For many women, their hair is inexorably entwined with their femininity. Going as far back as Lady Godiva or the fairy tale of Rapunzel, a woman’s long hair has been equated with the source of their power and beauty. Baldness is something that happens to men— hence “male pattern baldness.” Therefore, hair loss is an incredibly personal and occasionally frightening thing: it can be the loss of a strong signifier of womanhood, and the act of loss itself can be construed as something masculine. And despite a growing number of men who are considered “bald and beautiful,” the stigma for a bald woman still exists, and can cause fear in someone looking at an increasingly large amount of hair going down the drain.
Those women are not alone, however. Hair loss in women is developing at younger and younger ages, and in increasing numbers: approximately 30 million women in the U.S. experience some form of hair loss.
So what do we know about hair loss in women?
How The Growth Cycle Works
Like everything that grows, hair is not growing every single moment at a constant rate. Instead, hair tends to grow about a half an inch per month, growing for between two to six years. Once a hair is done growing, it rests for a while and falls out, making room for a new strand of hair to start its growth process inside the follicle.
For both men and women who have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, androgen hormones such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT) can interfere with hair’s growth cycle. A build up of DHT in the hair follicle can make it shrink, which disturbs the growth and resting phases of each hair strand and eventually leads to permanent follicle death. This condition is called alopecia.
Other factors besides build up of testosterone can also lead to hair loss in women: many autoimmune disorders come with a lighter, less severe type of hair loss called alopecia areata. This causes hair to come out in clumps or patches, instead of in a diffuse pattern around the whole top of the head, as androgenic alopecia— the DHT-induced form of hair loss.
Ultimately, the key to understanding hair loss in women is to understand thoroughly the correct diagnosis for hair loss in a particular woman. Many times, hair loss in women is caused by an underlying medical problem that can be much more serious than just the loss of hair, so it’s important to see a doctor if you are experiencing hair loss.