Hair loss for a woman can be a lot more traumatic than for a man. Fiona Tyrrell reports
Traditionally classed as a male problem, most women will experience hair loss at some time in their lives. However, for some the problem is so severe it can "tear a life asunder".
Diffuse thinning of the hair is the most common form of hair loss among women, according to Gerry Hynes, who as consultant tricologist with Peter Mark treats a lot of women who are worried about hair loss.
"Alopecia is not a dirty word, all it means is hair loss. The fear factor associated with hair loss is huge."
Although as much as 75 per cent of the population will have some form of hair loss in their lives, for some the experience will be very traumatic, Mr Hynes explains. Stress, diet, iron deficiency and medication are some of the causes of hair loss, he says.
"Hair loss can tear a life asunder. I have come across women who have had possible suicidal tendencies because they are young and losing their hair. Sinead O'Connor made a huge statement by shaving her head but she was stunning looking. When you get someone who has a thyroid condition, has put on weight and has hair loss they think that they are at the end of the road."
Some women will become so stressed about their hair loss they will start pulling out their own hair (a condition called trichotilomania). "At that stage it is well out of my hands and I refer them to a councillor," he says.
There are as many as two dozen causes of hair loss, according Dr Gillian Murphy, consultant dermatologist at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. However, genetic factors and childbirth are the most common causes of hair loss and thinning of hair in women, she says.
Alopecia takes many forms. One of the most dramatic forms is alopecia areata, which affects both men and women and starts with bald patches on the head. For some the condition develops into alopecia totalis where all scalp hair is lost, sometimes along with the eyebrows and eyelashes. For others this turns into alopecia universalis where all the hair on the entire body falls out.
Far more common, however, is androgenetic alopecia, common hereditary hair loss, which affects both men and women. The role of genetics in hair loss in men is well known. However, the impact of genetics on female hair loss is less recognised, according to Dr Murphy.
"It is not normally appreciated that it doesn't just run on the male side. The difference is that women don't just go bald by in large, they hold on to their hair but they do thin."
Thinning of the hair is normal in women. Most women will not have the same hair they had when they were teenagers when they are middle-aged, Dr Murphy says. It is important for women to come to terms with their own hair growth and their genetic disposition, according to Dr Murphy.
Once women understand that a change is expected and that it is normal, they don't get too upset about it, she says. However, women who have a genetic disposition to hair loss and have thin hair to begin with can feel "very vulnerable" because you can see their scalp through their hair, she says.
Hair loss or hair thinning after childbirth is very common, says Dr Murphy who estimates that up to 50 per cent of women are affected by what is termed telogen effluvium, which is an abnormal loss of hair due to alteration of the normal hair cycle.
At any given time, about 80 per cent of the hairs on the average person's head are actively growing (the anagen phase) and the others are resting (the telogen phase).
However, a traumatic episode in someone's life, such as a car accident, a serious illness or childbirth, can trigger telogen effluvium, pushing a greater proportion of the hairs to enter the resting phase of the cycle. Two to three months after the traumatic episode hair shedding is greater than normal. In most cases, hair will grow back in about six months.
Television presenter and Bucks Fizz member Cheryl Baker is among the many women who has experienced hair loss. She always had thin hair but this got considerably worse on the birth of her twins 10 years ago. The onset of menopause didn't help. Cheryl says she was "deflated" by her problem and professionally having "see-through hair" on TV was a big issue. "It's a taboo subject. You think that you are the only woman this has happened to."
In the past six months Cheryl has been using a food supplement called Nourkrin, which she says has "dramatically" improved her hair.
Telogen effluvium after birth is very common and some people don't even notice it. No treatment is needed for most cases, according to Dr Murphy. However, she recommends that people ensure that they have enough iron in their system for maximum re-growth.
It is also important, she warns, to identify an underlying cause for the problem, because hair loss can also be an indication of other problems such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid problems and reaction to strong medication.
Dr Murphy says that women "by and large will go thin but will hold on to their hair".
There are exceptions, and for those she recommends a visit to a tricologist to find ways of cosmetically improving hair, such as wigs and extensions.
Case Study: emotional turmoil
Geraldine Cummins from Knocklyon, Dublin, was in her early 20s when she first started losing her hair. The all over thinning of her hair, which started after the birth of her son, was so bad that the parting in her usually thick black hair was half an inch wide.
"My hair became see-through and came out in handfuls when I washed it. It was very upsetting. When I went out in the evening I would always look for somewhere dark to sit, somewhere in the shadows."
Geraldine's hair loss was the first indication of polycystic ovarian syndrome, which was not diagnosed for some time. The condition is often associated with high levels of male hormones. Other symptoms experienced by Geraldine included acne and hirsutism. Hair loss, however, was by far the most difficult of the symptoms to manage, according to Geraldine.
The "emotional turmoil" from her hair loss was "devastating". "I tried to cover up with a baseball cap or hair band. I believe that a woman's crowning glory is her hair. A woman with hair loss will always be stared at but a man will be accepted. I know inwardly men go through hell, but socially they are more accepted."
Geraldine tried a lot of "gimmicky" products which promised quick recovery from hair loss. However, it was a marine-based food supplement called Nourkrin which gave her relief from the most distressing aspect of her condition.
"The results were quite good. My hair grew much faster and much thicker. It is much shinier and healthier and my hair loss has slowed down. My condition is not curable, the secret is to manage the symptoms."