Hair loss in women
Reviewed by our clinical team
In women, there are several different things that can cause hair loss. Some types of hair loss are related to stress or medical treatment and might only be temporary. Other types might result in permanent loss.
In this article we’re going to take a look at the causes of hair loss in women, symptoms and potential treatments available.
7 causes of hair loss in women
There are lots of different types of hair loss that women might experience, here we’ll go through some of the most common types.
1. Female pattern baldness
Female pattern hair loss is unusual in women in their 20s and 30s, but about 40% of women over the age of 50 are affected by this. About 45% of all women over 80 have some degree of female pattern hair loss. Women of with Asian heritage tend to be less affected.
Female pattern hair loss can run in families, and it's probably related to hormones.
2. Telogen effluvium
Telogen effluvium is another type of hair loss. Normally, we shed around 100 hairs a day, but telogen effluvium causes the shedding of around 300. This is because more hairs than normal have moved from the growing phase into the resting phase.
This type of hair loss is:
- Common after childbirth, known as postpartum hair loss
- Common after other events that are stressful for body or mind
- Caused by nutritional deficiencies, for example iron deficiency anaemia, lack of Vitamin B12, folic acid or zinc might also contribute to excessive hair loss
- Sometimes caused by a thyroid problem or other hormonal imbalances
- Caused by excessive sun exposure - so wearing a hat or headscarf might be a good idea during the summer months or when having a holiday in the sun
This type of hair loss is usually temporary. Your hair should return to normal within six to nine months once any imbalance has been rectified or the stressful event or time is over. Because sometimes there is a treatable cause for the hair loss it's worthwhile talking to your GP about this - they might suggest running a few blood tests.
3. Alopecia areata
Alopecia areata (patchy hair loss) is a condition thought to be related to the immune system. It can be triggered by:
- emotional or physical stress
- hormonal changes
- sometimes viral infections
The milder, patchy forms of alopecia areata are normally temporary, and hair usually grows back within six months. The more extreme forms that cause widespread hair loss tend to be permanent.
4. Traction alopecia
Traction alopecia is hair loss caused by damage to or strain on the hair follicles, normally due to one of the following:
- Wearing your hair pulled back in a very tight style (e.g. braids, dreadlocks, or a tight ponytail)
- Wearing tight headwear (e.g. a cycling helmet) that puts pressure on the scalp
- Wearing hair extensions that pull on the hair follicles
- Using chemical relaxers to straighten your hair
If traction alopecia is diagnosed early enough you can take steps to avoid further damage and prevent permanent hair loss.
5. Illnesses that cause hair loss in women
Illnesses can cause hair loss in women, due to stress being felt in the body. This type of hair loss known as Telogen effluvium tends to be temporary. You can find out more in our illness and hair loss article. If you’re experiencing hair loss you should speak to your GP.
6. Menopause and hair loss
Although there’s been little research into menopause and hair loss, many women do find their hair changes during the menopause. You might experience hair thinning or your hair might fall out in the shower or when you brush it.
Menopausal hair loss is thought to be caused by the change in hormones including lower levels of oestrogen. If you’re also experiencing hot flushes, mood swings and other menopause symptoms you could ask your GP about starting HRT treatment.
7. What medications cause hair loss in females?
Hair loss can be a side effect when taking certain medications. Treatments for depression, arthritis, heart issues and cancer can cause hair loss. If you think your medication is causing hair loss you should talk to your GP.
Chemotherapy commonly causes hair loss. This can be anything from gradual hair thinning to going completely bald and losing all your body hair. The hair usually starts falling out two-four weeks after the start of the treatment. However, a few weeks after you have completed your chemo your hair will usually start to grow back.
Diagnosing hair loss in women
While a small amount of hair loss every day is normal, there are times when hair loss requires a trip to the doctor. If you’re experiencing excessive hair loss you should speak to your GP. They’ll be able to look at the size and shape of hair loss you’re experiencing. They may carry out a ‘pull test’ to see how many hairs come away from the scalp when traction is applied.
How to know what type of hair loss you have
It’s not always easy to work out what’s causing your hair loss. But the size and shape of your hair loss can indicate what type it might be. The best way to figure out what type of hair loss you have is to visit your GP.
What does female pattern baldness look like?
Thinning on top of the head, particularly over the age of 65, is likely to be female pattern baldness. Hair loss can be seen at the centre and front of the head, you may even notice a receding hairline.
What does telogen effluvium look like?
Widespread shedding of the hair, particularly after a stressful incident or period of illness, is likely to be telogen effluvium. Your hair may feel thinner all over your scalp.
What does alopecia areata look like?
Alopecia areata looks like smooth patches of hair loss on the scalp. These patches are usually round but can be oval too.
What does traction alopecia look like?
Broken hair and sore skin is likely to be traction alopecia. You’ll notice these in places where the hair is being pulled by your hairstyle.
Treatments for hair loss in women
Many types of hair loss are only temporary, which means you may be advised to simply wait for your hair to return. For permanent or persistent forms of hair loss, there are some treatment options you can try.
One treatment option for women experiencing female pattern hair loss is minoxidil. This is usually used by women with female pattern baldness, although it’s sometimes recommended for other types of hair loss, including telogen effluvium.
Minoxidil is a topical treatment – in other words, it should be applied directly to affected areas of the scalp. Applying minoxidil every day, as directed, can halt hair loss and in some cases encourage regrowth. It normally takes about six months of daily use for any effects to be seen.
Minoxidil isn’t prescribed on the NHS, but it’s available through our Online Doctor service. For women, a 2% concentration is usually recommended, rather than the stronger 5% concentration used by men.
Hair extensions, hair pieces, and full wigs can be an option for women struggling with hair loss – whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Depending on the nature of your hair loss, you may be eligible for a free wig on the NHS.
Click here to find out how you can get a wig through the NHS.
3. Hair transplants
Hair transplants can be an effective solution for female pattern baldness. They involve taking hair from healthy areas of the scalp (normally the back and sides) and transplanting them to areas that are balding.
However, hair transplants aren’t available on the NHS and can be very expensive. There may also be a need for more than one procedure if you have progressive hair loss. You can learn more about hair transplants by consulting this guide from the NHS.
4. Can women use finasteride?
Finasteride (branded as Propecia) is a hair loss treatment for men that comes in tablet form. It’s not suitable for women because it can harm a baby if you get pregnant. No studies have been done on older women, so it is not known what negative effects it might have in this age group. You can find out more about finasteride here.
Treatment for alopecia areata in women
In severe cases of alopecia areata, when the hair isn't growing back as expected or it's causing distress, some of the following treatments might be suggested:
Given in the form of a cream/solution applied to the bald patches, injections administered into the bald patches, and in some cases a tablet.
This is a treatment usually used to treat psoriasis. There isn’t much evidence to support it treating hair loss, but sometimes it does appear to stimulate hair growth.
This is usually a chemical applied to bald patches.
Ultraviolet light treatment
This involves taking a tablet or using a cream that makes the skin sensitive to light. The bald patches are then exposed to ultraviolet light, which can stimulate hair regrowth.
This is an over-the-counter treatment, mainly used to treat hereditary hair loss. Known by the brand name Regaine, it can help some people’s hair grow back if you have alopecia.
You can learn more about treatments for alopecia areata at the Alopecia UK website.
How to prevent female hair loss
Sometimes hair loss is caused by things outside of our control, like genetics or traumatic events. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent female hair loss, which include:
- Stopping smoking
- Eating a healthy balanced diet
- Making sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need
- Managing your stress levels
Read our how to stop hair loss guide to find out more.
How to cope with hair loss in women
If you’re struggling with your hair loss, just know that you’re not alone, and there are resources available to help you cope.
In this guide for women coping with hair loss, the NHS advises the following:
- Joining an Alopecia UK support group
- Talking about your hair loss with friends and family
- Getting therapy or couples counselling
- Using wigs, hair extensions, scarves, and make-up
- Being patient, as hair will often grow back!
Hair loss can be upsetting no matter what your age or gender – but for women, it can be particularly distressing, because of societal norms, peer and media pressure. It is simply not expected for a woman to lose her hair. In contrast to this, hair loss in men is not thought to be unusual.
Most types of hair loss are only temporary, and your hair is likely to grow back once the underlying cause or stress has been dealt with. Start by visiting your GP who will discuss with you what your hair loss might be caused by and treatments available.