Thinning hair is something I’ve been battling for many years, and I’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now. I wasn’t sure sharing this post was appropriate on many levels: I’m a romance writer and there is nothing sexy about thinning hair, right? Writing about my thinning mane of hair is quite personal and decidedly off-brand.
But it is something I felt I had to share with you on the off-chance someone else out there is struggling with the same problem, and feeling just as bad about it as I did.
See, the one constant of my entire life has been my long, thick hair. It’s been one of my identifying characteristics. My dad’s nickname for me when I was a child was “a bag of bones and a hank of hair.” It was incredibly apt and I spent most of my formative years slightly resenting that nickname until I found out it that the line actually came from the lyrics of a very old song. Hairdressers never failed to comment on the volume and waviness of my hair, frequently pointing in awe at the amount of clippings piled around the chair after a simple trim. One woman jokingly told my mother to “Stop putting Miracle Gro on that child!” A college friend of mine likened it to kudzu, that invasive species of plant that was brought into the Southern US to stop soil erosion and ended up engulfing entire mountainsides. I myself compared to it as wearing a wet fur coat in the humid summers we have here.
Yep, that was me. Kudzu woman.
As such, I was always a little perversely proud of my hair, even when I hated it. Oh yes, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my hair. When it got too long, all the curl was pulled right out of it due to the sheer weight of it all. Wearing it up in a ponytail or pulled back in barrettes was necessary for work–but I often had to use multiple hair implements at once to corral this mane, confining it in stages or otherwise dealing with the wicked headache pulling it back would create. Barrettes would frequently pop open with a loud crack, stinging as the clip bounced off my head and onto the floor. Sometimes it would land across the room. I kid you not.
Periodically, I would become frustrated with its heavy mass (usually at the height of August in 100 degree heat and humidity) and go into the hairdresser’s armed with a photo of a cute, wickedly short cut, only to be told that there was no way my hair would do that, and I did realize that I had three times as much hair as the model in the picture, right? When I would insist on cutting it short anyway, I’d always regret it. Sure, it was wash-and-wear convenient, but the very density of it made me look like an angry hedgehog. No sooner would I cut it, I would decide I needed to grow it out. In less than a year, I would be back to shoulder-length hair again.
That was before the hair disaster a few years ago.
Let me be clear–I’ve had hair disasters before. Who hasn’t? There was the horrendous cut that made me stumble out of the salon in tears and immediately seek out another hairdresser who could minimize the damage. There was that time I got talked into a permanent wave to ‘control the curls’ (seriously, with my hair? What was I thinking??) and ended up looking like a poodle. There was the other time when I spent over an hour with a new, highly recommended hairdresser who put magenta stripes in my hair and suggested I let my curls ‘come out to play.’ I looked like Bozo the Clown after that visit. I once had to shave my head nearly to the scalp to undo the damage from a home perm given too close to a recent coloring. That time, my hair developed the consistency of Brillo, and I could actually twist it into place and it would stay there.
I laughed it off because after all, hair mistakes are never permanent.
Until this last disaster.
For a while now, coloring my hair had become increasingly problematic. My gray roots, present since my thirties, were becoming resistant and unpredictable in color uptake. Nothing infuriated me more than to color my hair and, less than a week later, spy the glitter of gray roots somehow missed or already bleeding through. The amount of time I could go between root touch-ups was getting shorter and shorter, and yet I still clung to the idea of coloring my hair. It made me feel good about myself. It was a cheap way to give me an ego boost, a simple way of making a statement. If I wanted to be bold, I went red. If I wanted a power look, I went dark. Coloring my hair was no different to me than choosing a nice pair of glasses or wearing make up.
Sure, I suspected there would come a day when I might have to give it up. Salon coloring was too expensive; I reserved that for the times when it was really important for me to look smashing, like my college reunion. But even my salon guy, who is a genius with color, was having a hard time getting predictable results. My at-home adventures were worse. Finding a color that would last more than three weeks (no matter how much I babied my hair and used protective shampoos and conditioners) was tough. Not to mention the streaky, uneven color, or the fact that sometimes my roots turned out a different color than what I expected. I even went so far as to buy a book on the subject: Going Gray by Anne Kreamer. I confess, I didn’t read it. Gray wasn’t something I did.
Back then, to me there were two kinds of women: those who fought the aging process with style and those who embraced it. Women who looked like Mary McDonnell at 61 or those women who kept their own sheep, spun their own yarn, made their own kefir, wore Birkenstocks year-round, and did yoga. If that sounds biased, I keep my own sheep, but I like nail polish and pretty shoes. I’m a walking example of what I thought didn’t exist, and was too hard-headed to see it.
But that’s how I saw it then. No middle ground. I came by my fear of aging honestly. My mother fought the good fight to retain her youthful appearance with everything in her arsenal. Expensive youth serums, cosmetic surgery, lying about her age, you name it. It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I discovered this had nothing to do with her wanting to appear youthful and pretty–she was afraid of losing her job (and her health insurance) to younger, fresh-out-of-school new graduates. Now that I am in the same boat myself, I can understand her hard-core desire to remain youthful looking with an empathy that dismays me.
The message I subconsciously picked up from her, however, was that aging was something I need to fight tooth and nail. Even my husband, who is very much against Botox and other artificial means of looking young, hesitated when I suggested I might stop coloring my hair. The most supportive guy on the planet, and yet after a brief pause, he said he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for me to have gray hair yet.
Yeah, well me neither.
Then, ironically right after a cheerful online interaction with friends about To Color or Not To Color and why we all choose to keep coloring, the disaster struck. I’d switched brands of home color in the hopes of finding one that would be more consistent in shade and last just a little bit longer. I followed the instructions, as usual, applying the Medium Ash Brown shade.
ombre from flickr commons
When I washed it out, my hair was jet black. No, seriously. My husband referred to me as his ‘raven-haired beauty’ for weeks. I laughed it off, especially as the color didn’t take evenly, and the ends of my hair were still reddish brown. I told everyone I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess, and one of my clients told me I had an ombre–and that people actually did this sort of thing on purpose to their hair. So I laughed. No big deal, right?
Until my hair began falling out. Big time.
At first, I thought I was just going through a fall molt. After all, I’d done that before. One October when I was in my twenties, I lost so much hair all at once, I began to get worried. But that was when I was twenty-ish. And it stopped. This time, my hair continued to come out in great fistfuls to the point that I could see scalp, so much so my part looked exactly like that woman on the Rogaine box. For the first time, I had to consider the possibility that not only was I losing far too much hair, but that it might not come back, either.
I went to the doctor and had a lot of expensive tests done to rule out some metabolic reason for why all my hair was falling out. I looked at all my supplements and medications that I took to see if any of them could be a factor. To my surprise, I discovered that completely unrelated side effects from one medication was probably increasing my depression and anxiety, so I stopped that one (always, always read the fine print, peeps!). I also found out that the melatonin I was taking to help me sleep at night could, in a very small percentage of women, cause permanent hair loss. You can bet I stopped taking that right away. In fact, I pretty much stopped taking everything except my multi-vitamin. Anything that could remotely be a factor, I stopped taking cold turkey.
(word to the wise: always check with your doctor before stopping any medication)
That still left me with the possibility it was stress (my whole life was undergoing restructuring, which is part of why I was having trouble sleeping) or hormones. Simple, goddamn aging. My doctor told me I could try minoxidil, and I was desperate enough to buy a box (despite the fact it can exacerbate hypertension, something I struggle with). Everything I read said minoxidil was the ONLY thing that promoted regrowth of hair, but that you had to keep using it or you would lose what you gained. Also, most of the websites I encountered said forget about the 2% solution designed for women and go with the men’s 5% product.
blinding, widening part: 2014
Have you ever read the side effects? “Unexpected weight gain and the potential to grow facial hair.” I have to say, given the fact that I usually get every side effect in the book, the possibility of looking like a bald, fat, mustachioed man made me quake in my shoes. Not to mention, I discovered minoxidil can is incredibly toxic to your pets! I have a cat who likes to lick my hair when I sleep. I threw the minoxidil away.
Each time I took a shower and watched a pile of hair accumulate in the drain the size of a small mouse, I hoped that maybe it was the hair dye. That maybe I’d burned my scalp or something and my hair all fell out in shock. The loss was certainly most prominent at the crown, where the dye had been on the longest. And so I made the decision to stop coloring my hair.
Oh, I railed at the thought. But given my alternatives, I thought it was the best choice to see if my scalp and my hair would recover. My hair guy offered to do lowlights and highlights to minimize the look of the growing out process, but at this point I didn’t want any more chemicals on my hair at all. I had him cut it into a chin-length bob–NOT my best look, but at least it minimized the thinning layers and gave the impression of being fuller. Of course, when the weather was humid, I looked just like Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna.
Looking in the mirror made me almost physically ill. As time went on, I saw myself as not only balding but also getting progressively grayer. This wasn’t ME. This wasn’t who I am! I’m not an old woman. At the root of my distress was the concern that my husband would no longer find me sexually attractive. Hell, I’m not ready to give up on sex yet! I’m a romance writer, FFS. Sex interests me. I like writing about it, I like what sex can tell you about characters at their most vulnerable and open. I just plain like it. I wasn’t ready to be assigned to the scrap heap.
So yeah, not ready for the entire world to consign me out to pasture. I’m still not. But one day I woke up and said, “Oh for Chrissake, get over yourself. Losing your hair and going gray is not the worst things that can happen to you.”
No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. But it is something that is very personal and very distressing for virtually everyone facing this situation. And let me tell you, when you are in this mindset, it eclipses everything else in your world. For days, when I first realized that this indeed was really happening, when my hairdresser confirmed my worst fears by walking silently around my chair and finally saying, “We can fix this” in a determined manner, I couldn’t think of anything but the fact that I was losing my hair to some unknown cause.
Chemo? I get that. Hair loss is expected. If you have a great support network, friends will even shave their heads in support of your battle. I can even see where it can be a badge of honor–a symbol of your determination to survive. You are fighting a much bigger fight than hair loss–and yet I have a better inkling of how devastating that portion of your battle can be.
You’re a guy? Sorry, but hair loss is almost the norm for men. I’m not saying it is any less upsetting when it occurs, but you are in good company. I know I sound callous here, but that is my whole point. All I could think about was me, me, me and how this would impact my life.
When it really comes down to it, for me the problem wasn’t so much the hair loss itself as the unexpected nature of it. It felt unfair. I could accept that I’d gotten heavy, that I was developing wrinkles around my eyes, even that I had gray hair in the first place. Going bald wasn’t on the list of expectations, however, and given how much I’ve compromised on things in the last ten years of life, this was one thing I was unwilling to accept, childish as it sounds.
Especially since we have so many negative reinforcers for older women in this society. Sure, we’ve got such strong positives as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Jamie Lee Curtis, but most older actresses are all about making 40 the new 20, or whatever the phrase is now. They *have* to, unless they want to be relegated to playing the mom, or the school principle.
Add to that how many times we see younger actresses paired with older actors on shows: on two of my favorite shows, the lead actress was in her twenties while the lead actor was in his late thirties, early forties. Even dating sites such as OkCupid release stats that pretty much prove that when women reach a certain age, they are considered undesirable–while men of that same age demographic are still seeking out women twenty years younger than they are.
It took me a long time to reach a point of acceptance, but I finally did. I am not responsible for whether my husband, or the bag boy, or the hot young client thinks I am attractive or not. That’s their bailiwick. I can’t make anyone else find me attractive. What matters is whether or not I think I’m attractive, and the answer to that has been a surprising no for a while now. Long before I stopped coloring my hair. Coloring my hair was a means of clinging to this ideal of what attractiveness meant to me–where nearly every woman over forty on television has long flowing locks of honey-touched hair. I keep forgetting that these actresses are in the business of looking beautiful. That they have full time hairdressers and stylists, and the money to spend on looking good, and when all else fails the magazine industry Photoshops them into the semblance of youth. Given how few strong roles there are for women on television, I can understand the need to provide the industry with what it wants if you want to be an actress. But in my case, I was clinging to this false sense of security. I couldn’t really be old, now could I? Not as long as I could pass for ten or fifteen years younger. Not as long as I still occasionally got carded. Right?
The Great Hair Disaster caused me to stop dyeing my hair for about a year and a half, but it made no difference to the thickness of my hair. As a matter of fact, my gray hairs were thinner and finer than my colored strands, and after giving my hair a good long break from coloring, I went back to dyeing it again. Why? Because I liked how I looked better with dyed hair. I looked so tired and washed out with my dull, dead-mouse-graying hair color.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my hair journey: once you rule out the other causes of hair loss, over 50 % of adult women will experience hair loss for hormonal reasons. About the time of the Great Hair Disaster, I’d stopped using birth control pills after a lifetime of being on them for dysmenorrhea. All the women in in my family have developed thinning hair as they hit their forties. I never knew this was so widespread or such an issue until it became personal for me. And yes, harsh chemicals, such as dyes and perms, definitely are a factor in hair loss as well. So lucky me, I’m not alone in this. Thinning hair in women is far more pervasive than I ever realized. I only wish someone had warned me a long time ago. It doesn’t seem to be a topic women discuss readily.
So what are the solutions? Are there any fixes for this?
You’re probably not going to like the answer, which is: not really.
You can slow it down. If you’re not willing to use minoxidil (and I’m not) there are few proven hair loss reversal remedies out there. You need to start early because once your hair follicles shrink and shut down, there is no reversing that. Lady Alopecia runs as website that is a font of useful information about products. Here’s what I’ve tried and what works for me:
Supplements: Biotin, hair and nail supplements, multi-vitamins, etc:
Viviscal is a supplement touted to promote hair growth. I haven’t managed to take it long enough to see a difference because it seems to make my face break out (but a lot of things do, so take that with a grain of salt). Not recommended for those with shellfish allergies or celiac disease.
I take a wide variety of supplements for my poor nail growth (also a side effect of hormonal changes, I suspect. I used have nails with the strength of Wolverine’s adamantium…). You can read about them here. While I think they’ve helped my nail growth somewhat, I’m less certain about the effects on my hair. When you do a number of different things at the same time, it’s hard to examine the benefits of a particular product.
There are a LOT of supplements out there. I’ve looked into many, only to decide against using them because of the ingredient list or because of the unproven results. The supplement industry is poorly regulated, and many products out there don’t even included the listed amount of ingredients on their label. Buyer beware in this department.
Shampoos and Conditioners:
Anti-DHT shampoos are recommended the most for controlling hair loss. There are a wide variety of products out there which claim to be DHT blockers, but only a few actually have the ingredients shown to be effective. DHT is a hormone which is a factor in hair loss. From WebMD:
DHT stands for dihydrotestosterone, a hormone produced in both men and women by the male sex hormone testosterone. If you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, certain receptors in your scalp’s hair follicles will encourage DHT to bind to them. Then, DHT stimulates an enzyme to shrink the follicle.
In most ciswomen, estrogen levels offset the natural amount of testosterone present. As your hormones change in output (for whatever reason), your DHT levels have nothing to counteract them. Remember what I said earlier? There is no reversing the follicle shrinkage once it occurs.
I was using Pura D’Or original Gold label shampoo for over a year, but then they changed the label, removing the DHT blocking description. The website says it prevents hair loss through reduction in hair breakage, which makes me suspect it no longer contains any DHT blocking activity (if it ever did).
Lady Alopecia recommends the Nioxin brand line of products, and I have used those as well. The shampoo definitely has a tingling effect on my scalp, but I feel as though the products make my hair too soft. Without a certain amount of body, the weight of my hair causes my scalp to be even more apparent, so I like a certain amount of texture to my hair, not slick and shiny like a seal. What I like about the product line, however, is a tiered approach to your hair thinning and what they recommend using. They also make products specifically for dyed hair. Apparently they are now making a shampoo containing minoxidil, however, so read your labels.
Thicker, Fuller, Hair Shampoo and Conditioner: The original product with the “cell-u-plex” ingredient has been discontinued. Again, making me wonder about the value of the replacement product. The new products is also listed as a “hair strengthening” shampoo, which goes back to breakage, not anti-DHT. I like the fact the conditioner is extremely lightweight and doesn’t weigh my hair down. Not sure I will buy the newer version though, but Women’s Health does list it among the products in their 2020 post on thinning hair. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give that list a hard look here. I suspect I will be trying some new products when I run out of the current ones.
A hard one for me, as anyone who knows me knows I’m a carb junkie. As in PopTarts, not kale. Dr. Gundry, who has gained recognitions touting a diet that eliminates lectins (including bell peppers, seeds, peanuts, and beans), claims not only will you lose weight on this diet, but your hair will regrow. Call me skeptical, but willing to look into it more. Given I need to clean up my act there in general, it can’t hurt, even if it doesn’t help with hair growth.
Sugar is a huge culprit in aging in general. We all know about the risks of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia, stroke and heart disease, but when life is stressful and there are doughnuts in the break room, it’s easy to set those concerns aside as something that will happen to someone else, or later in your own life. But did you know sugar affects the cross-linkages of collagen in your skin? It’s one of the marked causes of sagging skin and wrinkles. Now my fear of looking old is at war with my love of sweets.
The sad thing is, I can look at 2020 and see what a toll it has taken on my appearance. I feel as though I’ve aged a decade in this past year due to stress and bad coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t be surprised if sugar played a role in hair thinning too. If I tell myself this often enough, I might actually do something about my diet at long last.
Cut your hair:
What? You heard me. Those long flowing locks with the center part only accentuates the widening of that part and the thinning of your hair. Give up the look you’ve been hanging onto for the last decade and embrace something that doesn’t emphasize your thinning hair nearly as much. Remember that pixie cut I couldn’t wear when I was younger? I can now because I have a third of the hair I used to have. Bonus feature: not having a defined part makes the hair loss less noticeable as well as increasing the time needed between hair coloring from every three weeks to every six or so.
Hair Color and Hair Products:
I’ve stopped using drugstore box dyes. I’m not going to the salon, either, due to Covid-19. I’m ordering my hair color from e-salon, and I have to say I’m not only thrilled with the color and coverage, but my hair feels healthier and softer, too. I’ve given up the dramatic reds and too-harsh-for-my-coloring brunettes and have settled on a dark blonde that hides my gray nicely when it starts to grow out. But I can tweak the color with a simple request: make it browner, redder, etc.
Yes, the cost is a bit more, but given I’m only coloring my hair every 8 weeks instead of 3, and the quality of the product is better, it’s worth it to me.
Be careful what hair products you use to style thinning hair, however. Your favorite mousses and gels frequently have a lot of alcohol, and even if they aren’t damaging to your hair, they can clump strands together, emphasizing areas of thinning.
I used to let my hair air dry, but now I use a hair dryer with a diffuser set on low to give me the volume I desire without excessively drying out my hair.
Hair fillers and fibers:
These are itty bitty fibers that you sprinkle into your hairline, increasing the thickness of the single strand as well as coloring in your scalp. They tend to stay put until you wash your hair as well, though I haven’t tested them through the heat of a summer in the Southern US. What can I say, though? I’ve been pleased with the effect.
Wigs and toppers:
Yes. Check them out. I bought my first wig when I was unable to get my hair cut for seven months during the pandemic. Before my hair loss, going without a cut for that long would have left me looking like Cousin It. The very fact that seven months without a trim resulted in me looking like a shaggy Maria Von Trapp is another indication of how slowly my hair grows these days.
Frustrated with how unkempt I looked, I found a wig in a cute style that matched my own color nicely, and I challenge anyone to have told the difference. Don’t want to go for a full wig? Definitely check out toppers. The difference in my appearance is amazing. Doing what makes you look and feel amazing is okay. We wear makeup, right? Or maybe you don’t, but you still buy clothing that looks nice on you. Wigs are an accessory, like eye glasses or shoes. Don’t talk yourself out of doing something that makes you feel good about your appearance because it somehow feels like cheating if it isn’t your own hair. It’s not.
Last but not least, the only other product proven to affect hair loss: laser therapy.
WebMD’s jury is out on the effectiveness of cold laser for preventing hair loss and encouraging growth. I can only tell you about my experience.
It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It takes a long time to see results (six months or more) That makes it hard to do on a trial basis. I shelled out the big bucks for an iRestore because I knew I wouldn’t use a comb for the necessary period of time and I could read or watch TV wearing the cap for the 25 minutes needed for treatment. It’s relatively safe (just don’t shine the laser in your eyes!! and don’t use if you take photosensitizing medications). My biggest problem is remembering to do it regularly–I have to put it on a scheduler.
Results? I am seeing hair regrowth but NOT from the shiny, dead follicles where no hair is growing anyway. It seems that I am getting new growth around my hairline where there are still active follicles, and I’m also noticing double strands of hair coming out of the same follicle. Even more interesting, the new hair strands are not gray and are much denser than the gray ones. Overall, I would say hair regrowth is slight, but my shedding seems a lot less, so I’ll take it.
It is very difficult to get a non-blurry selfie of the top of your head. I apologize for the amateurish images. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of gray”, it is. I’m definitely not coloring my hair as often during the pandemic. Most of the time, I can gt away with it but I wanted to show you the new growth.
So there you have it. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this:
Hair thinning in women is more common than you think.
The only person who decides if you are attractive is you–and you’re allowed to do what it takes to make you confident and happy with your appearance.
This shouldn’t be a topic we shy away from. We should be having these discussions with our children so they aren’t blindsided by normal aging changes.
It’s not too late to decide how you want to look and feel from this moment forward.
Be safe. Be well. And most importantly, be happy in your own skin.