Many doctors report an uptick in patients suffering from stress-related hair loss. Here’s what to do about it.
With every month that passed in 2020, Samantha Hill’s part seemed to widen, the increasingly bald stripe of skin a representation of what she calls “a four-part terrible play” in her life. Reeling from the death of her father in January, Ms. Hill, a 29-year-old freelance photographer, had barely adjusted to her new normal when the pandemic hit and further upended her life.
After the death of a friend in June, when her hair appeared to thin even more, she created a folder on her phone titled Hairgate, featuring every selfie she’d taken in the last four years.
“I was trying to figure out where it all went wrong,” said Ms. Hill, who lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
It’s a quandary many people, particularly women, have agonized over in recent months, as their brushes and shower drains filled with tangles of hair. Google searches for hair loss increased by 8 percent in the last 12 months, according to the data science firm Spate, with the topic being searched an average of more than 829,000 times a month in the United States.
The phenomenon is not all in our heads, according to experts, but is another frustrating byproduct of both immense stress and post-viral inflammation from Covid-19. Known as telogen effluvium in the medical world, temporary hair loss results from fever, illness and severe stress, pushing more hairs than normal into the shedding phase of the hair growth life cycle.
Although hair loss tends to be associated with men because of the prevalence of male-pattern baldness, telogen effluvium is more common among women, who often experience it after childbirth.
“Any type of severe stress can trigger it, whether it’s stress on your body from illness or emotional stress such as the death of a loved one,” said Dr. Abigail Cline, a dermatologist at New York Medical College who has conducted research on pandemic-related hair loss. “Even though not everyone has been infected with Covid-19, we’re all living with it.”
For those who have had the virus, hair loss has become a common symptom of the recovery process, usually occurring three to four months after getting sick but sometimes experienced sooner. Dr. Jerry Shapiro, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health who specializes in hair loss, said that while a healthy head of hair usually includes 90 percent anagen, or growing, hairs and 10 percent telogen, or resting, hairs, that ratio can shift up to 50-50 after experiencing a high fever or flulike illness.
For Misty Gant, a 35-year-old wellness coach living on the Lower East Side, the change happened fast. After being infected in March, Ms. Gant started losing handfuls of her long red hair in the shower and began to notice balding at her temples a few weeks after recovering.
“It was really hard because my hair is important to me — it’s part of my identity,” she said, noting that before it thinned, it was her most complimented feature.
Ms. Gant, who regularly dives into health and wellness research for clients, soon landed in forums full of people who had gone through similar post-Covid-19 hair loss. After doctors confirmed her suspicion that she was suffering from a post-viral inflammatory response, she readied an arsenal of holistic remedies to try to fix it.
Her first point of attack was an anti-inflammatory diet that cut out sugar, gluten, dairy and alcohol and incorporated colorful fruits and vegetables, oily fish and healthy fats like avocados and nuts. She kick-started a new supplement routine of Omega 3-6-9, turmeric with fenugreek, evening primrose oil and two tablespoons of aloe juice a day, a combination she believes to be anti-inflammatory and lubricating for the skin and hair.
She began giving herself daily scalp massages using Bumble and Bumble Tonic Primer, which includes rosemary oil, an ingredient that some studies have found to encourage hair growth. Two days a week she doused her hair in a mixture of coconut oil and pure rosemary oil and left it in for 24 hours. Though not a quick fix, it seemed to pay off: She now has tufts of baby hair growing in at her temples.
“I try to do everything the natural way, and as a wellness practitioner, I know that things take time,” Ms. Gant said.
Although it can still take months to see a significant difference, many people have had similar results from a combination of supplements, thickening shampoos and illusion-creating haircuts.
After her husband noticed a few bald spots on the back of her head early in the pandemic, Martyna Szabadi, a 34-year-old business consultant who hasn’t had Covid-19, experimented with products said to promote hair growth, including various scalp scrubs, a hair serum from the Ordinary and a daily drink of flax seed water. Nothing helped until she began using RevitaLash Thickening Shampoo and Conditioner and taking four capsules of Nutrafol core supplement for women.
“After half a year of this combination, I finally have the hair issue under control,” Ms. Szabadi said.
Nutrafol supplements also seemed to help Ms. Hill get her hair back on track after she began taking them in July, leaving her with a slimmer part and new hair growth around the crown. It was a boom year for the company, with revenue increasing 60 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Giorgos Tsetis, the chief executive and a founder of the company.
Mr. Tsetis said that 80 percent of the company’s sales increase can be attributed to its two core formulas for women: Nutrafol Women and Women’s Balance. They include ingredients like vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc and biotin, the last of which has become widely known as a hair growth supplement despite the fact that dermatologists disagree over its efficacy.
“No one’s really been able to prove it helps hair in a randomized controlled study, and they’ve had a long time to prove it,” Dr. Shapiro said.
But with wellness ruling the day, Nutrafol’s chemical-free, made-from-the-earth virtue has made it a popular option. Nutrafol bills itself as a “natural, holistic” alternative to old-school remedies like Rogaine, or minoxidil, which is a topical solution used to improve blood flow and stimulate hair growth.
Another treatment option is platelet rich plasma therapy, known as P.R.P., which involves the injection of a patient’s own blood into the scalp to stimulate hair growth. Priced between $500 and $1,800, P.R.P. doesn’t work for everyone and is best done alongside other treatments, according to Dr. Shapiro, who believes it’s a better fit for people experiencing female or male-pattern baldness, which has a genetic cause.
If waiting three months for a shampoo or supplement to kick in doesn’t thrill you, consider a haircut that will make your hair look healthier than it is. Justine Marjan, a hairstylist whose clients include Kardashians and the model Ashley Graham, recommends a shorter, blunt cut to create an illusion of thickness.
“It’s best to avoid longer looks, as the hair can end up looking weak and frail at the ends,” Ms. Marjan said. If your hair loss is most noticeable at your hairline or part, she suggests using an eye shadow or root touch-up spray that matches your hair color to create depth and the appearance of fullness. Using headband-style extensions that you can easily pop on and off without damaging the hair is another favorite trick.
Most important, be gentle and strategic with your hair. Ms. Marjan recommends drying fragile hair with a soft microfiber towel and using a tool like the Tangle Teezer to prevent breakage. Sleeping on a silk pillowcase is also believed to minimize breakage. And, while many people resort to ponytails when their hair is limp, it’s best to avoid tight styling that could pull out more hair.
What’s definitely not great for hair growth? Constant panic.
“Stressing about it will only cause more hair loss,” Dr. Cline said, noting that a deep, six-month-long breath is a better prescription. “I reassure patients with telogen effluvium that their hair will grow back, but it’s going to take time.”