Nothing inspires dread quite like glancing at the bathtub drain to see how much of your hair is no longer on your head. Though hair changing over time is part of life (one might shed anywhere from 50 to 100 strands today alone), sudden hair loss can signal an underlying medical condition, and pattern hair loss is at best disappointing, and at worst, psychological distressing.
Though pattern hair loss is dictated by genetics, there are ways to combat the issue and work to prevent it in the first place. But before you buy some too good to be true elixir in a panic, it’s crucial to figure out what is causing your hair loss in the first place.
What causes thinning hair?
“The most common cause of hair loss is androgenetic alopecia, which is called male pattern or female pattern baldness,” said Dr. Michele Green, a New York City dermatologist. With this form of hair loss, hair follicles shrink and eventually stop growing. In women, it presents as a gradually widening part. In men, pattern baldness usually brings a receding hairline or bald spot.
But there are other things that can cause hair loss too, said Green, like underlying medical issues, or stress. She recommends paying attention to the nature of your hair loss: is it sudden all over, is it gradually thinning in the front? Take note of those symptoms and consult a doctor, who will likely request blood work. “Dermatologists need blood work to see if you’re anemic, are you vitamin D deficient, do you have a thyroid disorder? Do you have an autoimmune disease?,” said Green. She noted that a lot of her patients are shocked to learn their hair loss is a symptom of something like lupus, or even a tumor in one bizarre case.
Or, a patient might have telogen effluvium, a form of hair loss caused by stress to the body or mind. A loss of a loved one or job, a high fever, pregnancy or having surgery could all cause sudden hair loss. “Hairs are usually found at all different stages of the hair cycle,” said Dr. Hadley King, a NYC dermatologist, but during an intense stress, the hair can become synchronized, leading many to fall out at the same time. “The good news is that this kind of hair loss is reversible,” said King. “it does grow back.” Green noted that during the early stages of the pandemic, for example, many of her patients’ hair loss worsened, not necessarily from infection, but the stress of isolation. (You can learn more on the causes behind hair loss at this fact sheet from the American Academy of Dermatology).
How to treat thinning hair
The experts we spoke to agreed that the best treatment for thinning hair depends on the cause of that hair loss. “There is no magic button,” said Green, but there are a few things that can help regrow hair, or at least protect the hair you still have:
- Minoxidil: According to King, minoxidil is the most proven treatment for both men and women. Used in shampoos and popular products like Rogaine (more below), it essentially widens the blood cells, allowing “more oxygen, blood and nutrients to reach the follicles,” said King.
- Argan oil and/or tea tree oil: “Argan oil is rich in fatty acids and will protect your hair,” said Green. Plus, it can help your hair retain moisture. Green said many of her patients also like shampoos that contain tea tree oil, “which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties” that can soothe an irritated scalp.
- Glycerin-based styling products: King noted that glycerin-based products are also good for keeping the hair hydrated. “A hair care regimen that allows the protective layer, or cuticle to remain intact as long as possible will decrease breakage,” she said
Products like shampoos and serums can be used in conjunction with oral medication and various dermatology treatments, like platelet-rich plasma injections (PRP) or prescription-only laser caps. Most importantly, topical treatments need to remain on your head to work. If you’re washing it in and washing it out, as you would with a shampoo, how much benefit you get “is arguable,” said Green. Plus, the most important ingredient of all is hard data. “There are many products out there that promise results that aren’t backed by hard science,” said King.
As for what to avoid, Taylor Rose, a certified trichologist and hair health expert recommended looking for shampoos free of harsh detergents, like Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Some alcohols may dehydrate the hair too: “the ones to avoid usually have ‘prop’ in their name, like isopropyl or propanol,” said Rose.
The best treatments and shampoos for thinning hair
“Rogaine is probably one of the few things that’s been actually FDA-approved and worked out to help grow hair,” said Green. The active ingredient in Rogaine products, including this foam, is minoxidil, which stimulates hair growth. Both the men and women’s foams contain 5% of minoxidil, but Rogaine recommends men apply a half capful twice a day directly to the scalp in the hair loss area. For women, the brand recommends applying half a capful just once a day. Users can expect to see results in 120 days and continued use is necessary to keep any results, says the brand. Rogaine’s unscented foam has a 4.2-star average rating from 24,364 reviews on Amazon.
Similar to Rogaine’s foam product, this topical solution is sold separately in men and women’s versions. The women’s product, however, is less concentrated and contains just 2% minoxidil. Rogaine says users can expect to see results after 120 days of daily use. The solution has a 4.2-star average rating from 14,576 reviews on Amazon.
Much like Rogaine, Nioxin ‘s hair care system kits and products rely on minoxidil to spur hair growth and is a favorite among Green’s patients. The kits, which include a therapeutic shampoo, conditioner and scalp treatment are formulated based on your hair’s unique needs: the System 1 kits target light thinning in natural hair, color treated hair and bleached hair. The System 2 kits target the same hair types, but for progressed thinning. Nioxin sells their shampoos, conditioners, leave-in products and other styling tools separately, too. The Nioxin System Kit has a 4.4-star average rating from 22,778 reviews on Amazon.
While this Avalon Organics shampoo isn’t formulated to spur hair growth, it is a notable favorite among Green’s patients that have an irritated scalp (in our guide to the best shampoos for head acne, multiple experts recommended tea tree oil-based products). The paraben and cruelty-free shampoo has a 4.3-star average rating from 3,989 reviews on Amazon.
Green also recommended this argan oil shampoo, which she said many of her patients love. Argan oil (also an ingredient in a Select favorite clarifying shampoo) can help hydrate dry hair and retain its moisture. It’s also formulated with the cleanser cocamidopropyl betaine, which King separately highlighted as a gentler alternative to harsh detergents and sulfates in Select’s guide to the best drugstore shampoos. The shampoo has a 4.4-star average rating from 4,480 reviews on Amazon.
Both King and Green recommended Nutrafol, a natural, drug-free line that makes oral supplements and various hair-care products. While it may be best to consult your doctor before taking any supplement, you could start by trying the Root Purifier Shampoo. Select editorial director Lauren Swanson had tried the shampoo in the past and found it to “hydrate the scalp without being overly greasy or weighing hair down.” The sulfate-free shampoo is formulated with gentle cleansers like cocamidopropyl betaine that “deeply cleanse while optimizing pH levels of the scalp microbiome for improved hair health,” says the brand. Nutrafol’s shampoo has a 4.3-star average rating from 183 reviews on Amazon.
Rose noted that the best shampoo for thinning hair depends on your hair type, but in general “it is best to use a gentle shampoo free from harsh ingredients, to ensure you are not contributing to the problem further,” she said. She recommended this option from Grown Alchemist, which the brand says helps smooth the hair follicle and protects it from heat damage. 4.3-star average rating from 1,209 reviews on Amazon.
How to prevent hair loss
Frustratingly, genetics play a huge role in hair loss, but tackling the problem sooner rather than later can help: “You want to stop it before it gets bad because once you lose your hair, and those hair follicles are dead, they’re not growing back,” said Green. “It’s just gone.”
But you need not despair; there are multiple ways to stall the seemingly inevitable and some simple hair care tips and tricks to prevent hair loss in the first place:
- A healthy lifestyle: Rose advised practicing habits that reduce stress and are good for your physical health, like meditation, yoga, journaling and eating a diet of whole foods. “Make sure you are eating enough protein in your diet, as hair is made up of protein.,” she added. Green noted avoiding alcohol and cigarettes as much as possible: “they definitely weaken hair and they are just bad for you in general. No crash dieting either, added King.
- Protect your remaining hair: Wearing a really tight bun day after day pulls on your hair and can cause permanent damage, said Green. So can frequent use of heated hair styling tools. “A hair-care regimen that allows the protective layer, or cuticle, to remain intact for as long as possible will decrease breakage and drying out of the hair strands,” said King.
- Use gentle fabrics: Hair is very fragile when it’s wet. Rose recommends using a microfiber towel after showering and sleeping on a satin pillowcase or in a satin bonnet.
- Scalp massage: King noted that some studies show scalp massage can help stimulate hair growth, especially paired with some oils (more on that below). Plus, it feels great.
Also, if you notice your hair thinning, don’t hesitate to see a specialist and advocate for yourself during your appointment. “One of the most frustrating things is how many women get dismissed,” said Green, often by male doctors. “They were blown off a few years ago and it's so much worse now.” Avoid that fate and speak up. A good doctor will make time to chat and assess your unique situation.
What about hair growth oils?
Losing your hair can be traumatic, so there is no surprise a wealth of hair growth oils have arrived on the scene. While minoxidil remains the most proven topical option for hair growth, King noted that there have been some noteworthy studies on the efficacy of various oils, like rosemary, pumpkin seed, castor oil or ginseng root (even two smaller tests conducted on mice have linked lavender oil and peppermint oil to hair growth). One 2015 study compared minoxidil and rosemary for hair growth, and both test groups saw significant increases in hair growth after six months.
While the studies indicate potentially scientific advancements in the future, Kind noted that there data just isn’t there yet: “the bottom line is we need bigger, better studies in order to evaluate whether or not these ingredients help wit hair growth.
Meet the experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Hadley King is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology.
- Dr. Michele Green is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City who specializes in cosmetic deramtology.
- Taylor Rose is a hair health expert and trichologist who runs the @thehealthyhur TikTok account.