By Robin Roberts
Are you finding more hair in the drain than on your head? Are your lovely locks suddenly brittle and breaking, limp and lifeless? Why are you plucking more grays than the week before? Your hairdresser knows for sure, as does your dermatologist. Deanna Kane, master hairdresser and education director for Vancouver’s Lure Salon, which has styled such famous domes as Avril Lavigne, Kirsten Dunst and Andy Samberg, and Dr. Anne Curtis, clinical dermatologist at Toronto’s Dermatology on Bloor, combed through six hair-raising conditions and what they could say about the state of your health.
At a Loss
We lose about 100 strands a day, which is natural. What is not natural is heavy shedding or hair falling out in clumps. “It is normal to have hair loss as we age due to the weakening follicles,” says Kane, “but sudden loss could be caused by a vitamin deficiency and I always recommend seeing a doctor.”
One particular doctor, Anne Curtis, will tell you hair loss can be indicative of a few issues. “A common condition, called telogen effluvium, is a fancy medical term for sudden shedding,” she says. It occurs when the number of hair follicles producing hair suddenly drops, causing diffuse thinning, often more so on top of the scalp than on the back or sides.
“The classic cause is after a woman has a baby,” says Dr. Curtis. “But it can also occur after any dramatic change or shock, such as an illness, surgery or crash diet. The body perceives crash dieting as famine and goes into emergency shut-down mode, which is not good for your hair.” What is good is that hair loss from these situations is reversible.
Some medications, including those for acne, beta blockers, anticoagulants, arthritis, depression, gout, high blood pressure, heart problems, steroids or birth control pills can cause hair loss, as can a vitamin D deficiency.
Some illnesses and diseases, such as severe infection or flu, high fever, cancer or thyroid disease, can cause hair loss but is usually temporary.
Patchy hair loss, called alopecia areata, or spot baldness, is an autoimmune disease which can also cause eyebrows and eyelashes to fall out. “It’s the hair version of vitiligo, where the immune system attacks pigment cells,” says Dr. Curtis, noting the reason is unknown.
Excessive styling, tight ponytails, braids and other hairstyles that pull on the hair can also cause hair to fall out. If you tenderly tend your tresses, however, see your doctor for testing for anemia, thyroid or autoimmune diseases.
The Thin Mane
“Obvious thinning at the temples could be a symptom of a thyroid [problem],” says Kane. “Also, if a woman is of menopausal age and is rapidly thinning, I recommend having her hormones checked.”
Dr. Curtis does just that, looking for such signs as a thyroid disorder, diabetes or iron deficiency, affecting women through monthly blood loss or in anyone lacking protein. “Unless you really like red meat, you can lose more iron every month than you’re taking in,” she says. “Iron deficiency by itself can cause hair loss and it can be a complicating factor,” in, say, a crash diet. “If there is a shortage of resources, then what iron there is will go into the formation of blood, not into the formation of hair.”
Dr. Curtis recommends getting your iron needs through diet, but if you’re a vegetarian or are not partial to protein-rich foods, take an iron supplement, not a multivitamin. Rebalancing your iron stores takes a surprisingly long time, she says — up to nine months.
Meantime, consider thickening products to boost your body.
Limp, Lifeless Locks
Most often the result of too much goop, Kane says, “Dull, limp, lifeless hair can be caused by product buildup and easily fixed with a clarifying treatment, which will remove product residue, chlorine or pollutants that may have attached on or in the hair shaft.”
Dr. Curtis agrees, noting the condition is more a result of how you look after your hair, what products you use and how often. “You don’t want to overdo it because your natural oils take the place of conditioners. If you shampoo every day you’re going to have to condition every day.”
Other experts suggest too much processed food can rob your hair of its shine, so focusing more on a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables should restore your lustrous locks.
Dry, Brittle, Breaking Hair
This is most often the result of over-processing, says Kane. “The outer layer of the hair shaft, the cuticle, is compromised usually from bleach or decolourization products,” she says. And wet hair is more fragile, so she recommends brushing your hair before you shower to minimize tangles or using a “wet brush” which she says will slide through any type of hair without snapping it.
“Blow drying in itself should not cause damage but the brush you use can,” she adds. “Round, boar hair brushes will not get tangled in your hair and will help smooth the hair shaft.” But too much hair left behind in the brush itself could also cause breakage, so clear it regularly.
“Straightening irons are also a huge factor in damaging hair,” says Kane. “Unlike curling irons, the surface of the flat iron stays in direct contact with the shaft longer and most people go over the same hair multiple times. I always recommend a heat protective product to reduce this damage.”
There is no cure for split ends, she says, so if you want to grow your hair, you can get a “dusting” every six to eight weeks, a process that removes less than regular cuts. She also recommends products like Oribe’s Split End Seal to protect the ends from further splitting.
Dr. Curtis adds that perming your hair can also cause it to dry out and break. “Perming solutions break apart bonds to enable the hair to set. Use a gentler relaxant applied for a shorter period of time and do it less often,” she advises.
She also debunks the theory that dehydration causes dry, brittle hair. “It’s more the way you’ve looked after your hair,” she says. “Hair is protein, it’s not in contact with the blood stream. So whether you’ve drunk 10 classes of water today is not going to hydrate your hair.”
Others point to certain medical conditions, such as Cushing’s syndrome or hypoparathyroidism, as well as low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and hair products containing alcohol, all of which can contribute to drying. You might also consider using satin as opposed to cotton pillow cases, which can catch and pull on your hair.
Itchy and Flaky Show
“Dry scalp, just like dry skin, could be an indicator of hormone changes, allergy or sensitivity to products,” says Kane. “Oftentimes it is fungal and can be easily treated with an anti-fungal shampoo.” Some hair stylists also recommend occasionally using an exfoliating scalp mask to slough off dead skin.
“Dandruff is technically called seborrheic dermatitis, which often occurs in oily scalp because of the overgrowth of yeast,” says Dr. Curtis. “That’s why most of the medicated shampoos for dandruff have active ingredients that kill yeast.” She says dandruff generally comes and goes, so use the appropriate shampoos as maintenance or whenever it flares up.
The Gray and the White
Dr. Curtis says graying is genetically predetermined, not a reflection of how you care for your coif or your health. When any of your roughly 100,000 hair follicles stop producing melanin, you’re left with gray or white, and there’s nothing that will reverse that.
“The medical belief that a shock turns you white has to do with alopecia areata. It may cause the dark hairs to fall out preferentially, leaving the white hairs [intact]. Stress could speed it up, but for most people it’s their genes.”
But don’t despair: if you’d rather not colour your grays, go au naturel with the many shampoos on the market formulated to bring out the unique shine and richness in gray, silver or white hair. Blue-hued shampoos, for example, can prevent your grays from taking on a purplish cast, and violet shampoos can counter-act a yellowish tone.
Since gray hairs have a tendency to be dry, use hydrating shampoos and conditioners or a shine spray to polish that silver.