Like many stressed-the-F-out WFH moms, showers are my salvation, the no-kid zone where I can chill and vibe out to Alina Baraz. The shower also became a reminder of the simmering stress I felt deep within during the pandemic’s height. Every time I’d wash my hair, I’d feel my brown curls tumbling down my back and into the drain. A look in the mirror confirmed my worst fears: my hair was thinning along the hairline.
It was June, and as the COVID death toll climbed, sitting in a dermatologist’s office to talk about how effed up my hair had become was the last thing on my mind. But I had to do something—losing my hair felt like losing my superwoman powers.
Ever the neo-hippie, I poked around online for holistic help to get my edges back in full effect. I was already doing the Medical Medium celery juice thing, so I went full-throttle with his hair advice. I started taking an Ashwagandha supplement daily, and I switched to an all-natural shampoo and conditioner called Dermachange. I began drinking a swampy green heavy-metal detox smoothie loaded with spirulina. I even shelled out $300 on a Berkey water filter.
Perhaps something’s working; I’m visibly less sparse. So much so that my family and friends have volunteered that they’ve noticed.
I’m not the only one who experienced hair loss as a result of the shenanigans 2020 threw my way. “Long hauler” COVID survivors have reported unusual hair loss, but even those who haven’t contracted the virus have also reported Cousin It-sized clumps falling out of their heads. So what gives? Whether physical illness and stress, mental stress, or all three, hair loss is an inescapable reality of the COVID era. Basically, it’s not just you: the last year may have literally made your hair fall out. Read on for an explanation of WTF is going on and what you can do about it.
The Science Behind The Shed
Normal hair shedding is characterized by 50 to 100 strands a day. When it becomes excessive, you’ll almost certainly know—thanks to clogged drains, packed hair brushes, and hair everywhere—as will your doc. “We are seeing more patients with hair loss. Before the pandemic, I would [see] maybe five to eight patients a week. That number is now about 20 to 30 people a week we’re seeing,” says Cleveland Clinic dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal.
Although thyroid issues or medication can cause hair loss, Khetarpal says these days the diagnosis is most commonly telogen effluvium or shock hair loss—the type of hair loss people experience after a stressful event.
Hair typically has a three-cycle lifespan. A healthy scalp will have up to 90 percent of follicles in anagen, or an active growing phase, while the remainder will be in telogen, or a resting phase, followed by a shedding phase. But with someone experiencing telogen effluvium, about 30 percent of hairs will stop growing and enter the resting phase before falling out.
It can start at the temples, as mine initially did, or it can be throughout the scalp. The process will happen about two to four months after a significant stressor like surgery, childbirth, fever, infection (i.e. COVID), or continually stressing about the world ending and humanity as we know it going extinct. Ordinarily, telogen effluvium self-resolves. When a stressor is removed, the hair comes back. “What we’re finding with this pandemic is that people’s hair loss is continuing because the stress is still there.”
The process can also be called chronic telogen effluvium. “So, these are people in which the shedding lasts much longer—they never sort of get into that recovery phase.” There is also a condition called alopecia areata, which can flare during stressful times, says Dr. Sejal Shah of Smarter Skin Dermatology in NYC. The condition is defined by “well-defined bald patches. So, unlike telogen effluvium, where it’s just like thinning all over the scalp, alopecia areata tends to be a little more well-defined, and it usually gets fully bald,” she says.
What You Can Do About It
You don’t have to go full-on hippie to see hair improvements. Sometimes a wait-and-see approach is best, says Dr. Shah. “If someone has acute telogen effluvium, it’s short term, and it’s been a couple of months, I’ll normally say, let’s just wait it out and see what happens and ensure that their nutritional status is good, that they’re not having any undue stress, or anything like that. If it’s longer than that typical acute phase, then we start to do some investigations. So, I’ll usually send them for blood work; we’ll do a little bit more extensive workup in terms of, could it be something internal that’s promoting this.”
There is no real treatment to remedy telogen effluvium, says Shah, but Minoxidil, otherwise known as Rogaine, prescribed for traction alopecia and other hair problems, could do the trick. “There are Viviscal and Nutrafol, so I do talk to patients about those two supplements.” There’s also the option of having components from your very own blood, or Platelet-rich plasma (PRP), injected into trouble areas. A good, well-rounded diet that includes iron, enough fat, fatty acids, and protein also helps, as well as chilling out with heat styling and coloring, which can compound a hair loss problem.
And Khetarpal adds that stressing over your hair loss will only create a vicious cycle. It’s way easier said than done, to be sure, but she says, “Don’t stress about the hair. With so many things going on, they’re fortunate that they’re otherwise doing fine. [If] they’re not infected with COVID, know that it will pass.”
Images: Thought Catalog / Unsplash