Does Stress Really Cause Hair Loss?
The answer is complicated.
Right now, getting your hair cut or colored at a salon isn't a reality. That's why in the past month, the internet has been flooded with countless tutorials on how to cut your own hair and use box dye at home.
Becoming your own hairstylist is one hair struggle that's come up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but you may also be finding bigger clumps of hair in your shower drain, or your ponytail seems to be thinner than before daily life became so stressful.
Can a worrying and stressful situation like COVID-19 directly cause hair loss? We turned to two dermatologists who specialize in hair disorders to find out.
Can Stress Cause Hair Loss?
First off, hair shedding is completely normal. According to the Academy of American Dermatology (AAD), the average person sheds approximately 50 and 100 hairs a day. So, there's no need to worry if you have a few hairs in your shower drain or on your brush. But, if you're finding bigger clumps on your pillowcase or the overall density of your hair has changed, it could be related to stress if you've been under intense, prolonged mental or physiological pressure.
"I think it is a common misconception, even among medical professionals, that hair loss is usually caused by stress," says Dr. Brittany Craiglow, a board-certified dermatologist in Fairfield, CT. "One condition – telogen effluvium – can be associated with stress, but typically this is severe, prolonged psychological stress rather than lower level, day-to-day type of stress."
Telogen effluvium is characterized by excessive shedding, but you typically won't notice it until a few months after the stressor. One example the AAD gives is a new mom can see the increase in shedding two months after a physiological event like giving birth.
But why does it take so long for your hair to react to stress this way? It has to do with the hair growth cycle.
"Normally 85% of your hairs are in something called the anagen phase," explains Dr. Annie Chiu, board-certified dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute. "However, stressful events can shock your body and affect a lot of internal processes that cause hair that is in the anagen phase (the growing phase) to suddenly trigger to the resting, inactive stage (the telogen phase), which is when they can be shed."
Alopecia areata is another type of hair loss that's often connected to stress, but it doesn't have a direct link like telogen effluvium.
Characterized by circular bald patches, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that seems to be exacerbated by stress, but the people who experience this type of hair loss have a genetic predisposition to the disorder.
"For some, stress may be a trigger for alopecia areata, which is actually a disorder where the body’s immune system gets confused and attacks the hair follicle as a foreign object, causing inflammation to the hair follicle and subsequent hair loss in circular patches throughout the scalp," explains Dr. Chiu.
Dr. Craiglow says that many people with alopecia areata develop hair loss without any clear source of stress, so there are many potential triggers for the disorder.
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How Can You Treat and Prevent Hair Loss?
The silver lining: telogen effluvium typically corrects itself on its own. According to the AAD, hair will regain its thickness in approximately six to eight months, as your body readjusts from the stressor.
"There is some data that suggests people with low stores of iron may recover less quickly, so eating a diet rich in iron-containing foods may be helpful," says Dr. Craiglow.
Dr. Chiu adds that a supplement with biotin can help promote growth as telogen effluvium corrects itself. She recommends Nutrafol or Foligain, which also contain palmetto extract, known to help with hair health.
However, if you're concerned about hair loss, you should consult with a dermatologist that specializes in hair disorders so they can properly diagnose the cause and suggest a treatment plan.
"While there are a lot of products marketed towards people with hair loss, there is not much evidence that any of these are helpful," says Dr. Craiglow. "Being kind to the hair that you do have is important – meaning using gentle shampoos and avoiding harsh chemicals like bleach or straightening treatments."
As for how you can prevent stress, Dr. Chiu says to try to control your body's response to it. "Meditation, yoga, lavender aromatherapy, chamomile tea before bedtime, and doing what you find as self-care, in general, can help to slow down our stress brain waves."