It can affect both men and women, and may be very distressing. Find out why thinning hair happens, and how you can manage it
Written by Charlotte Haigh on February 20, 2019
Reviewed by Ricardo Vila Nova on February 28, 2019
We all lose, on average, up to 100 hairs every day so if you spot your hair in the plughole, don’t worry.
But if you notice more hair on your hairbrush than normal, or that your hair is looking more sparse on your head, you could be experiencing hair thinning. At the very least, this can dent your confidence, while for others, it can be very distressing.1 This guide will give you the lowdown on what’s causing your thinning, and how to tackle it.
What is thinning hair?
Thinning hair is when you lose more hair than you grow, and the term usually refers to mild to moderate hair loss. It tends to happen gradually – changes in quantity or density can take two to three years to reflect on the hair. Rather than total baldness, you might notice areas on your head where your hair looks thinner;2 either because individual hairs have reduced in diameter or there are simply fewer of them.
Causes of thinning hair
Here are the most common reasons for permanent hair thinning:
1. Getting older
Gradual hair loss, particularly from the top of the head, can be blamed on ageing and your genes, and is called male or female pattern hair loss:3
Male pattern hair loss (MPHL) can start from puberty onwards, although it’s more common with age and affects 50% of men over 50. MPHL usually starts with a receding hairline and the loss of hair from the crown of the head.4
Female pattern hair loss (FPHL) usually begins in your 50s or 60s, and tends to involve more wide-spread thinning on the crown.5
Why does age-related thinning happen?
As we get older, the hairs produced by the follicles become thinner, shorter and lighter in colour. Eventually the follicles shrink and stop producing hairs completely. For both sexes, this tendency can run in families.6,7
2. Your hormones
For women, it’s not just about ageing – hormones play a role in developing FPHL, too. Oestrogen is thought to have a protective effect on hair, so its decline after menopause may contribute to thinning.8
Younger woman with PCOS may also experience FPHL. In this case, it’s caused by raised levels of hormones called androgens, for example testosterone, which trigger a shorter cycle of hair growth – leading to shorter, finer hairs.9
Temporary hair loss
There’s also a temporary type of hair thinning in which the growth cycle of hair is disrupted – this is called telogen effluvium, or diffuse alopecia. It happens when more hairs move into the shedding phase than the growth phase, but usually resolves itself.
- giving birth
- severe stress
- serious illness
- extreme dieting or weight loss
- certain medications, for example antibiotics, hormonal or steroid-based medication
What to eat to support thinning hair
Permanent hair thinning is most commonly related to genetics and ageing and, sadly, you can’t prevent it.12 But whatever the cause, make sure your diet gives you hair that’s as strong as possible by eating plenty of the following nutrients:
- protein – it contains keratin, which is also what hair’s made of, so include plenty in your diet in the form of lean meat, legumes, nuts and dairy13
- iron – a 2013 Seoul National University study found that women with FPHL had lower levels of iron.14 It’s in legumes, eggs, spinach and meat15
- zinc – a deficiency of this mineral, needed for healthy hair,16 is linked to the development of telogen effluvium, according to a 2018 Chilean review.17 Sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, dairy food and shellfish, including oysters18
- vitamin D – low levels of vitamin D have been found in women with both FPHL and telogen effluvium, according to the above review.19 Get it from sunlight, oily fish, egg yolks and mushrooms, or consider a supplement20
Read more: How to prevent hair thinning
When to speak to your doctor
Hair loss can be a symptom of an underlying health problem, like a thyroid disorder, so book an appointment with your doctor first. There are medicated scalp treatments and medication that can help, and a trichologist may offer a hair and scalp analysis to discover the cause of the problem.21
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. NHS. Hair loss
2. Kristeen Cherney. Healthline. 12 Ways to Stop Hair Thinning
3. Mayo Clinic. Hair Loss
4. British Association of Dermatologists. Male Pattern Hair Loss
5. British Association of Dermatologists. Female Pattern Hair Loss
6. As Source 4
7. As Source 5
8. Women’s Health Concern. Menopausal Hair Loss
9. US National Library of Medicine. Androgenetic alopecia
10. British Association of Dermatologists. Telogen effluvium
11. Ana Gotter. Healthline. What Medications Can Cause Hair Loss, And What Can You Do About It?
12. As Source 3
13. Jo Lewin. BBC Good Food. What to eat for healthy hair
14. Park SY, et al. Iron Plays a Certain Role in Patterned Hair Loss
15. As Source 13
16. European Commission. EU Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods
17. Ruiz-Tagle SA, et al. Micronutrients in hair loss
18. National Institutes of Health. Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
19. As above
20. NHS. Vitamin D
21. As Source 3