Here's How, & Why, Your Hair Might Be Falling Out

Photo: Courtesy of Collins Nai.
Summer is the season I wait for all year. In anticipation, I stockpile my salt sprays, collect my Pinterest braid inspiration, and imagine myself in tight, high, swing-y ponytails as I commute to work on the most humid days. But by the time June rolled around this year, things were different.

About four months ago, I took a shot to the heart when I noticed that my hair was falling out. I'm not talking about a few strands on my pillow in the morning or a tiny collection in the shower drain — that's to be expected. No, my hair loss took the form of handful-sized clumps. To say it was disheartening would be an understatement.

You see, I’m 22 years old. No one talks about hair loss occurring at this age — or what to do if it does. I felt totally alone in this, because I didn't know why it was happening and what I could be doing to stop it. So, I chocked it up to some form of beauty hypochondria. I told myself that I was losing it and imagining the size of the clumps to be bigger than they were. After all, no one else seemed to notice the difference. Still, I felt it when I held my ponytail in my hands.

When something like this happens, it's easy to blow the situation into epic proportions. Even if I sometimes felt like this was the worst thing in the world, logically, I knew I had it easy compared to so many others. I resolved to step back, take a deep breath, and call the experts.

I reached out to Dennis Gross, MD, founder of 900 Fifth Dermatology in NYC; along with Steve Pullan, trichologist at Philip Kingsley Clinic in NYC; and asked them to explain why early hair loss happens — and how to stop it in its tracks. After speaking with them, I'm making appointments to get my hair properly diagnosed and regularly checked by a pro.
Stress & Genes Matter

Of course, my first question was, "Is this normal?" According to Dr. Gross, not necessarily. He told me, "It’s rare to see this in patients under 30 years old, but absolutely possible."

Regardless of age, experts measure hair loss in two different ways: the actual strand count (are you losing hair from the follicle?) and the strand diameter (is it getting thinner?). It’s possible for both to occur. "When hair thins in diameter, many times it’s because the scalp is oily when we’re younger; as we age, the scalp can dry out and cause thinness. Sometimes, hair falls out or you might not have a full head of hair due to genetic tendency — this can start appearing in your early to mid-20s," says Dr. Gross.

I wanted to figure out what in my lifestyle might be contributing to the issue. First up: birth control. According to Pullan, "It's not uncommon for someone in their twenties to be experiencing hair loss due to going on or off oral contraceptives, thus affecting the sex hormones in a way that can contribute to hair loss." Add a check mark to that box. Not only have I had allergic reactions to the prescription, I've had late periods and missed taking my pill a few times — situations that affect my hormones and stress levels.

Stress, Pullan explains, is often a factor. "Sustained stress releases other hormones, cortisol being one, that can affect the hair-growth cycle. [People in their 20s] are often entering the job market or changing jobs as they navigate a career. They are dating and perhaps enduring breakups. They may be exercising, or even over-exercising, and not making proper nutritional selections that are a must for optimum hair and scalp health."

I related to this — hard. When the hair loss started, I was a month away from graduating, jobless, and growing more and more nervous about my financial stability. In fact, it was probably the most stressful period of my life until that point.

On the bright side, Dr. Gross told me that while these life changes can affect hair thickness temporarily, it often goes back to normal when the stress levels do. Phew.
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Be Gentle To Your Style

Hair loss, by and large, is genetic and caused by internal issues, but some things are in our control.

The most obvious no-no is excessive heat-styling. Heat-protectants and primers are helpful, but it's important to go off the styling grid every now and then to let your hair rest. This was a huge part of my routine, but I've changed it in the past couple of months. Now, if I do use hot tools, I limit the use to twice a week. For the most part, though, I've embraced my natural, air-dried texture.

"Brushing vigorously also leads to breakage and even hair loss. 100 strokes is overkill. 10 to 15 is my preference," says Dr. Gross. Consider using brushes that have softer bristles so the scalp can be stimulated, not irritated. As for tight ponytails? Give 'em up. "In excess, they're a problem, and many women do not realize this. You’ll see the hair receding in the front and side," he says.

There are only certain causes of hair loss that are within our control.

If you visit the hair salon often for color or styling treatments, you're likely worried you'll have to give that part of your life up. But here's good news: "Hair dyeing won't affect the hair growth cycle," says Dr. Gross. "[But] if one has a history of scalp sensitivities, it would be wise to conduct a patch test prior to dye coming into contact with the scalp." Since I'd rather be safe than sorry, though, he recommends asking for a non-toxic gloss or color-rinse, instead of a permanent dye.
It Starts With The Scalp

If you're trying to solve thinning issues and you're not focusing on your scalp, you're doing it wrong. "Having healthy hair is dependent on the health of the scalp," Dr. Gross explains. "You must treat the scalp with the same skin-care ingredients that you would treat your face with, because the scalp is where hair grows from. Along the follicle, we have skin cells, which are prone to the same aging deficiencies that you are looking to correct on your face with skin care. With these deficiencies, resulting hair will have less volume, shine, and vitality. And many find they have an increase in shedding."

By now, you've probably heard a lot about how often you should be shampooing — and the jury's still out. Some people go days; others feel the need to cleanse every day. And if you fall in the latter camp, Dr. Gross says that's totally fine, so long as you're using the right product. "If too harsh of a shampoo is used in an attempt to really cleanse the scalp, you can actually be making a bad situation worse by triggering the sebaceous glands to produce even more oil. Philip Kingsley Body Building Shampoo will cleanse the scalp thoroughly, yet gently, of oil and debris and lend more body to the hair," he says.

Having healthy hair is dependent on the health of the scalp.

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I took a hard look at the ingredients in the products I had been using and realized not enough were helping my hair — and some, like sulfates, were hurting it. I switched to a clarifying shampoo (Brigeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Green Tea) and nourishing conditioner (Living Proof Restore) — a pairing that worked well for me. Dr. Gross suggests using products that target the root, because, hello, that's where the skin is. His Root Resilience hair line is packed with anti-aging ingredients, like copper peptides, which stimulate re-growth.
Keep Calm & Stop The Cycle

There are overwhelming statistics on the emotional effects of hair loss on women, specifically. Stressing over a bad haircut or a change in texture or volume may sound superficial, but these things are important to our identity. Why else would the phrase "bad hair day" be so universally understood?

"How we style our hair, how it is cut, the care we give it, and how we display it to the world is a reflection of our emotional feelings, our aggressions, insecurities, confidence, or inhibitions," says Pullan. "Hair is the single most important part of the anatomy affecting our psyche, and the most important accessory a woman can 'wear.'" It's comforting to know we're all in this together.

If you ever find yourself in my shoes, Dr. Gross advises you to keep calm. "One of the most important things [to recognize] is that hair loss can be a vicious cycle. Once you see the hair loss, it can be a trigger for more stress, which can lead to even more hair loss."

After researching my hair loss, I came to the conclusion that it was caused by the stress surrounding my transition into post-college adulthood, but it's crucial to remember that everyone's journey is different. There are many factors that can contribute to loss and thinning, including disease, so you should always consult your doctor.

Right now, I'm focusing on mind over matter — there's no reason to feel embarrassed about a physical change I cannot fully control — and finding a really good volumizer.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve ever experienced a sudden change in your hair growth — and how you dealt with it.