Just like skin woes can make you super self-conscious—and worry if anything is wrong internally to trigger the breakouts, inflammation, oily patches or dryness—hair loss is no laughing matter. No longer just reserved for men of a certain age, hair loss is becoming a surprisingly common challenge for humans of all ages, genders and backgrounds.
At any given time, about 10% to 20% of the hair follicles on our head are in the "telogen," or resting stage, explains Olga Bunimovich, M.D., a dermatologist at UPMC in Pittsburgh and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This is part of the normal hair growth process. These telogen hairs shed after about three months, and account for the "normal" loss of between 50 to 100 hairs per day.
Anything more than that (which you might notice building up on the floor between vacuum sessions, hanging out in your hairbrush or in the shower drain) is defined as diagnosable hair loss.
"Extreme hair loss can be a difficult issue to work through personally and publicly," says Nick Stenson, the Chicago-based artistic director for Matrix and the senior vice president of store and services operations at Ulta Beauty. "While we can lose up to 100 hairs a day and still be in the normal range of hair loss, it's safe to say that you know what 'normal' looks like for you as it refers to shedding rate. If you're noticing thinning at your scalp or your hands are covered in hair when you shampoo, this is likely a sign of excessive hair loss."
As we near the end of the second full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are living in an environment rife with hair-loss triggers. Read on to learn why you might be experiencing hair loss, plus when to seek help.
Getty Images / Rattankun Thongbun
5 Reasons Why You Might Be Losing Hair Right Now
1. Your styling game is causing breakage.
If you're heading back to the office or socializing IRL again, or even just playing around with YouTube hair tutorials to pass the time at home, you might be busting out your hair-styling tools again. Those tools, while talented, can boost breakage.
"Hair loss and breakage are two different things. The trauma of the body, stress and hormonal shifts can often lead to a period of excessive hair loss," Stenson says (more on that later). "Breakage has less to do with the body and more to do with hair that is mistreated from heat or chemical damage and even strain from continuous overly tight styling. If breakage is the issue, look at these three culprits for a correction to the problem."
That means ease off the perms, dyes and hot hair tools (even just turning down the temp can help) and try to tie your ponytail loosely. Bonus points if you can shift the pony up and down so the same section isn't always bearing the brunt of your hair weight.
If your hair change is due to breakage, "this is any easy fix," Stenson confirms. Try wearing your hair down and as close to natural more often, if possible. Lower the temperature of your flat iron or curling iron if you use one, and spritz on a heat-protecting spray like MATRIX Total Results Mega Sleek Iron Smoother Defrizzing Leave-In Spray (buy it: $17 for 8.5 ounces, Amazon) before running the tool through your hair. Scale back to a gentler color or switch to ammonia-free color gloss, or take a break and embrace your natural hue. (Psst … here are 5 ways to prevent gray hair, according to experts!)
2. You had COVID-19.
Researchers are diving into the systemic ways the respiratory illness impacts the body. As you may have guessed by the fact that some COVID-19-positive individuals lose their sense of taste and smell or experience memory problems, the coronavirus impacts far more than the lungs.
"We have noticed that some of our patients are experiencing acute telogen effluvium after a COVID-19 infection. This is essentially stress-related and causes a large amount of hairs that are in the growing stage to abruptly enter the resting stage," Bunimovich says.
Telogen effluvium (TE) can be caused by mental or physical stress, and it causes more hair to stop growing in the anagen phase, shift prematurely into the telogen phase and fall out earlier than usual. This is a natural part of the body's energy conservation system; think of this like a "fight or flight" response. Hair growth isn't essential for survival, so the body turns its resources to other more immediate needs such as defending your cells from the virus and keeping your blood oxygen at a safe level.
According to a small study in the August 2021 edition of the Irish Journal of Medical Science, all 39 participants experienced excessive hair loss in the three months after their infection. These individuals had mild or moderate cases; none were hospitalized. In a larger January 2021 study in The Lancet, more than 20% of the 1,733 participants—all of whom were hospitalized after testing positive—experienced extreme hair loss in the three to six months after they were discharged.
A March 2021 report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that rates of TE jumped by more than 400% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic just one year prior. Rates of TE are much higher in those who have tested positive than those who haven't had a COVID-19 infection yet.
Hair tends to return to normal on its own after the stress eases up, the American Academy of Dermatology Association confirms. But if you notice severe hair loss post-COVID-19 that lingers for more than six months, talk to your primary care doctor to discuss potential treatment options.
3. You're stressed to the max.
Even if you haven't tested positive, chances are the pandemic *has* tested your patience, your nerves and possibly thrown your sleep schedule for a loop. As we just mentioned, all those frazzled feelings can lead to hair loss.
"Stress and a lack of sleep are also two known factors that have been linked to an increase in hair loss," Bunimovich says.
If you're stressed or sleep-deprived, discover 3 easy, free and science-backed ways to stress less, 4 ways to get a better night of sleep and the 7 bedroom design tips for better sleep. From morning to night, fuel up with the 9 best foods for sleep and 7 of the top foods for stress relief.
4. Your diet isn't quite balanced.
Burnt out on cooking at home and turning to more convenience foods and takeout? Or cutting calories in an effort to lose "pandemic weight"? You might be falling short on important minerals and vitamins for hair health.
"It's important to maintain a healthy diet rich in iron, vitamin D and zinc," Bunimovich says, and scoring enough protein is key too. "With COVID-19 restricting travel, people have been visiting warm places less often and missing that boost of vitamin D that would stave off a potential TE caused by vitamin D deficiency."
If you're trying to lose weight, don't trim more than 500 calories per day from your usual diet and aim for a mix of macros: The National Institutes of Health suggests that 10% to 35% of calories come from protein, 45% to 65% of calories come from carbs and 20% to 35% of calories come from fat.
Check out 6 foods with more vitamin D than an egg. Here are the best foods to eat for healthy hair, skin and nails, and talk to a dietitian if you think you might need guidance on how to fill in any nutritional gaps.
5. Your hormones are out of whack.
"People have not been seeing their doctors as often during this time. This means usual conditions linked to hair loss that would normally be detected, such as thyroid abnormalities, are being missed," Bunimovich explains.
Certain birth control pills, polycystic ovary syndrome and other hormone-related conditions can also lead to hair loss, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
"Stay on top of your health. Prioritize seeing your doctor for annual checkups and address any concerns and issues you may have," Bunimovich says.
The Bottom Line
If you notice that you're shedding more hair than usual—north of 100 hairs per day—see a gradual thinning of hair or your hairstylist or a loved one notices you might be experiencing increased hair loss, talk to your doctor. An initial assessment can help identify the underlying issue. If your primary care doctor can't quite pinpoint the hair-loss cause, ask for a referral to a dermatologist, Bunimovich says.
Your derm might recommend using a topical product that contains minoxidil (such as Rogaine; buy it: $47 for a 3-month supply, Amazon) as you wait for your body and locks to bounce back from TE or whatever is causing the excessive shedding.
Above all, "Don't let anyone dismiss your concerns about hair loss. We see patients come from other clinics and doctors where their concerns were not validated or addressed," Bunimovich explains. "Hair is such an important part of our identity and should be taken very seriously. Plus, there are conditions that, if not addressed early, can cause permanent hair loss. Always seek help early."