Why Your Hair Is Thinning Postpartum and What to Do About It
If your ponytail is getting skimpier or your part is widening, then you’re among the majority of women who will experience this at some point. Happily, there’s a lot you can do about it, postpartum and beyond.
“Shortly after giving birth, I found myself leaving a trail of hair wherever I went,” says Marci, a mom of two in Saline, Michigan. “I saw hair on the shower drain, my clothing, my brush ...”
It’s an experience many women have, and yet shame around it is common. Although there are signs that the veil may be lifting on hair loss in women—earlier this year, actress Ricki Lake revealed on social media that she has struggled with the issue for decades—the moms interviewed for this story asked to have their last names withheld.
Doctors say it’s in fact typical to lose between 50 and 150 strands of hair a day. But if you’re experiencing more loss than that—300 strands or more, or a clump the size of a golf ball—and the shedding has been going on for more than two months, “it’s time to take action,” says Michelle Henry, M.D., a dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City.
Find the Cause
This will vary from woman to woman, and sometimes there’s more than one culprit. “Occasionally, shedding could be indicative of a health condition—such as thyroid disease, anemia, or an autoimmune disease—or a hormonal imbalance or nutrition deficiency,” Dr. Henry says. That’s why it’s worth seeing a dermatologist who can test for these things. Otherwise, most mothers between the ages of 20 and 45 have hair loss because of major stress or genetics.
Surgery, trauma (like a devastating event), a serious illness or a new medication, and yes, pregnancy and having a baby, can cause your body to funnel blood and nutrients to areas more vital than your scalp. “When your body is under stress, hair gets the shaft,” says dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D. “During pregnancy, your system is supporting two humans, and for you and your baby, the brains, kidneys, and lungs get priority.” Depriving hair follicles of nourishment for this extended period of time causes the hair to shed; many moms notice the (literal) fallout four to six months after delivery, or later for moms who continue to breastfeed.
Hair development has two major stages: The first is growth (called anagen), and the second is shedding (called telogen). These tend to stay in balance until we experience hard-core stress, which sends more strands into the shedding stage (a condition called telogen effluvium). “It happens to hair all over the head, but it’s more obvious in areas where hair was sparser to start, such as the temples,” Dr. Goldenberg says. Assuming the stressful event is over, hair should go back to its normal stages in six months to a year.
Hereditary factors are the other common causes of hair loss for moms. “Over 50 percent of women experience a condition called androgenetic alopecia, or female-pattern hair loss,” says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., a dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. “It’s caused by a sensitivity to hormones like testosterone. When receptors on the scalp encounter them, hair falls out. Women may notice it as early as their 20s, but it tends to ramp up with age,” Dr. Henry says. “One of the first signs is that hair comes in finer and weaker.” Then the part line widens. After that, hair tends to fall out in a Christmas tree pattern: A bird’s-eye view of the head shows “branches” of visible scalp extending from either side of the middle part, especially near the forehead, or “base” of the tree, and narrowing to a point at the back of the head. Unlike the shedding that happens from stress, this is chronic and needs ongoing treatment.
Devise a Strategy
Whether the cause is stress or genetics, there are a variety of treatments but, unfortunately, “no silver bullets,” Dr. Henry says. Many women get results from trying a combination of options.
Minoxidil is a popular over-the-counter topical treatment for any kind of hair loss. Find it in Women’s Rogaine, which has 2 percent and 5 percent formulas. “It’s safe, most people can tolerate it, and it’s clinically proven to work,” Dr. Henry says. It promotes blood flow to the scalp, ensuring that follicles are nourished, and may also increase an enzyme inside the follicle so it holds on to hair longer. Jennifer, a mom in Brooklyn, New York, started using minoxidil drops for hair loss that began postpartum, then stuck with it because of a genetic predisposition to thinning. “The drops are part of my daily routine. I see regrowth in sparse spots, and things certainly haven’t gotten worse. Did they bring back the hair I had in my 20s? No. But they definitely helped,” she says.
“Minoxidil is a lifelong commitment if your hair-loss condition is chronic,” Dr. Henry says. “But if thinning is from pregnancy or sudden stress, use it to jump-start regrowth, then wean off it.” Botanicals that increase circulation to the scalp may also help, especially in conjunction with minoxidil. Dr. Henry recommends rosemary oil.
A vitamin deficiency or a diet that’s too low in protein can also exacerbate hair loss, says Dr. Henry, who suggests eating lean protein daily and taking a hair-specific supplement like Nutrafol for Women or Viviscal Advanced Hair Health Supplements. Just know that hair supplements often contain marine collagen, so avoid them if you have a fish or seafood allergy.
“Then, for genetic hair loss, there’s a prescription blood-pressure medication called spironolactone,” Dr. Goldenberg adds. It decreases testosterone, the hormone that can cause hair to fall out.
Fake It Till You Make It
Tight ponytails, braids, or extensions can make hair loss worse with what’s called traction alopecia. “Chronic tension can stop follicles from producing strands, so vary the way you do your hair,” says New York City stylist Nunzio Saviano. Also, spray a temporary hair tint, such as L’Oréal Paris Magic Root Cover Up along your part line to help hide a bare scalp. If you use dry shampoo, try Évolis Professional Style + Treat Dry Shampoo; it has nourishing botanicals like green tea. Then, to help prevent buildup, which can block hair from sprouting, use Head & Shoulders Supreme Exfoliating Scalp Scrub Treatment weekly.
Promising (But Pricey) Hair Procedures
- Per some studies, red LED light can make hair stronger. Dr. Gary Goldenberg recommends Revian Red Hair Growth System, a helmet that you wear once a day for ten minutes.
- Your derm can use a nonablative fractionated laser, like the Lutronic LaseMD, to “stimulate the hair follicles, which can extend hair’s growth phase,” Dr. Melissa Levin says. Expect six sessions ($700 each).
- You can have your own platelet-rich plasma injected into your scalp (yes, it hurts) to help the cells produce more hair, Dr. Levin says. Ideally, you’d do three treatments within three months ($750 each).
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2020 issue as “Thinning Hair? Help Is Here.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here