A strand here, a clump there. You might not know how, or why, your hair started falling out, but suddenly, those long, luxurious locks are clogging your shower drain in greater and greater numbers.
On television, in advertisements and elsewhere, hair loss is treated often as a men's health issue. However, millions of women lose their hair at various stages in their lives. The reasons why range from medical to genetic to poor hair care decisions.
"You have quite a few different reasons (for hair loss), and a lot of times they are different reasons than with men," said Craig Hanson, a women's health and OB-GYN physician at Van Wert County Hospital in Van Wert, Ohio.
In general, hair loss is a normal part of the body process. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 90 percent of the hair on your head is growing at any given moment, with a growth phase that lasts two to six years. The other 10 percent is in a two to three-month resting phase, after which the hair is shed (it's typical to lose 50 to 100 hairs a day). A new hair from the same hair follicle replaces the shed hair and starts the growing cycle over. Most hair typically grows at a rate of one half-inch per month, but slows down as a person ages.
However, many people, both men and women, find themselves losing more hair than the average amount. Medically, the term "alopecia" describes general hair loss for either gender. According to The Mayo Clinic, pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) is the most common type of hair loss, a hereditary condition affecting approximately one-third of men and women. Beyond pattern baldness, many women experience hair loss related to hormonal changes, Hanson said. During menopause, for example, a woman's body quits producing estrogen and produces more testosterone, which can induce baldness. Post-pregnancy, a woman can also experience "hormone-induced temporary hair loss," Hanson said, caused by the lack of hormones experienced during the pregnancy.
Still other causes for women's hair loss are medical, said Jonalee Schmidt, owner of HRJ Hair Solutions in Lima, Ohio. Many of Schmidt's clients are chemotherapy patients or women who are medicated for other diseases, she said, with treatments and medications that have led to partial or total hair loss. Still others suffer from thyroid disease or other endocrine disorders like diabetes, all of which can effect hair growth. Even poor hair care -- tight hairstyles or chemicals for hair dyes and permanents -- can cause temporary or permanent hair loss. Losing hair can impact women in multiple ways, Schmidt said. For cancer patients, losing hair can seem more devastating than having a mastectomy. "If I lose (a breast) and I have a good breast form in, do you know? No," she said. "If (my hair) is gone, what is it yelling? 'I have cancer.'" Hair loss affects a woman's self esteem and confidence as well as her physical appearance, said Ashley Stokes, who works at Wig City in Lima's American Mall. Stokes said the store sees a variety of female clients who have lost hair for a variety of reasons, but many of them react to the loss in similar ways. "A lot of them are embarrassed with it and they get really stressed about it," she said. "It's a big thing for women to lose their hair. Most men live with shorter hair, and for women, they usually have longer hair. When they start seeing it thinning, they try everything to cover it up. Then when they reach the point where they can't do it anymore, they've more devastated. Men can make their short hair even shorter, but most women don't see themselves as bald."
To decide on a treatment or solution for hair loss, Hanson said you must first decide what caused the hair loss in the first place. "You need to understand what the underlying issue is," he said. "If it's thyroid disease, then that needs to be corrected rather than buying Rogaine. Hair loss could be an outward sign of a more serious disorder, so you should see a doctor and have labs run to make sure nothing else is going on." The ways women can treat or cope with hair loss have advanced drastically in the past few decades, Schmidt said. There are products on the market that, like Rogaine, stimulate the scalp and blood flow, which encourages new hair growth. Laser treatment is another noninvasive treatment that, with prolonged regular sessions, can potentially improve hair growth, Schmidt said. Hair replacement surgery is also an option, Hanson said, but like any other cosmetic treatment, it's up to the patient to decide whether it's necessary. "It's a legitimate surgical procedure that has been done with quite a bit of good success," he said. "However, if someone still has the same underlying disorder, they could still have hair loss after a transplant. Ideally, a patient would get (to the hair loss cause) early, so they don't have to resort to hair transplants or other options." For women who might dread getting a full or partial prosthesis, or wig, Stokes said they should check out their options before writing the idea off. "What women need to know is that even though they're losing their hair, there are all kinds of things you can get now," she said. "You don't always have to go with a full wig. There are so many kinds, from half wigs to partial wigs. There's a variety of things to chose from if you feel you're not ready to buy a wig."