If it feels like you’re the only one concerned about losing large quantities of hair over the past year and a half, rest assured that you are not. According to data science firm Spate, the average number of Google searches for hair loss was about 829,000 per month in 2020 and early 2021. Clearly, the problem is much bigger than many people might realize.
When it comes to hair loss, men’s balding has typically gotten much of the research and technology — not to mention the bulk of the sympathy. But thinning hair and hair loss in women is a very real phenomenon. Studies estimate that healthy men and women have roughly 80,000-120,000 hairs on average, but it also seems like there’s an equal number of ways to lose that hair.
For example, anagen effluvium is the overall hair fall that occurs after chemotherapy, while alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder in which hair is lost in large patches. There’s postpartum shedding, and there’s traction alopecia, which is a thinning of the hairline after years of wearing styles in which the hair is pulled back tightly. Women even experience the same type of hair loss as men — androgenetic or androgenic alopecia is an overall thinning or aging of the hair likely caused by the hormone dihydrotestosterone. But there’s one specific kind of hair loss that’s been at the front of everyone’s consciousness recently, and like most things that went wrong beginning in 2020, the pandemic is to blame: meet telogen effluvium.
According to normal hair growth timelines, most of the hair on a person’s head — nearly 85 or 90 percent — is in an active growth cycle known as the anagen phase, that lasts anywhere between two to four years. The rest of the hair is in the telogen or resting phase, which is between one and three months. After that period, the hair falls out and is replaced by new strands.
This process occurs in a gradual, staggered way, ensuring that we naturally lose between 100-150 hairs per day, instead of shedding all our hair at once. A majorly stressful incident, however, can prematurely shift a large number of hair follicles from the growth phase into the resting phase all at the same time, resulting in a mass of strands falling out in a few months. When hair loss is significantly more than 100-150 each day, it veers into telogen effluvium territory — and that’s when you may start to worry about hair loss.
“Hormone imbalances, major life stress, thyroid conditions, pregnancy, iron deficiency anemia, and crash dieting among other causes can all lead to a rapid period of intense shedding known as telogen effluvium,” says Dr. Christine Shaver, a board-certified dermatologist and hair restoration surgeon at Bernstein Medical Center for Hair Restoration in New York.
If you’re worried that one of these lifestyle factors has negatively affected your hair, a dermatologist can help you run through a list of possible causes. They’ll run a thorough history regarding the timeline of onset, severity, region affected, and inciting medications or events, which will help them determine whether it was related to an illness or caused by extraordinary stress. If that’s ruled out, bloodwork is ordered to check if thyroid conditions, anemia or hormonal imbalances exist.
As horrifying as it can be to see golf ball-sized hairballs in your brush or drain, the good news is that regrowth is almost guaranteed if the cause of shedding is addressed. “It’s important to know that reversing telogen effluvium takes a while: generally, shedding stops anywhere between one and three months, and it can take up to two years after the cause has been managed for the hair to completely regrow,” says Dr. Shaver. Once you figure out what’s causing your hair loss, you and your doctor can move onto treatment options.
What To Do…If It’s Hormones
If your dermatologist suspects a hormonal imbalance is causing your hair loss, they might point the way to an endocrinologist or primary physician. If thyroid issues are proven, patients will often require thyroid hormone mediation. Another common culprit, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), occasionally responds well to medications such as spironolactone, says Dr. Shaver. Lars Skjøth founder and head scientist at Harklinikken, a hair loss clinic with a location in New York, stresses on getting those recommended eight hours, as sleep plays a vital role in allowing the body to repair, regenerate, and rebalance hormones. While this can be a tricky balancing act, a medical professional will be able to guide you through the process and help minimize further hair loss.
What To Do…If It’s Stress Or Illness
It’s impossible to completely insulate yourself from the life events that cause stress, and often the subsequent hair loss. However, once the stressors are managed (or you develop better coping mechanisms), the hair will cease shedding, because your cortisol levels will regulate and stop signaling for your hair follicles to shift into the catagen phase of shedding. So even though it may seem like all of your hair is falling out due to the roller coaster of the last 18 months, rest assured, your hair can and will recover.
But there’s also another kind of stress that tests your follicles — oxidative stress. Just as external stressors — like UV rays and pollution — are responsible for signs of skin aging, oxidative stress can have a similarly detrimental effect on scalp and hair health. “The exact mechanism is still to be understood, but we know that by reducing external sources of oxidative stress, the scalp has the structure it needs to keep its grip on hair at the roots, keeping hair anchored to the scalp for longer,” says Dr. Jeni Thomas, co-founder of KeepItAnchored, regarding a study the brand ran about hair loss and the effects of oxidative stress on the scalp.
Using products that can protect the hair and scalp from oxidative stress, in addition to lifestyle adjustments (like staying out of the sun and wearing protective clothing) can also help minimize hair loss from this type of stress.
What To Do…If It’s Poor Diet
Human hair is not an essential tissue, and if the body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to function optimally, it diverts all energy to essential organs, letting the hair essentially starve.
It’s important to realize that a diet that enables us to stay lean and one that really propels hair growth are two different beasts. Hair tissue needs essential fats, carbs, and minerals to pump out healthy hair. Skjøth recommends ensuring you’re getting enough of B-complex vitamins as well as vitamins A, C and D, amino acids, plus trace minerals like zinc and iron to help boost your hair health. The way to do that is by consuming a diet consisting mostly of whole, varied, fresh, unprocessed nutrient-dense ingredients.
And while a whole hair gummy industry has been spawned to supplement nutritional gaps, there is little scientific support behind the ability of vitamins and supplements to promote hair growth unless the patient has a nutritional deficiency that needs to be corrected, says Dr Shaver. “Most healthy people with regular diets don’t need supplementation and won’t find improvements in their hair loss with taking vitamins or other nutritional supplements.”
How To Camouflage Hair Loss
Reversing hair growth issues often takes months or years, so it might be worth picking up a few tricks to camouflage the problem while you wait for your hair to grow back. Celebrity hairstylist Chris Appleton votes for this summer’s big bang trend — curtain bangs. “They can help disguise thinning, especially around the front, where it is a problem for a lot of people,” he says. “Not only are they flattering for most face shapes, they are less of a commitment than full bangs.” One of his other common sense fixes is as easy as getting a haircut. “When someone has thin hair they often think longer is better, but long thin hair can make [the problem] look worse.”
Appleton cautions regular ponytail wearers that if the hairline is thinning, it will make the style fall short of fabulous. In that case, he likes the idea of throwing color at the problem. A root cover up “is also a life saver to fill in less dense areas. It instantly makes the hair look fuller giving the illusion of thicker hair.”
Luckily, there are more hair care brands targeted to treating hair loss and promoting hair growth than ever before. Below, a few vetted products that will help conceal, correct, and repair thinning hair.
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Eight shades of hair-true color to plump up thinning hairlines and cover greys. Kim Kardashian’s hairstylist Chris Appleton swears by it for an easy fix.
This scalp serum is formulated with extracts that can stimulate the scalp, strengthen follicles, nourish strands and inhibit DHT which causes hair thinning. Equally genius is this massager that contains a reservoir for the serum which is deposited directly on your scalp via ball-tipped channels. A godsend for the thick-haired who struggle to get scalp treatments to actually reach the scalp.
This 30-year-old Danish hair loss clinic with outposts around the globe lets you schedule an online consultation or take the hair assessment and get a custom-made extract formulated for your unique scalp issues.
A month-long supply of KeepItAnchored’s pre-cleanser, shampoo, conditioner, and essence, all of which target oxidative stress that weakens the roots. Key ingredients include zinc pyrithione, niacinamide, panthenol and piroctone olamine, that boosts the number of hairs in the growth phase.
Appleton prefers to start with a clean slate and instead of using volumizing shampoos to thicken, prefers a basic cleanser that gently rids scalp and strands of oils and grime. “Once your hair and scalp is clean, that's the time to use styling products that can add volume,” he says.
Revitalize your hair at the roots with this topical serum, which uses clinically-tested, vegan phyto-actives. It’s also been shown to increase the look of hair density while reducing signs of shedding in 90 days.
This thickening spray helps boost the diameter of thinning strands, while ingredients like ceramides, biotin and niacinamide fortify the scalp.