It may be a little distressing to notice, possibly for the first time, that you have thinning hair. For many of us, it’s a natural part of aging that doesn’t necessarily need to be treated. But aging is only one of many factors that can cause or exacerbate thinning hair—and some of these causes should be addressed.
Once you know what’s causing the issue, it becomes a lot easier to figure out how to manage it. Below, SELF talked to several experts about ways to make your hair feel thicker and look shinier, as well as ways to prevent more hair thinning.
What’s actually causing your thinning hair?
The first thing to know about hair loss is that it’s actually a bit complex. Your hair grows in three stages, SELF explained previously . These include a growth phase from a root in the hair follicle, a transitional phase when the growing stops, and a resting phase, after which the hair falls out and the follicle takes a break before growing another hair.
It’s totally normal to lose between 50 and 100 hairs a day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), which you might notice on your pillow in the morning, on your hairbrush, or in the shower. If you go a few days without showering, you might notice more than a single day’s worth of hair in the shower, which may be a little disconcerting, but is still totally normal.
You’re born with about 100,000 follicles on your scalp, and you’ll never gain or lose any, the AAD says . However, as you age, some follicles may stop growing hair and you may experience hair loss (also called anagen effluvium). When and how this happens is influenced by a bunch of factors, including our genetics and the natural hormonal changes we experience as we age, Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
But you might also experience hair shedding at certain points in your life, a process that’s separate from hair loss . Hair shedding (also called telogen effluvium) is more often caused by temporary changes in hormones, like giving birth, stopping hormonal birth control, or experiencing life stressors, like undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from a serious illness. Nutritional deficiencies , harsh hair products, and certain hair styles can also cause hair shedding, the AAD says.
If your hair is shedding, that means it’s falling out more quickly than it should be because it’s being shoved into the resting phase too early, SELF explained previously . But if you’re experiencing hair loss, that means there’s something stopping the hair from growing in the first place. And, because hair loss can be caused by different factors, it’s important to figure out which one you’re dealing with before trying to treat it.
If you don’t know if your thinning hair is due to hair shedding or hair loss, you should check in with an expert. It’s also important to talk to a dermatologist if you’re losing more than 100–150 hairs per day or you notice other issues (bald spots, hair shafts that break easily, or an itchy or burning scalp), Alina G. Bridges, D.O., dermatologist and dermatopathologist at the Mayo Clinic, tells SELF. These could signal a more serious hair-loss issue or an underlying condition (like scalp psoriasis ) that warrants professional treatment.
If you’re not sure how many hairs you’re losing in a single day (understandable) you can test it with the 60-second hair count : Comb your hair forward from the back of your head to the front for a full minute. Collect and count the hairs that were shed through this process—you should see between 10 and 20 strands, depending on your age . If you see more than that, you might be dealing with some excess hair loss. To get the most accurate idea of how many hairs you’re losing, you might want to do this a few days in a row.
Once you know what you’re up against, there are some easy ways to help manage thinning hair at home or with the help of an expert. Here are the top tips we learned from dermatologists and hair stylists on how to protect your hair and restore some of its fullness and shine.
How to protect, manage, and treat thinning hair:
You likely don’t need to wash your hair every day. In fact, Samantha DelaFuente , a stylist at Marie Robinson Salons in New York and Miami, tells SELF that she recommends washing only two or three times a week. “Don’t be afraid of dirty hair,” she says.
And dermatologists agree: “Washing too often strips your hair of necessary oils, and washing infrequently can leave hair dull and limp, especially if you overuse dry shampoo,” Dr. Bridges says. If you have natural hair , which tends to be drier and more prone to breakage, clean it even less frequently, Dr. Khetarpal says.
Moisturizing shampoos formulated without sulfates—chemicals in shampoos that help clean but can also be drying on sensitive or dry scalps—are a safe bet for everyone. In particular, celebrity stylist Tym Wallace tells SELF he recommends Oribe Gold Lust Repair & Restore Shampoo ($154, Bloomingdale’s or Moroccanoil Moisture Repair Shampoo ($24, Nordstrom ).
Conditioner gives your hair shine and reduces static electricity, the AAD explains , which is why it improves the look and feel of dull or damaged hair. Apply to the ends of the hair and work your way up, DelaFuente says. “A little goes a long way; the more conditioner you use, the flatter your hair will be.”
Remove tangles with a wide-tooth comb and rinse with cool water, which closes the cuticle and makes the hair shiny, Dr. Bridges explains.
If you’re looking for conditioners that can specifically help dull or thinning hair, Eric Leonardos, stylist at Ted Gibson , tells SELF he recommends Klorane Gel Conditioner with Peony ($20, Ulta ), which contains soothing and hydrating ingredients, or Shu Uemura Muroto Volume Conditioner ($58, Shu Uemura ), which has a lightweight formula that won’t weigh down hair.
After shampooing and conditioning, try using a leave-in product, like a conditioner or detangler, which will boost moisture and provide heat protection before styling.
Wallace recommends the moisturizing and protecting It’s a Ten Miracle Leave-In Conditioner Spray Product ($38, Ulta ) as well as the truly multitasking Form Multitask 3-in-1 Leave-in Lotion ($32, Form Beauty ).
Once a week, apply a deep conditioning mask for extra moisturizing powers, and leave on for 15–20 minutes, Dr. Bridges says. Finish by rinsing with cool water.
Leonardos recommends L’Oreal Elvive Total Repair 5 Damage-Erasing Balm, which he says lends shine and smooths the hair cuticle ($8, Amazon ), and Shu Uemura Ultimate Reset Hair Mask, which he explains “imparts a smooth texture and smells divine” ($68, Sephora ).
DelaFuente swears by Milbon Plarmia Hairserum Treatment ($35, Amazon ), which comes in formulas for fine-to-medium and coarse hair, and Christophe Robin Regenerating Mask With Prickly Pear Seed Oil ($71, Sephora ), a product that’s made without parabens and sulfates, which may be irritating to some sensitive scalps.
On his clients, Wallace uses Moroccanoil Restorative Hair Mask ($43, Amazon ), made with moisturizing argan oil and shea butter, or It’s a Ten Miracle Hair Mask ($32, Ulta ), which is designed to nourish color-treated, heat-styled hair.
Rub a small amount of serum through your wet hair before styling or air-drying. In addition to adding shine and combating fly-aways, these products help to prevent frizz.
Wallace recommends Paul Mitchell Smoothing Super Skinny Serum ($21, Ulta ), which also helps speed up the drying process, while DelaFuente swears by Alterna Haircare’s CAVIAR Anti-Aging Restructuring Bond Repair 3-in-1 Sealing Serum ($38, SkinStore ), especially for damaged or drier hair.
As an alternative, oils—such as argan, coconut, and jojoba—provide similar benefits as serums, but actually penetrate deeper into the hair, Dr. Bridges says. They can be applied to wet hair or to dry hair as an anytime treatment or shine enhancer. Leonardos recommends the custom hair oils from Prose ($48).
If styling with a hot tool, do your best to limit heat to a maximum of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for normal hair, 390 degrees for color-treated, and 350–370 degrees for fine, processed hair to avoid causing damage, Dr. Bridges says. Not all heat tools have temperature readings—or the ability to change the temperature, so it may be worth investing in a tool that does have those options if you heat style frequently, such as the CHI Temperature Control Hairstyling Iron ($100, Ulta ) or Harry Josh Pro Tools 2-in-1 Ceramic Marcel Curling Iron ($185, Dermstore ).
To get a little more lift, try applying volumizing root spray to your roots, then lightly adding mousse to the mid-lengths and ends, Leonardos suggests. In particular he recommends wallet-friendly VERB Volume Spray ($18, Amazon ) or, for a longer-lasting option, Oribe Maximista Thickening Spray ($39, Dermstore ).
For mousse, DelaFuente swears by Alterna’s Bamboo Volume Weightless Whipped Mousse ($22, Ulta ), which provides long-lasting hold without making hair feel crunchy. And Wallace likes Big Sexy Hair Root Pump Spray Mousse ($19, Ulta ). This product actually comes out of the can as a spray and then transforms into a mousse, which might make it a little easier to work with.
Then blow-dry at the roots, using hot or Velcro rollers, to add more volume and set the style. Finish with cool air and a texture spray, such as SGX NYC the Do-It-All 3-in-1 Dry Texture Spray ($9, Amazon ), which Leonardos says lends a natural, matte texture; for a longer-lasting option without product build-up, try Oribe Dry Texturing Spray ($46, Dermstore ). DelaFuente prefers Milbon’s Thickening Mist 4 ($26, Amazon ), which she says “doesn’t leave hair feeling stiff or sticky.”
One particular type of hair loss— traction alopecia —is caused by chronic stress on the hair follicle, often due to too-tight hair styles, and it’s especially common among black women . But if you can treat traction alopecia early on, you can adjust your habits and keep the condition from worsening; in fact, you can prevent hair loss from becoming permanent.
In particular, make sure you’re not wearing hairstyles that pull on the scalp—like high, tight ponytails , braids, or dreads—for extended periods of time.
If changing up your styling habits hasn’t helped, then it may be worth trying one of two daily-use OTC treatment options. The first one, minoxidil , is available in liquid or foam form at 2% and 5% concentrations, Dr. Bridges says.
This medication prolongs the growth phase of hair, she says, which prevents any more hair loss and may also stimulate new hair growth. However, be prepared to wait: You’ll have to use minoxidil daily for at least four months before seeing any effects. And when you stop using it, any new hair is likely to just fall out. Also, it’s important not to use this if you’re pregnant or nursing.
As an alternative, you can try hair-growth products containing a combination of redensyl, capixyl, and procapil (RCP), ingredients that are thought to target hair follicle stem cells, Dr. Bridges says. A study published earlier this year looked at the effects of RCP and minoxidil in 120 men with hair loss over 24 weeks. The results showed that those who received RCP treatment had significantly more improvement in their hair during the study compared to the minoxidil group. However, it’s not clear how well these results would translate to women or if the over-the-counter products out there containing these ingredients would stack up to those used in the study.
In some cases, you’ll need a dermatologist’s help to diagnose and manage your thinning hair. As we mentioned previously, that’s especially true if you think you may be dealing with an underlying health condition or if you have specific symptoms, like bald spots or itchiness.
Depending on the root cause of your hair issues, your derm may recommend prescription medications, including birth control pills and spironolactone, Dr. Khetarpal says. These options can target hormone-related hair loss.
For a pricier, in-office approach, you could try platelet-rich plasma (PRP) scalp injections, which generally require repeated treatments that may cost around $1,000 per session. With this method, doctors draw blood, separate out the platelets, and then inject these platelets into the scalp. Platelets may help stimulate hair growth thanks to the growth factors they contain, Dr. Khetarpal says. But so far scientific evidence supporting PRP for this use has been mixed. For instance a double-blind study published in Dermatologic Surgery in 2016 found that more patients who received PRP for hair loss reported a substantial improvement in their hair loss and hair thickness compared to those in the placebo group. However, laboratory testing didn’t find any significant difference between the results of those receiving PRP and those who got the placebo treatment.
Healthy hair requires adequate nutrients, especially things like vitamin D and biotin (vitamin B7). So if you think your hair loss could be due to an underlying nutritional deficiency, check with your doctor for a blood test. They may recommend supplementing with specific forms of the vitamins, Dr. Khetarpal says.
There are other serious conditions that can contribute to hair loss, including autoimmune disorders and nutritional deficiencies. If you’re not sure what’s causing your hair loss or you haven’t had any success with these other tips, it’s important to check in with a dermatologist to figure out what’s going on.