Tracy Pittin was just 17 when she discovered that her thick, brown hair was gradually falling out. One day a friend cutting her hair remarked that it was noticeably thinner. Tracy couldn't believe it -- she thought her hair was her best feature, and to begin to lose it at such an early age was devastating. Unable to accept what was happening, Tracy avoided professional stylists -- anyone who might draw attention to the loss. As her hair thinned, her self-esteem declined, too.
"There simply was no information about hair loss or treatments available to women at that time," Tracy says. "It just wasn't talked about." With nowhere to go for help or answers, she went into denial. She told herself the loss was temporary, perhaps related to a crash diet she had tried. But it wasn't, and her hair only got thinner.
Although women in Tracy's position often feel alone, they aren't. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nearly half of all adults in the U.S. will experience thinning hair by age 40. And while baldness is largely considered a male problem, for every five men who experience hair loss, there are three women who suffer as well. Hair-loss treatments are typically advertised for men, but effective options exist for women, too. But to get them, women must move beyond denying their hair loss and seek help.
Getting to the Root of Things
Determining the cause of the problem is the first step, says Richard S. Greene, MD, co-chairman of Advanced Dermatology Management and managing partner in Skin and Cancer Associates in Plantation, Fla. Greene recommends that women see a primary care physician or dermatologist for a complete workup to rule out any underlying causes, such as malnutrition, hormonal imbalances, or the autoimmune diseases lupus and scleroderma. Sometimes pregnancy, a reaction to a medication, or stress may cause hair to fall out in large clumps; fortunately, this problem usually reverses on its own.
Oddly enough, the most common type of hair loss in women like Tracy -- female pattern baldness -- is caused by testosterone, a hormone we typically associate with men. But women's bodies produce it, too. When testosterone breaks down, a chemical called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, is created, says Spenser David Kobren, founder and director of The Bald Truth Foundation and author of the book The Truth About Women's Hair Loss. In his book, Kobren explains that in both female and male pattern baldness, DHT attacks the hair follicle, causing it to shrink in diameter and produce smaller and thinner hairs until they become baby-fine or stop growing at all, allowing the scalp to become more visible. This type of hair loss frequently responds to treatment with medications or, in some cases, surgery.