Let’s talk hair loss and what to do about it

Black women are more prone to losing hair than Black men and are less likely to seek any kind of professional help for the condition.

Think hair loss typically only happens to men? Well, think again! Both men and women can experience thinning hair or bald spots and for many, the loss of hair can be traumatic. A startling 40 percent of Americans have reported hair loss according to the American Hair Loss Association. Black women are more prone to losing hair than Black men and are less likely to seek any kind of professional help for the condition.

bald man

Just the hair loss facts

A whopping 80 percent of women will have noticeable hair loss by age 60. By the age of 50, approximately 85% of men have significantly thinning hair. Hair loss among Black women is believed to be genetic but there are a few other damaging practices that stress hair like braiding, chemical relaxing, and weaves.

The most common type of hair loss is called androgenetic alopecia, a common form of hair loss in both men and women. It tends to run in families and causes your hair to fall out gradually. As men get older, they may start to lose hair in the front of their scalp. The pattern of hair loss for women is different as their hair may thin out all over their scalp, but is often most obvious along the part.

Both men and women with androgenetic alopecia can apply medicines to their scalp to slow the progression of their hair loss. However, some medications are only FDA-approved for men. Some men (and occasionally women) opt for hair transplant surgery, in which tiny plugs of hair are moved from the back of the head to the front. This option depends on how much hair is available for a transplant.

Another common type of hair loss is known as alopecia areata. Scientists recently discovered what causes this type of hair loss. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease. The immune system, which normally helps protect your body from disease, starts attacking hair follicles. Hair follicles are the part of the skin that hairs grow from. Usually, only small patches of hair on the scalp are lost. But in severe cases, hair from all over the body may be lost. The hair loss may not be permanent because hair follicles are not destroyed. They are just stuck in a resting state.

Are there meds to stop hair loss?

Currently, there are no FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of alopecia areata. However, an NIH-funded study recently discovered that a class of drugs called Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors can stop, and even reverse, the hair loss problem. Angela Christiano, Ph.D., a professor of genetics and development at Columbia University in NYC, researched how JAK inhibitors block the damaging effects of the immune system on hair follicles. Many people who took the drug in Dr. Christiano’s study had their hair grow back. More clinical trials are now underway to determine how safe and effective JAK inhibitors are for the treatment of alopecia areata.

“I think it’s a hopeful time for patients with alopecia areata,” says Dr. Christiano, who also has the disease. She hopes that the excitement around alopecia areata research will carry over to other types of hair loss, which tend to be understudied diseases.

Dealing with the effects of hair loss on your head can be hard, but there are things you can do to help combat it. “Find somebody you trust and just talk about what’s going on,” advises Kathleen Baxley, who is the chief of social work at the NIH Clinical Center. She oversees a team that counsels people in clinical studies, including those who lost their hair due to treatment. “It really helps folks a lot of the time just to tell their story. You can speak with a family member or close friend. Or, you can reach out to a counselor. Sometimes finding support groups also helps,” Baxley adds. Support groups can meet in person or have discussions online.

How can further hair loss be prevented?

Even though natural balding cannot be reversed, you can, however, put the brakes on further thinning by choosing to take better care of the hair you have left:

Go natural: Say goodbye to relaxers, weaves, wigs, dyes, harsh blowdrying; stop abusing/stressing the hair you have left on your head.

Scrutinize hair products: Use mild shampoos sans the harsh sulfates. Go the organic and natural shampoo route, don’t worry that they aren’t as foamy as the ones you are used to, rest assured they are getting the job done as far as cleansing. Look for shampoos that contain biotin as well, which may promote hair fullness and reduce breakage.

Wash hair weekly: Keep your scalp clean and free of product buildup by shampooing at least once a week.

Diet: The foods you eat can impact hair growth, so make sure you get enough iron and protein in your diet.

Prescription drugs: Many commonly prescribed drugs can cause temporary hair loss, trigger the onset of male and female pattern baldness, and even cause permanent hair loss. Do your homework, read a drug’s accompanying pamphlet, or your pharmacist can provide you with a list of a medication’s possible side effects.

Essential oils: A number of essential oils have been shown to be a benefit for thickening hair, or for making it healthier, and less prone to breakage. The oils include peppermint, lavender, lemongrass, and thyme.

Loosen those tight braids: If your head hurts while you are getting it braided, ask the stylist to go easy as tension will only result in more hair damage.

Conditioner: Use conditioner every time you wash your hair. Be sure to coat the ends of the hair with conditioner, as the ends are the oldest and most fragile part of your hair.

Minoxidil: The FDA has approved this ingredient for the treatment of hair loss when it’s used as a 2 percent topical solution. Some shampoos also contain minoxidil as an active ingredient.

Vitamins: There are several vitamins and nutrients that can be beneficial for hair growth. Too much of others, such as vitamins A and E, may actually worsen hair loss. Niacin (vitamin B-3) promotes hair fullness and stimulates circulation and blood flow in the scalp. Biotin (vitamin H) is a water-soluble vitamin that is part of the B vitamin family. It is imperative to let your doctor know, however, of ANY supplement you are taking as they can sometimes interfere with test results or medications.

While shedding is totally normal (the average person loses 50 to 150 hairs per day), excessive hair loss is not. If you think you’re losing more hair than usual, make an appointment with a dermatologist. Your doctor can order lab work to screen for conditions that are causing your hair loss like anemia, diabetes, or even thyroid-related issues.