With the all effort we put into removing hair—shaving, waxing, tweezing, threading, and the list goes on—you’d think that when it starts to remove itself we’d be happy. Alas, that is not the case—at least when it comes to the hair on our heads. No, that’s hair we’d rather like to hold on to. In fact, that’s the hair we take extra pains towards not only maintaining, but also building up. So, you can imagine how I felt when I began to notice my hair was falling out at an alarmingly fast rate, and at an age when I could not yet rent a car.
Thinning hair is one of the few taboos left in the beauty world—women don’t really speak about it. When we get the best, most thorough, most painless bikini wax, we’ll tell every woman who will listen. When we’re feeling particularly pleased with a successful date with Botox, we’ll happily share our experience. But when our thick, full manes start to lose some of their signature fullness, it’s all very hush-hush. Thick hair is undeniably tied to our feelings of femininity and youth. Sure, we accept the possibility that we may start to notice a bit of thinning hair post-menopause—but in our early twenties? Never. The truth is it’s more common than you might think, and it happened to me.
Keep reading and I’ll walk you through my version of the five stages of hair loss.
At first, it’s shocking—running your fingers through your hair and finding a glob of it in your hand. But you laugh it off as a one-time thing. At least that’s what I did, more than once. But it wasn’t just when brushing or touching my hair that I’d notice stray strands following me. The usual in-shower hair shedding got more and more extreme, until it reached levels I won't discuss. I would find wads of hair under and around my desk at work. Sweeping under my desk in the mornings before the rest of the office arrived became another common occurrence. In short, my excessive shedding was annoying and embarrassing. I would joke with my friends about my office hairballs and once-voluminous locks, and they would tell me I was crazy.
Let me just say this: I’m pretty much the furthest thing from a hypochondriac. I almost never get sick, and, generally, in instances of distress, I think I’m fine. I’ve avoided stitches on more than one occasion thanks to this mindset (I’ve also, unfortunately, been sent into emergency surgery, but that’s another story). My point is, when I first started losing hair, I didn’t freak out. I understood that hair goes through phases. Sometimes it sheds more than normal, but that is normal. At least that’s attitude I adopted for the first couple of months.
After a few months, my blasé outlook began to shift. My friends actually started commenting on the difference in my ponytail, and that’s when I started to seek out expert advice. First stop: my doctor. There are many reasons for thinning hair, and one of the big ones is hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is a condition when your body produces too little thyroid hormone, and it can take a toll on your hair, skin, and nails. Millions of people suffer from thyroid disease, it’s nearly 10 times more frequent in women, and there’s a history of it in my family. It was the likely the culprit. I had my blood work done, and my thyroid was just fine. Iron deficiency can also cause hair loss, and it too runs in my family. But my iron levels came back normal as well. So then, my doctor runs through regular set of questions. Are you stressed? Are you sleeping? How are your eating habits? Yes, I’m stressed. Yes, I could sleep more and eat better. But doesn’t that describe every working woman in her early twenties? I left feeling somewhat defeated and a little like I was losing my mind (in addition to my hair).
Next up, my hair stylist. Surely the woman who has been doing my cut and color for almost a decade would back me up. The first time I mentioned it, she, like pretty much everyone else, told me I was crazy. A couple months later, she still seemed unalarmed, but told me to keep an eye on it (le duh). On my next visit, probably about six or seven months after I first brought up the concern, she acknowledged the noticeable difference in my hair (vindicated, finally!). So, we started talking about hair cycles. All hair goes through growth cycles. It’s natural to go through phases when your hair sheds more than normal due to hormone fluctuations, but the shedding should eventually go back to normal after a few months. Since hair growth patterns are so tied to hormone changes, she asked if there were any recent changes in my birth control. There had not been. Then, we talked stress. Perhaps I was in denial of how stressed I really was, but all signs seemed to point in that direction, so I started to reevaluate.
That’s when the Googling started. Okay, the Googling actually started long before this point, but now I knew what I was looking for. I was no longer convinced I was going through early-onset menopause or that I had type 2 diabetes (too much internet searching can be dangerous). I had ruled out serious medical conditions and was now starting to accept the idea that stress could actually be causing my hair loss.
Of course, I knew that stress can cause your hair to fall out, but I guess I assumed that was Olivia Pope-style stress. I was not having an affair with the president of the United States, my friends aren’t murders, and my parents aren’t pure evil, so I pretty much assumed I was safe from stress-induced hair loss. But after several conversations with multiple doctors and hair experts and much online research, I discovered that a wide variety of emotional stresses (not just the type ABC drama writers can dream up) can disrupt your normal hair cycle and cause excessive shedding. What everyone had been telling me for me months was that I was experiencing telogen effluvium, just not in so many words. Telogen effluvium is a phenomenon in which your hair transitions to the shedding phase prematurely. It’s usually associated with new moms because physiologic stressors, like having a baby or undergoing major surgery, trigger it. But it’s also triggered by emotional stressors. And it turns out, new pressures, major life changes—all of those hallmarks of life in your early twenties—fall into that emotional stressor category. But the question remained—how do I make it stop? Can I make it stop? Or am I just destined to be bald by age 30?
I finally admitted that I was stressed—stressed enough to cause real changes in my body. But now what? I switched to a gentler hairbrush, bought shampoo for thinning hair, and picked up some prenatal vitamins. All of which is great, but it doesn’t really go to the issue of stress. As much I as I would have loved to quit working and become a lady of leisure at the tender age of 23, that simply wasn’t an option. So, I had to force myself to come up with real ways to handle stress and anxiety, and my Type A personality wasn’t going to do me any favors here. I attempted a long list stress-reducing tactics, many of which failed (quickly), but a few stuck. The main one was about toning down my workaholic tendencies. I made a conscious effort to quit working 12+ hour days and to stop working on weekends. Getting more sleep and eating better also became top priorities.
I’m happy to report that after nearly a year of leaving a trail of hair behind me everywhere I went, my hair is growing back. I even have the baby hairs to prove it. Hormone changes, lifestyle changes, stress—it’s all part of life. It took me several months and more than a few bottles of Drano to realize that it could also cause my hair to fall out, and while I won’t say I’m glad it happened (these baby hairs are beyond frustrating), I am happy the situation forced me to reevaluate a few parts of my life.
Do you know anyone who has experienced thinning hair at a young age? Have you dealt with it? Share your stories in the comments below!