Female Pattern Hair Loss – Symptoms, Causes & Treatments
Female pattern hair loss or female pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) is a type of hair loss that affects women. Male pattern baldness is a similar condition, but the hair loss occurs differently. Those with androgenetic alopecia have a stunted hair growth cycle and tend to be prone to increased hair shedding.
Typically, female pattern hair loss is a hereditary condition, meaning it’s caused by the genes inherited from your parents. However, hormones and age are factors that can increase the likelihood of a person developing it, especially after the menopause when the estrogen levels drop.
There are three stages medical professionals use to determine the severity of female pattern hair loss, and the earlier you seek treatment, the more hair you can save. Although there isn’t a cure for female pattern baldness, there are a wide selection of women's hair loss treatments that can help to protect your current hair and encourage new growth.
Whereas male pattern hair loss begins at the front of the head and gradually recedes until the person is completely bald, female hair loss occurs differently. Women may experience hair thinning at the crown and top of the scalp, starting with a widening at the hair part. It’s rare for women with this medical condition to have near or total baldness and those who do experience it are less likely than men to have a receding hairline.
Hair loss stages
Three stages are used to describe female pattern hair loss and they differ slightly to the signs of male pattern baldness. The first, known as type one, is characterised by minimal hair thinning that can be camouflaged by certain hair styling techniques. Type two features reduced volume and visible widening at the hair part. Type three is when there’s extreme hair loss at the crown. By this stage, as the hair is so thin, it will take on a transparent appearance and the scalp will show through.
What are the different types of hair loss?
There isn’t just one type of hair loss – in fact, there are several different types. Some are genetic while others are typical of stress-related hair loss. They all display varying symptoms, severities and levels of permanence, too.
Androgenic alopecia is a genetic type of hair loss that’s better known as male and female pattern baldness. It’s characterised by a receding hairline and the slow disappearance of hair from the crown, but most women will only notice hair changes from their late forties.
Alopecia areata starts suddenly, resulting in patchy hair loss, usually present in children and young adults. For some people, this type of alopecia causes total baldness, however, for the majority, hair will return within a few years.
Alopecia universalis causes all of your body hair to fall out – yes, that includes your eyebrows, eyelashes and pubic hair!
Telogen effluvium is when your hair temporarily thins across the scalp due to the changes in your hair’s growth cycle. Many of the hairs on your head enter a resting phase at the same time, stopping growth. This causes hair shedding and, subsequently, thinning.
Trichotillomania or ‘hair pulling disorder’ is a psychological disorder where you cannot resist the urge to pull out your own hair. You might pull out the hair on your head or on other parts of your body, like your eyebrows or eyelashes. It’s more common in children.
Traction alopecia is caused when your hair is frequently pulled and put under stress. It’s common among women who wear tight braids or ponytails, or those who use a lot of heat and dyes. Thankfully, it can be reversed if you stop the damage, but if you don’t step in soon enough, it can cause permanent hair loss.
What causes hair loss in women?
Discovering the cause of your hair loss isn’t an easy task. It can range from genetics to taking too much or too little of certain vitamins. Some things are more obvious to detect, like chemotherapy, drastic weight loss, stress or whether you’ve just started or switched-up your contraceptive pill. If you’re unsure about the cause or you’re worried about your hair loss, you should always book in to see your GP for advice.
Hair loss during pregnancy and postpartum is normal, despite it not being particularly common. When you’re pregnant and even after you’ve given birth, your hormones will be going through some vast changes.
You may find that your hair has become thin or experience an increase in hair shedding. This peaks around four months postpartum, but thankfully, you’re likely to regain your normal hair growth within six to nine months after giving birth.
Just like when you’re pregnant, when the menopause hits, your body is going through a lot of hormonal changes. Research suggests that during the menopause, your body produces less of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which help hair to grow and stay on the head. Thus, when these hormone levels drop, hair grows slower and can become much thinner.
When these hormones decrease, it triggers an increase in androgen production, a group of male hormones. These androgens shrink hair follicles, causing you to lose hair. Sometimes, these hormones can result in hair growth on the face.
Like all medicines, the contraceptive pill can cause side effects in some people. You might find that your hair loss starts when you start taking the pill or even after you stop taking it. If you’re particularly sensitive to the hormones in the contraceptive pill or you have a history of hormone-related hair loss, you could be at risk.
Extreme stress, like the loss of a loved one or a difficult divorce, can cause many different types of hair loss, such as telogen effluvium, trichotillomania and alopecia areata. Thankfully, it’s possible for your hair to grow back in time, but how long this takes will differ for everyone.
Drastic weight loss
If you’ve noticed hair loss and you’ve recently lost a lot of weight in a very short time period, whether it’s through crash dieting or weight loss surgery, this could be the cause. Drastic weight loss puts stress on your body, and it’s likely you wouldn’t be getting enough essential vitamins and minerals, protein and healthy fats for your hair to stay strong and healthy.
This seems like an obvious one, but your hair can fall out during chemotherapy. The drugs used during chemotherapy treatments are powerful, necessary for attacking growing cancer cells, but these drugs can also attack other cells in your body, including your hair roots.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t just affect the hair on your head, but your entire body. Some of these drugs are more likely to cause hair loss than others, with some causing hair thinning and bald spots to complete baldness. For the majority of people, this hair loss is temporary and you can expect to see new hair growth within three to six months after your treatment finishes.
Taking too many or too little vitamins
Both taking too much of certain vitamins and being vitamin deficient are equal contenders to hair loss. Over-supplementing selenium, vitamin A and vitamin E have been linked to hair loss, while being deficient in vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, zinc and biotin (vitamin B7) are known to contribute to hair loss, too.
Some types of hair loss are genetic, like female pattern baldness, otherwise known as androgenetic alopecia. It’s very similar to male pattern baldness, but hair loss in women usually occurs in different places. Although female pattern baldness is typically hereditary, your age and hormones can also play a role.
Conditions and disorders
There are a range of conditions that can cause hair loss in women, from thyroid disorders and anaemia, to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and skin conditions like psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. This is why it’s important to diagnose and manage the underlying cause of your hair loss – odds are, once the condition is under control, so will your hair loss.
Certain hairstyles and hair treatments
Consider this: your hair loss might be self-inflicted. Do you have cornrows or tightly braided hair? Or maybe you frequently style it with heat and use dyes and chemical treatments – even roughly towel drying your hair can cause damage!
These things can take its toll – your hair isn’t invincible, after all! They can cause something known as traction alopecia, and it can cause permanent hair loss. But if you spot the signs early and seek treatment, the issue can be resolved.
When diagnosing female pattern hair loss, your GP will start by examining the pattern of hair loss on the scalp; additionally, they may also take a blood test to measure hormone levels, serum ferritin and thyroid function.
When to speak to your doctor:
Losing some hair is normal. In fact, we lose around 50-100 hairs per day without noticing.
It’s when you notice a sudden change in your hair’s thickness or a severe amount of hair loss that it’s time to make an appointment with your GP.
The same applies if you develop bald spots or you’re losing hair in clumps.
During the first stage of female pattern hair loss, you’re likely able to hide the early signs of hair loss through adopting a new hair styling technique. Eventually, however, it will become too difficult to disguise.
Thankfully, there are treatments for female pattern hair loss available. It’s recommended getting a diagnosis early to not only protect your current hair, but to encourage new hair to grow.
Minoxidil is an over-the-counter (OTC) topical treatment for both men and women suffering from pattern baldness. Minoxidil belongs to a group of medicines known as ‘vasodilators’, meaning it works by expanding the blood vessels and improving the blood flow to the area affected by hair loss.
Additionally, it’s thought to reverse the shrinkage of hair follicles and extend each follicle’s growth phase, resulting in thicker, healthier hair. It’s recommended for women to use 2% minoxidil, while for men it’s 5%. Minoxidil isn’t suitable to be used if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. If you’re unsure, speak to your doctor for advice.
There’s another prescription medicine known as Finasteride, a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor that works by blocking the DHT hormone in your scalp. This hormone can reduce the growth cycle of hair, causing thinning and hair loss. However, Finasteride is only suitable to be used for the treatment of male pattern baldness; there isn’t a female alternative.
Alternative women’s hair loss treatments include caffeine shampoo, which works by stimulating the hair follicles into producing new, healthy hair growth. Some people claim that supplements can promote hair growth, but there’s no clinical evidence to support this.
Hair transplants, wigs, extensions and weaves are also an option for those suffering from female pattern hair loss, but they can be expensive. It’s important to bear in mind that by frequently putting your hair under stress by wearing tight hairstyles or attaching weaves and hair extensions increases your risk of developing traction alopecia.
Living with alopecia
Living with female pattern baldness doesn’t just affect your outer appearance; it can impact your self-esteem and lower your confidence, too. Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for female pattern baldness, but it can be managed with the treatment options listed above.
Hair growth is unpredictable and can take time, so it’s essential that you’re patient with yourself. However, life will be easier if you try to accept your hair loss and learn to live with the change in your appearance. Start by making a list of all your good qualities and focus on celebrating them.
There are also alopecia support groups here in the UK where you can meet and socialise with other people living with alopecia, something that may help you to accept your condition.
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