I grew up with immense follicular privilege. Thick, lustrous, bouncy curls sprouted from my head in childhood and grew into a mane of carefree spirals in my mid-teens. So effortlessly did this head hedge grow, and so little maintenance did I have to perform on it, that I recklessly took its existence for granted, thinking I’d be top-heavy forever.
Until I wasn’t. Over the past few years, my curls have been dying a slow death, dwindling into lanky, lifeless strands. I’ve tried every curl product ever made, but wearing my hair naturally is a thing of the past, and regular blowouts are now a weekly chore. Besides the added burden of maintenance, I feel a stripping of identity. Curly hair was my signature look. Is my Memoji even me without curls? Of all the varieties of existential crises I imagined being struck by, a lack of hair was never on the list.
In an effort to figure out what was happening, I diligently made my way down a list of known hair stressors: Hereditary hair loss, impaired thyroid function, hormonal imbalances, fad diets, trauma, or severe stress. None of those really applied, but in ruling them out I uncovered a very vital truth: My hair was — no other word for it — aging. I had spent so much time and effort keeping my eyes peeled for the signs of skin aging that I had completely missed the fact that hair was prone to decline, too.
And in a strange twist, my gestational status complicates matters. I’m six months pregnant, but instead of experiencing typically pregnancy-related lush hair, I’ve noticed a deterioration instead, which could be a function of hormones at work.
“Hair aging is most definitely a thing,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco. She says the four most common symptoms are texture changes, characterized by strands not being as full, shiny, or manageable as they were; thinning or “miniaturizing” in which individual hairs become thinner; overall thinning, where the total number of hair reduces; and lastly, greying. I check off all those symptoms, but strangely, the first three bother me more than the last.
“When hair is thick and lustrous, it can look amazing even if gray. If you’re not thinning and still growing hairs that are gray, but healthy and full, then many women would accept that over time,” says Lars Skjoth, the founder and head scientist of Harklinikken, a chain of Danish hair clinics that opened an outpost in New York earlier this year.
Skjoth has been studying hair miniaturizing for over a decade. “When hair miniaturizes, the hair follicle shrinks more and more, yielding finer and finer hair.” That’s when the blush of youth fades and all the signs of healthy hair disappears — hair is drier and more brittle, with less luster and shine, it doesn’t grow long as easily, and curly hair becomes frizzy. “It’s a very gradual process for men and women called andro-genetic alopecia,” says Skjoth.
Trichologist Anabel Kingsley (a “hair doctor”) at the Philip Kingsley Trichology Clinic explains the mechanics of that alarming-sounding phrase in more detail. “Men and women both have male hormones and in some people, the hair follicles are overly sensitive to the circulating levels of male hormones, very slowly getting smaller and producing hairs that are slightly finer and slightly shorter.” Men, in a rare display of universal justice, suffer the consequences more acutely, losing hair at the top until they’re left with that horseshoe shaped swatch at the back of the head. Women experience more of an overall reduction on the top, sides and crown, which doesn’t often manifest as balding. You might notice your hairline slowly moving back, your part widening, or your ponytail shrinking — that’s when the pros say you should seek help.
Kinglsey and I had an hour-long chat where we discussed my grandfather’s hair (he had a full head into his 70s), my red meat-eating frequency (grim, but I’m willing to increase it for vanity) and the state of my body hair (lasered, so no clues there). She went full mad scientist on me for a second when I showed her the truly bleak bloodwork results for my ferritin levels, a protein which relates to how much iron your body stores. “Ooh it’s so low, that makes me SO happy,” she trilled, as she peered at my scalp with a magnifying device, determining low stored iron reserves as the reason for the thinning hair around my temples.
Similarly, with Skjoth, there was sharing of family history and some more scrutinizing of my hair bulbs under a lighted, magnifying apparatus. Here, however, the pronouncement was more dire: He determined that I have probably been slowly thinning since my early or mid-20s, which, ironically, is the time I look fondly back on as my hair heyday. Just the sheer volume of my hair had stopped me from noticing earlier.
Andro-genetic alopecia has two causes: hormones or/and genes. While you can’t wage much of a war against your DNA, you can, at least, turn off the hormones from causing greater havoc. Both Skjoth and Kingsley’s clinics have proprietary products that help with that. “The future looks good for people with this problem, but early intervention is key,” says Dr Fusco. There’s a world of treatments out there that can be experimented with: low level light therapy, platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections, supplements like Nutrafol, and prescription drugs such as spironolactone. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment; approaches have to be tailored depending on the cause of thinning, and it could take a bit of trial and error to land on a winning, follicle-stimulating formula.
However, experts agree that good supportive care is also vital: eating a healthy diet and taking vitamins to supplement nutritional deficiencies is key. And if you’re the type to regularly miss breakfast or have a skimpy lunch, Kingsley would have you know those meals are the most important for hair. “If you skip breakfast, by the time you have lunch your body is super hungry from fasting all those hours and has a billion things it needs to take care of. Since hair is a non-essential tissue it’s not going to get any vitamins, minerals and energy and will never have what it needs to be healthy.”
Dr. Fusco suggests recruiting your hair stylist as a lookout. “Ask your hairdresser, ‘Is my part getting a little wider? Do you see more scalp?’” Your family tree could also provide some early hints: if you mother or father had hair density changes, it’s likely that you can inherit that predisposition, but it can be traced back to grandparents or even great-grandparents, says Kingsley. I always knew there was a scientific reason to blame family for all kinds of dysfunction, even the follicular sort.
I’m strategizing a careful plan of attack post-baby, but until then, I’ll just fake a full head of hair with volumnizing, anti-thinning, and thickening shampoos; conditioners; and styling aids, hoping to regain some curl and fake some more hair. Here are the best eight ones that I tried.
The Volumizing Shampoo That Smells Like Fanta
Briogeo Blossom and Bloom Ginseng + Biotin Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner
The Shampoo-Conditioner Duo That Made My Hair Huge
The One by Frédéric Fekkai The Uplifting One Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner
Vendor: Ulta Beauty
The Shampoo-Conditioner Duo That Perfected My Curls
Rahua Voluminous Shampoo and Conditioner
A Custom 3-Step Routine
Prose Pre-Shampoo Mask, Shampoo and Conditioner
An Ayurvedic Spa Experience With Long-Term Promise
AVEDA Invati Advanced System
A Vegan Volumizing Duo
ColorProof BioRepair-8 Anti-Thinning Shampoo and Conditioner
A Hair Mask for Hydration
Philip Kingsley Elasticizer Extreme
Vendor: Neiman Marcus
The Spray That Gives the Mother of All Zhuzhes
ORIBE Thick Dry Finishing Spray
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