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What you need to know about female hair loss
From an early age, we are taught that long, lustrous hair – like PMS or an affinity for the colour pink – defines our womanhood. Fairy-tale heroines and Disney princesses boast thick waist-length locks or hair gathered atop their heads in pillowy mounds. From these Rapunzels and Cinderellas, we learn that whether we are being saved or doing the saving, our hair remains an unthreatened source of femininity.
This narrative is further espoused by Hollywood. Here, extensions and hairpieces are a staple for nearly all celebrities seen on the red carpet, at photo shoots or even just on a trip to Starbucks. The extra-hair help is an open secret among stylists but rarely discussed publicly, setting us up for insecurities about our own less-lustrous strands. (Props to Kylie Jenner for showing her tracks on Snapchat and Chrissy Teigen for admitting on Instagram “All this hair!? Nottttttt all mine!”) This “my hair woke up like this” false reality conceals a common issue: thin hair. “You’d be surprised if you saw my celebrity clients in my chair and then on the red carpet,” says David Adams, co-owner of the FourteenJay salon in New York. “Lots of celebrities like having extensions, but not for long, glam hair; it’s about adding volume and thickness.”
There’s thin hair and then there’s thinning hair. According to the Canadian Hair Research Foundation, 40 to 50 percent of women will experience hair loss by the time they reach menopause – beyond the usual 125 strands that we pull out of our hairbrushes on the daily. Health Canada doesn’t track statistics on the subject, but Ken Robson, president of the Canadian Institute of Hair and Scalp Specialists in Mississauga, Ont., says that hair transplants for women at his clinic have increased by 20 percent over the past five years. A 2014 L’Oréal Canada hair-care study of 1,075 Canadian women aged 14 to 69 found that 27 percent claimed to be suffering from thin or thinning hair. Women’s hair loss isn’t quite a Hair Club for Men situation – it’s rare that a woman will experience complete baldness. Rather, they complain of thinner and fewer strands of hair, a smaller ponytail, more breakage and a visible scalp.
All hair goes through a natural cycle of growth and shedding. During the anagen, or growth, phase, hair cells divide to produce new fibres and the follicle buries itself in the scalp. Hair then grows around one centimetre per month and sheds after three to six years. In unhealthy hair, the timeline drops to just a few months. In the process, explains Dr. Charlene Linzon, director of Forest Hill Dermatology in Toronto, “it’s replaced by a new hair that’s smaller and thinner. And since every follicle does this cycle roughly 10 times in our lifetime, when it cycles frequently, you’ll go through those 10 cycles much quicker.”
Who’s at risk? Some people are genetically predisposed to hair loss (thanks, mom!) or experience it because of reduced estrogen levels following childbirth. (Thanks, kids!) Low iron in the blood means that the body can’t produce enough hair-cell protein, while a hormonal imbalance from a thyroid condition may also be to blame.
Then there are personal choices. Your lifestyle – not your lack of blow-drying skills – may contribute to a perpetual lack of volume. “Hair is fed directly from the bloodstream and is made up of amino acids from the foods we eat, so diet and lifestyle are really impactful to hair growth,” says Adams. Stress also has an impact – although scientists don’t know why. “Sometimes the genetic form of hair loss is triggered earlier if someone develops stress hair loss first,” says Linzon. “In general, I tell my patients to manage stress by making modifications to their lifestyle – like better diet, exercise, sleep, meditation and yoga.”
For the proactive set, Rogaine recently launched “Women’s Rogaine,” an over-the-counter treatment that promises to regrow hair in 12 weeks. It contains 5 percent minoxidil, which is the only Health Canada-approved hair-loss treatment for women. Its discovery came about quite serendipitously some 30 years ago: It was being used as blood-pressure medication when doctors noticed it made patients’ hair thicker. When the foam is applied to the scalp, it keeps hair in the anagen growth phase longer, thus preventing shedding and keeping hair from going into cycle overdrive.
Hair-care companies have also gotten in the game. In March, Nioxin, a hair-growth shampoo and treatment brand, introduced Night Density Rescue, which contains antioxidants to neutralize hair-thinning free radicals on the scalp. Aveda’s three-step Invati line includes conditioner made with soy protein and those essential-to-glossy-hair amino acids and a scalp revitalizer with anti-inflammatory turmeric and scalp-stimulating ginseng. The OGX Fight Fallout+ Niacin3 & Caffeine collection reportedly exfoliates the scalp to reduce breakage, making hair look thicker.
On the ingestible front, supplements that promote hair growth include biotin (vitamin H) and vitamin D (although Linzon believes that the studies on both are weak). There is also ergothioneine, an antioxidant found in certain mushrooms and used in GROH, a hair-growth system now in salons in Edmonton and Toronto. A model must-have – other than a wind machine – is Viviscal Maximum Strength, a supplement that uses ingredients like extract from the horsetail plant and farmed shark-fin cartilage to feed hair follicles. (It’s Goop-approved.) And celebrity hairstylist Jen Atkin is bringing her Ouai Supplement for Thinning Hair to Canada next year.
Frank Rizzieri, co-owner of FourteenJay and an Aveda guest artist, says that a shoulder-length cut will help redistribute the weight of your hair and give the illusion of fullness. At home, treat your hair as you would your best friend after a breakup: gently. “Before you go to bed, carefully brush out tangles and knots. If you let those build up, you’ll pull too much and lose more hair,” says Rizzieri. And don’t ignore proper scalp care, such as massaging it during washing to unclog pores. Styling products can build up on the scalp and trigger excess sebum, blocking the follicles.
Rizzieri also recommends skipping products with alcohol, which dry out and even break fine colour-treated hair. Polymers and silicones, meanwhile, will weigh down fine hair. “You want to work with a professional stylist who will consult with you on what’s best,” says Rizzieri. “If you’re going to budget for anything to combat thinning hair, start there.” Take that, fairy godmother.
Products for thinning hair
Women’s Rogaine Once-A-Day Foam Hair Regrowth Treatment ($29.62), at walmart.ca.
OGX Fight Fallout + Niacin3 & Caffeine Shampoo ($7.97), at drug stores and mass-market retailers.