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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Frontal fibrosing alopecia, which affects post-menopausal women
Skin conditions such as scleroderma, lichen planus, and discoid lupus
Certain medications and medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation
Intense emotional or physical stress
Short or long-term illness
Wearing the hair in tight hairstyles (e.g. weaves, extensions) that put strain on the follicles
Faced with thinning hair, many women will start researching hair loss treatments that may help stop the problem and promote regrowth. The problem is that, because hair loss is often caused by genetic factors or other health conditions, it can be difficult to know which treatment may work best for you.
For both men and women hair loss treatment tends to be complex, and requires ongoing attention and maintenance.
What are the treatment options for thinning hair and hair loss in women?
The types of treatments available to women will depend upon the type of hair loss they are experiencing. The most common type of hair loss amongst women is female-pattern baldness, which is characterised by the thinning of the hair on top of the head.
Other types of hair loss include alopecia areata, anagen effluvium and telogen effluvium. To learn about the specific treatments for different types of hair loss, consult the sections below.
Treatment for female-pattern baldness
Female-pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, cannot be cured, however it can be managed in the short-term with the use of minoxidil. Minoxidil is a foam or lotion that must be rubbed into the scalp once or twice a day. Minoxidil must be used for a period of several months in this way before any effect can be seen. When you stop using minoxidil, you can expect hair loss to resume within a few months.
Minoxidil does not require a prescription; it is sold over the counter under several different names, including Regaine. In one study, Regaine for Women Regular Strength, which contains 2% minoxidil, stabilised hair growth/loss (i.e. promoted new growth and/or halted loss) in 88% of women.
Minoxidil should only be used on the scalp, which means it is not appropriate for women seeking to treat hair loss elsewhere on their bodies.
Treatment for Alopecia Areata
Alopecia areata is a type of hair loss in which the hair falls out in patches. Usually the hair will grow back on its own, but in severe cases the bald patches will spread – eventually across the entire head, and even the entire body. Complete hair loss on the head is known as alopecia totalis, while complete hair loss on the body is known as alopecia universalis. Regrowth in either of these situations is uncommon.
Alopecia areata is thought to be caused by the immune system attacking the hair follicles and causing the hair to fall out. There is no cure for alopecia areata and because hair usually grows back on its own within a year, it doesn’t usually require treatment.
If your alopecia areata is severe, or causing you distress or discomfort, you can talk to your doctor about receiving treatment for it. Alopecia areata can be treated, to varying degrees of success, with the following:
- Corticosteroid injections into the bald areas; these suppress the immune system and prevent it from attacking the hair follicles
- Topical corticosteroids applied directly to the bald areas
- Minoxidil; though this treatment is not licensed for alopecia areata it can promote hair growth when applied directly to bald areas
- Immunotherapy/dithranol cream; with these treatments, a strong chemical is applied to bald areas, provoking an allergic reaction and – in some cases – promoting new hair growth
- Ultraviolet light treatment, where bald areas are exposed to ultraviolet light
Your doctor may discourage you from seeking out some (or all) of these treatments as they can cause unpleasant side effects, and are associated with other health risks. The efficiency of some of these treatments not always entirely clear, which means you may not experience any change in your hair.
Other treatments for hair loss in women
Along with female-pattern baldness and alopecia areata, hair loss in women can also be caused by:
If hair loss is caused by an underlying condition, then treatment of that condition should take precedence. If the hair loss is caused by an illness, a temporary medical treatment or a period of stress, then the hair should grow back on its own. Lifestyle factors such as diet can be addressed to reduce damage to the hair and improve nutrition. Hairstyling, such as avoiding tight braids, extensions and weaves, can also help with hair loss.
Hair loss surgery for women
Some women may feel that their hair loss is so severe, surgery is required. This is usually only recommended if other treatments have been unsuccessful, and if the patient understands the associated risks.
The most popular type of hair loss surgery is the hair transplant, where areas of the scalp with healthy growth are transplanted to areas without hair loss. Another type of hair loss surgery is scalp reduction, where bald areas are removed and areas with healthy growth moved closer together.
Scalp reduction is available on the NHS to men and women with scarring alopecia (i.e. hair loss caused by a skin condition such as scleroderma). Hair transplants are not available on the NHS and so must be obtained through private clinics; they tend to be very expensive, and often require multiple surgeries.
If you don’t find a hair loss treatment that works for you, you might consider getting tattooed (suitable for areas with short hair e.g. eyebrows) or wearing a wig or fabric support.
There are a number of different treatments, for hair loss which vary in effectiveness. The most effective for women is minoxidil. This is a lotion or foam applied directly to the scalp. It is licensed for use in women who are experiencing female-pattern baldness, but can also be used to treat bald patches caused by alopecia areata.
Other hair loss treatments include corticosteroids, dithranol cream, immunotherapy, and hair loss surgery.
Certain hair loss treatments are available on the NHS, but most have to be obtained privately or bought over the counter in a pharmacy. If you experience scarring alopecia, you may be able to receive hair loss surgery on the NHS. If you want to use minoxidil you will have to buy it yourself.
Wigs and fabric supports are also available on the NHS to people who fall into certain categories. Learn more here.
The price of hair loss treatments varies, with some available on the NHS and some only available privately, so it’s best to consult your GP for an idea. Treatments like minoxidil should be obtained over the counter in a pharmacy; with the active ingredient found in products such as Regaine.