Many Americans experience some degree of hair loss—alopecia, in medical terms.
The results are far from life-threatening. "Hair loss patients are some of my most stressed patients," says Paradi Mirmirani, M.D., a hair disorders specialist. "There is a big psychological impact because hair is part of who they are."
Hair loss affects more men than women. Women have different balding patterns. Although receding hairlines and balding at the crown are easily spotted in men, "women never go completely bare," says Dr. Mirmirani. Instead, women tend to experience overall thinning as they lose hair on the whole scalp.
Do not bother with special shampoos or other fancy hair products to solve the problem. Whether you lose hair depends on your genes. Along with about 10,000 hair follicles, you were born with your parents' likelihood for hair loss. "The more people in your family who have extensive hair loss, the more likely that you will have it," Dr. Mirmirani says. If so, expect that hair loss to begin as early as the teen years. Hormones that appear at puberty begin to shrink follicles, causing hair to grow thinner and shorter.
Men can take the medication finasteride to combat hair loss, but it is not approved for women. That's because it can harm unborn babies, so women of child-bearing age should not take it or even touch broken pills. A study found it did not help postmenopausal women's hair loss. Another drug, Rogaine, is safe and effective for both sexes. Sold over the counter, this topical medication helps existing follicles grow thicker hair.
You might think that hair transplants should be your main strategy to restore your looks, but experts say cosmetic alternatives should be your first choice. "Camouflage plays a huge role," says Dr. Mirmirani. Thinning hair is not as apparent if you decrease the color contrast between the scalp and hair. Usually, that means using dyes to darken the color of your scalp or to lighten the color of your hair.