Let’s face it: If our hair looks bad, we feel bad. It’s that simple. A bad hair day can turn the sunniest day drab. And sometimes, sweeping it up into a ponytail or loose bun just doesn’t cut it.
If you’ve been living with more bad hair days than good, it’s probably not for lack of a decent style. As we age, our hair loses its luster and elasticity, and naturally thins and falls out. (Of the approximately 100,000 hairs that are on our heads at any given time, we normally lose around 100 a day.) But it’s not all gloom and doom. There are plenty of practical ways to keep your hair looking its best—at any age.
“Thinning hair and loss are not inevitable,” says Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, aka The Mane Expert, a trichologist at the renowned Philip Kingsley Clinic in New York City. “When you learn what influences hair loss and thinning, you have a greater chance of maintaining or slowing it down. There’s no negotiating with genetics, but we do have control over plenty of other areas.”
There are a number of simple steps you can take to maintain the health of your hair and scalp, including eating right, staying as stress-free as possible, and using the right tools and products. Here are some of the major factors affecting the health and appearance of your hair and what to do about them, including hands-on tips from the pros.
Hormones and Healthy Hair
Changes in hair color and texture often arrive with perimenopause, says Ava Shamban, MD, a dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at UCLA. So don’t blame your hairdresser.
The hormonal shifts of menopause can cause permanent changes to the hair, and the effects often begin to show up during the perimenopausal years. “The hair dramatically changes—and never for the better,” explains Paul LaBrecque, stylist and owner of the eponymous salon and day spa in New York City. “People might think that their stylist has done something different, but what’s really shifted is your body: It’s not producing the things it used to that make your hair shiny and healthy.”
Hormone-related hair problems can include hair thinning, loss and change in texture. The best way to determine if hormones are the issue is to see a dermatologist, preferably one with a specialty in hair loss. There are many different routes to take that include an injectable vitamin B complex, topical minoxidil, and oral supplements like biotin and vitamin D.
In our 40s and 50s, it’s not unusual for the thyroid to become sluggish (hypoactive). The experts interviewed here highly encourage clients to visit a medical doctor for a proper blood test to rule out thyroid disease.
Don’t Stress Out
You don’t have to be an MD to know the negative effects of stress on the body, both internally and externally. “When our body undergoes stress—whether physiological, of which nutritional stress is a part of (e.g., crash dieting or rapid weight loss dieting), emotional or hormonal—it can manifest as hair loss,” says Orit Markowitz, MD, Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Clinical Dermatology at SUNY Downstate.
Diet is extremely important when it comes to the health of your hair. It’s also one of the areas in which you have the most control. If you don’t get enough protein, for example, you can lose your hair. When you’re not getting enough vitamins (including A, B, C, and D), your hair takes a big hit.
Markowitz successfully treats patients with vitamin B complex injections, which she believes helps replenish some of the vitamins that stress depletes.
Of course, it’s better to treat the causes of the stress—or, better yet, eradicate them from your life. What brings you the most stress relief: cardiovascular exercise? Meditation? Yoga? A walk in nature? Figure out what it is and do it—daily. “Understand that you have the potential to make things better,” says Cunnane Phillips.
Other Culprits in Hair Damage
Harsh chemicals: Straightening solutions, perms, coloring, and bleaching (highlights) are a recipe for hair damage. “Don’t overprocess hair,” warns Debra Jaliman, MD, a NYC-based dermatologist and author of the book, Skin Rules. Her expert advice? Use conditioners and sulfate-free, gentle shampoos for color-treated hair, and try to wear your hair loose more often so you don’t pull on the roots.
Too much sun: When you’re slathering the SPF on your skin, it’s easy to forget about your hair. It’s as important to protect the scalp from overexposure to the sun as it is the rest of the body.
Healthy Hair Tips from the Pros
- Make sure your hair is colored properly. The wrong color—especially if it contains a high percentage of color-lifting chemicals (usually bleach)—will steal hair’s elasticity,
- Use moisturizing products that will help soften dry hair. If your hair becomes frizzy, apply a hot-oil treatment once a week.
- Use heat-protecting styling products when blow-drying hair, and don’t use a straightening iron daily.
- Be gentle when brushing your hair. Harsh brushing causes breakage and excessive hair fall.
- Don’t go on crazy diets. Eat a balanced diet and small amounts of food at regular intervals throughout the day. Don’t go more than four hours between meals.
- Take a good daily multivitamin/mineral. Ask your doctor if your blood work indicates any specific deficiencies and whether you should supplement further.
Bottom line? Be gentle to your hair. Treat it nicely and with good products. Be sure to stay on top of any changes, and see a specialist if something seems amiss.
Editor’s Note: The author originally wrote this article for PBS’s NextAvenue.org.