is characterised by the thinning of the hair on top of the head; unlike male-pattern baldness, female-pattern baldness does not typically cause the hairline to recede.
The good news is that female-pattern baldness is not associated with any serious health conditions; the bad news is that it cannot be permanently reversed or cured. Treatment for women is available in the form of minoxidil – a foam or lotion applied to the scalp every day – but this must be used on an ongoing basis.
Other causes of hair loss in women include:
- Pregnancy and childbirth
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Autoimmune conditions
- Medical treatments and medications
- Skin conditions
- Lifestyle factors
Pregnancy and childbirth
It is common for women to notice a change to their hair during and after pregnancy. Many women find that their hair grows thicker during pregnancy; after giving birth, this excess hair can fall out quickly giving the appearance of severe hair loss. Some women will experience hair loss during pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes; others will experience hair loss after giving birth due to the physical stress of childbirth.
The good news is that most cases of pregnancy-related hair loss are temporary.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a condition affecting women whereby harmless follicles develop on the ovaries, disrupting normal ovulation and causing irregular periods, fertility issues, excess hair growth on the face and body, weight gain, acne and hair loss on the head. It is thought that the hair loss caused by PCOS is related to higher levels of male hormones within the body.
The relationship between hair loss and the immune system is complex. One type of hair loss, alopecia areata (which causes patchy hair loss) is thought to be caused by the immune system attacking the hair follicles. It tends to be associated with autoimmune disorders such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism, which is why you will often find hair loss listed as a symptom of these kinds of conditions.
However, alopecia areata is not always associated with another underlying condition. It’s also believed to be related to genetics as one in five people who have alopecia areata have a family history of the condition.
Very intense emotional and/or physical stress can cause a type of hair loss known as telogen effluvium. This is characterised by widespread thinning of the hair on the head, in a similar manner to female-pattern baldness. Unlike female-pattern baldness this hair loss tends to be temporary. Some women will experience this kind of hair loss after a particularly painful or stressful childbirth experience.
Different types of acute or prolonged illnesses can lead to hair loss in women, which is usually temporary. Cancer and liver disease can cause hair loss, as can having an operation or a severe infection.
Medical treatments and medications
It’s well known that the cancer treatment chemotherapy often causes widespread hair loss. Other treatments than can cause hair loss include radiation and immunotherapy. Typically this type of hair loss (known as anagen effluvium) is temporary; after you have stopped having the treatment your hair should begin to grow back.
Certain medications can also cause hair loss in women. Anti-coagulants and beta blockers are two medications that can lead to telogen effluvium (widespread thinning on the head).
If you have a condition that affects the skin such as scleroderma, lichen planus, or discoid lupus you may be vulnerable to scarring alopecia. This is where the hair follicles are destroyed underneath the skin, causing permanent hair loss. Receiving effective treatment for your skin condition may help you avoid hair loss.
While dyeing your hair and using hairdryers and straighteners can cause damage to the hair, these habits will not cause permanent hair loss. Two lifestyle factors that are associated with hair loss in women, however, are unhealthy eating habits and wearing certain kinds of tight hairstyles that put strain on the follicles.
If you practise “crash diets” you might experience some hair loss. You may also experience a kind of hair loss known as traction alopecia if you wear your hair in a weave, tight braids or extensions. In both cases, the hair loss will normally be temporary; eating a healthy diet and giving your hair a break from being pulled too tight should reverse the problem.
There are many different causes for hair loss in women. One of the most common is female-pattern baldness, a genetic condition which causes gradual thinning of the hair on the head. Other causes include autoimmune conditions, skin conditions, hormonal changes, medical treatments, and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Some women may experience hair loss in pregnancy due to hormonal changes; other will find that their hair grows thicker. It’s more common for women to experience hair loss after giving birth. Sometimes this is because the childbirth experience was very stressful, although usually this loss is just caused by an excess build-up of hair during pregnancy which is then lost after the birth.
Permanent hair loss cannot be caused by shampooing or conditioning your hair, using hair products, or heating your hair with hairdryers, straighteners or curling irons. Though certain habits – especially using bleach and exposing your hair to heat – can cause damage, they will not cause the hair to fall out or stop growing completely.
If you wear a weave, have your hair in tight braids or use extensions, you may find that you lose some hair due to too much strain being placed on the hair follicles. This is known as traction alopecia and is usually reversible if you wear your hair in a different style.