Expert Q and A: Fighting Hair Loss in Women

An interview with Mary Gail Mercurio, MD.

From the WebMD Archives

Many women with hair loss suffer in silence, altering their hairstyle to hide thinning or patches. But the sooner you seek care, the better the chances of successfully treating it, says Mary Gail Mercurio, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

It's not as uncommon as you may think: As many as 5% of women under 30 and 60% of those older than 70 are affected, she says. At the recent meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Miami Beach, Fla., Mercurio discussed common forms of hair loss in women and treatment options.

What's the most common form of female hair loss?

Female-pattern hair loss, which usually has a strong genetic component that can be inherited from either the mother or father. Also referred to as androgenetic alopecia, this type of hair loss can start as early as the late teens -- and the earlier it starts, the more severe the hair loss tends to be.

Most women with pattern hair loss don't get a receding hairline or bald spot on top of the scalp as is common in men. Instead, there is visible thinning over the crown. In men and women, hairs are miniaturized because of a shortened growth cycle where the hair stays on the head for a shorter period of time. These wispy hairs, which resemble forearm hairs, do not achieve their usual length.

The first sign of hair loss that most women notice is often widening of their part or that their ponytail is smaller.

How is female hair loss treated?

Minoxidil (Rogaine) 5% is the only topical medication approved by the FDA for female-pattern hair loss. The once daily use foam treatment regrows hair in 81% of the women who try it. 

Liquid options of 2% and 5% solutions are available over the counter. Minoxidil works by prolonging the growth phase of hair -- providing more time for hair to grow out to its full density.

You have to be patient, as noticeable results usually take three to four months and the product must be used once a day. It tends to work better if started early.

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