We all have it. That one thing that we feel extricably self-conscious about, that we begrudge the other people around us for "not quite understanding." Every woman (and man) I know struggles with something. Weight. Acne. Style. Ability to communicate. When we encounter new people, walk into a room, step onto a train, we think to ourselves, "Look at these people. They don't understand how much it sucks to have bad skin/thick thighs/crushing fear of contact." Yet, for some reason, I think I have it worse, because when you are woman, you can be womanly with those aforementioned traits. You cannot, however, feel feminine when your hair is falling out.
Taking a shower is the worst. No, actually, brushing your hair is, as you helplessly watch the area around the sink become more and more covered in "shedding." On top of that, speaking to your friends about weight, about skin care, about makeup, feels totally acceptable — but actually uttering the words, "I think I'm going bald" feels particularly embarrassing. Maybe it just does for me, because I've thought these words to myself.
The truth is, my industry makes me both lucky and particularly cursed. The latter because, sadly, style has a whole lot to do with your coiff...and I'm not likely to get picked for a hair tutorial. Yet, I'm fortunate because I have access to a beauty staff who can point me toward the best research in hair treatments. So, here's what I found.
Up until now, I had never heard of a trichological clinic, but when I met Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips at Philip Kingsley, I felt like I had just reached an oasis in a desert. She talked to me about how normal it was to shed, how your body goes through cycles, the infinite (and infinitely fixable) reasons why I could be "shedding." I had to stop myself from asking, "Is it as bad as I think it is?" She assured me anyway: When it is happening on your head, you see hair loss at its very worst.
"Our goal is not to just deal with a topical issue," Phillips said, "but to give you the tools you need to get the best hair you can get." Then she pointed to a frustrating, reoccurring cycle: "Stress contributes to hair loss, and hair loss brings on stress. So, it is our job to figure a way to stop the stress."
During my first visit in December, Phillips did something I did not envy: She brushed my hair. I was going through a period of not washing my hair for fear I was doing it wrong, and it took her a good 10 minutes to get all the tangles out. Apparently, she explained, particularly fine hair is more likely to snarl, and tugging and pulling at those snarls removes the follicles from your head. But once she looked at my scalp, she had a couple of serious things to tell me.
Going to the Kingsley office feels very similar to going to a therapist, and Phillips immediately asked what happened in July and August. I was stunned. How did this woman, just by brushing my hair, know that I moved, took on a new role at work, and had major relationship problems during those two months? "Your hair tells a story," Phillips reminded me. "And, in order to get your hair to tell its best story, you need to work on managing stress." Ha, good luck, I thought.
Secondly, she asked, what did I eat for breakfast? I told her I skip it a lot and, to be honest, I often eat one big meal a day with a couple snacks. Phillips immediately tsk tsk-ed me. "Hair needs protein to grow, but it isn't a vital function," she explained. "So, when you have a major protein intake at once, the necessary proteins go to your hair last." She gave me a strict "four-hour rule," making sure I consumed good protein (like cottage cheese or fish) at breakfast and lunch, and explained that I shouldn't go more than four hours between meals without a snack.
She also immediately shut down my no-poo experiment. While she suggested that shampooing less might work for some people (my Brazilian roommate with rope-thick hair, for instance), when you are encouraging hair growth, you don't want to clog up the scalp with oil — especially if you have super-fine hair.
Her last major change I needed to make was to brush my hair. Tangles and snarls aren't helping. In fact, she went as far as suggesting I get haircuts more frequently (something, given the situation, I was loath to do).
For those not based in New York, Philip Kingsley offers over-the-phone consultations, but obviously visiting the salon is best. Also, in person, I experienced one of the most wonderful things to have ever happened to my head: a Philip Kingsley "treatment." An exfoliating mask (to expose hair follicles) was applied and then a mentholated "stimulating" treatment was applied and left on my head. I was in heaven. When Kingsley workers rinsed my hair, it actually did feel thicker. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but when I returned to the office, my desk-mate asked, "Did you do something to your hair? It looks different." Hey, I'll take it.
The Phillip Kingsley team emphasized tackling hair loss from the inside out, but I still wanted to make sure my options were exhausted. Enter: science. I'd tried a couple of products that promised extreme results (like Nioxin) but I didn't find anything I liked until someone passed me a treatment from DS Laboratories — and it worked for me. Here's why: DS Laboratories functions on the assumption that the reason female hair loss occurs, for the most part, is genetic. "Good health is paramount to anything," says Brian Hendricks, the company's education director. "But, most thinning hair has a genetic basis." Hrm. Isn't that something that happens to men only? Doesn't that make this issue totally insurmountable?
"I always bring it back to the basis of skin care. For instance, if you think of an 80-year-old woman's skin, there is nothing we can do to reverse her skin back into what it was like when she was 20. But if she starts preparing earlier, the better the outcome," says Hendricks. "The same is true with hair loss...We are trying to control the follicle and make it immune to hormonal changes — the more proactive you are, the better."
At the risk of sounding like a commercial, one of the reasons I spoke to DS Laboratories was because, unlike its competitors, it constantly updates its formula. "We are a real research laboratory," Hendricks explains. "If we discover something that brings greater success, we immediately change or introduce that product." DS Laboratories uses a gentler alternative to minoxidil (which is found in Nioxin) called nanoxidil. Also in its ingredients is a whole list of exotic additions, including caffeine, taurine, rooibos tea, and...emu oil? Well, its Revita line, which is its daily-use "stimulating" shampoo and conditioner, smelled nice enough.
Using both DS Laboratories and Philip Kingsley's own line, plus a diet change and a true commitment to relaxation, I set about "changing my life." (Note: Birth control usage also has an effect on hair loss, but the kind I am on has, as Liz Phillips says, "a neutral effect," so speak to your doctor if you think that the pill might be a contributor.) The very last thing I did was visit my own doctor and ask for blood work. Not typical blood work, mind you, but serious, almost-pass-out-they-took-so-much blood work. Phillips had asked me to check specific metrics, like hemotology, biochemistry (like iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12), endocrinology, and hormonal levels. So I did.
Three months later, I headed back to Philip Kingsley, and Liz brushed my hair once again. "What took me nearly 10 minutes last time took me about a minute this time," she said. She also noticed my hair was back in "growth phase," which means follicles were hard at work. I felt relieved. Liz had a couple more things to add, such as supplements rich in vitamin D and B12, plus the addition of zinc tablets.
The bottom line is, my hair does look better...but I am also taking better care of myself. I know that this means my lifestyle needs to monitored for, well, the long haul. Here is the number-one lesson I learned: Our bodies age, and that includes our hair, too. Just as movies and ads convince us that thin bodies are easily attainable, media also suggests that long, luscious hair is the norm at 20, 30, and 40. For many, that simply isn't true. Hendricks gives good perspective. "We need to stop calling it loss and start calling it 'aging,'" he says.
Lastly, I know that there is something that I can do. Yeah, it's not a radical change and I'll never have a hearty braid, but I can make decisions to feel significantly less self-conscious. Walking into a room and acknowledging that all women have perceived issues, and mine isn't any less manageable than anyone else's is a relief. Even more importantly, I no longer fear the brush. Brush, we can be friends again.
Illustrated by Ini Neumann.