When you have thick, curly hair like mine, it’s totally normal to lose more than your fair share while washing and detangling it. But lately I’ve noticed more than my typical hair loss at the bottom of my shower. Trying not to panic, I thought back to changes to my hair habits recently, such as washing my hair less and wearing it in a bun more than I’d like to admit.
“Our bodies perceive mental stress the same way it perceives physical stress, and any dramatic stressor on the body can cause hair growth to become arrested,” Michelle Henry, MD, a dermatologist based in New York, tells ishonest. “And when hair growth is arrested, it sheds.” This process is known as telogen effluvium, says Dr. Henry, or the excessive shedding of hair induced by stress.
How does stress cause hair loss?
When we feel stressed, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol in turn can affect the hair follicle cycle and lead to hair loss, Angelo Landriscina, MD, a Washington, DC-based dermatologist, tells ishonest. This shedding won’t typically occur until roughly three months after a stressful event. "Many times it's unexplained why telogen effluvium happens, but it has been linked to significant stressful life events, physically stressful events like being acutely ill or having surgery," says Dr. Landriscina. Stress literally "shocks" your hair into falling out, he adds.
“If you had COVID and were admitted to the ICU, there's a chance you could develop telogen effluvium, but it would develop three months later," says Dr. Landriscina. Emotional stress is also a trigger. "If everything going on with racism emotionally and psychologically affects you, in three months you may see hair thinning.”
How can I treat stress-related hair loss?
Dr. Henry is a fan of Nioxin’s System 2 Hair Care Kit for Natural Hair with Progressed Thinning ($45; amazon.com) and Nioxin System 4 Hair Care Kit for Colored Treated Hair with Progressed Thinning ($45; amazon.com), featuring a shampoo, conditioner, and leave-in treatment including minoxidil to promote hair growth. Both are available over the counter.
I actually used Nioxin products at my local salon after my hairstylist also recommended the brand; she noticed about four years ago that I had mild hair thinning around my temples (mostly from my stressful college years). I've used it at the salon several more times since then, and my hair has grown back noticeably—though I don't know if it was because of the Nioxin products or my own better hair care habits.
When should I see a dermatologist about stress-related hair loss?
Whether you’re treating your hair loss with the help of a dermatologist or at home, Dr. Henry encourages you to be kind and patient with yourself during your hair journey. “Patience is critical,” Dr. Henry tells ishonest. “Treatment works, but it takes time.”
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