“Change” does not happen all at once. In fact, you’ll probably start noticing smaller changes during a phase called perimenopause, which can be quite the hormonal roller coaster. During the eight to ten years leading up to menopause, hormone levels rise and fall and rise and fall. This can be confusing: Was it a hot flash, or is it hot in here? Do I have insomnia or did I drink my latte too late? Did my periods go away for good or only for a few months? And, surprisingly, you can add this one to your list of questionable symptoms: Is it just a bad hair day or is it my hormones?
Yes, your hair is one of the many things your hormones can alter during the perimenopausal and post-menopausal years. The hormones involved, primarily estrogen and progesterone, affect your hair growth cycles, the health of your scalp and follicles, and the natural oils that keep hair smooth and shiny. Because of this, you may experience thinning, lack of density, changes in texture, and dryness as estrogen decreases. But, again, it’s not a linear process. “During perimenopause, it’s not that your estrogen is gone; it’s fluctuating,” says Debra Lin, Ph.D., hair science expert and scientific director of Better Not Younger, a hair care brand. “So sometimes your hair can look thicker and healthier, other times it can be thinner and duller,” she says. When your menstrual cycle has stopped for an entire year, you are officially in menopause and these less desirable hair changes may be permanent. To get to the root of these hormonal hair changes, we asked experts — some of whom have experienced these changes firsthand — to break down exactly what’s going on and recommend ways to combat it.
Whether you are in perimenopause or have gone through menopause, you may experience the following hair changes.
If your ponytail seems lighter these days, you’re not alone. A recent study in the journal Menopause found that more than half of nearly 200 postmenopausal women studied had experienced female pattern hair loss. “As estrogen begins to decline, the delicate balance between estrogen and the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which is responsible for masculinizing changes such as hair loss, is disrupted,” says Audrey Kunin, MD, dermatologist at Kanas City, Missouri, and founder of DERMAdoctor, a skin care brand. Women who have a genetic predisposition to thinning hair may begin to see an increase in hair loss. “I saw my hair receding, a telltale sign of hormonal hair loss,” says Dr. Kunin.
Low estrogen levels can also affect your hair growth cycle, shortening the growth phase and delaying the stage of hair regrowth, Dr. Lin says. Your hair follicles also shrink with age, so the strands that grow out of them are thinner, resulting in an overall lack of density.
Dry and dull locks
Although she didn’t notice any major loss, Ellen Marmur, MD, a dermatologist in New York and founder of MM Skincare, saw changes in the quality of her scalp and locks during perimenopause. “My hair and my scalp are more fragile,” she says. Just as your skin dries out as estrogen declines, your scalp and, by extension, your hair strands also lack moisture. “A reduction in estrogen leads to a reduction in the production of sebum (oil), which normally lubricates the scalp. The result is dry skin and a flaky scalp,” says Dr. Kunin. And, since this moisturizing oil for the scalp is not there to apply to your locks, hair is also drier, as well as duller, more brittle and prone to breakage.
Dryness can make the scalp cranky. The skin barrier (the outermost layer) forms tiny cracks when dry, allowing irritants to enter and cause inflammation. “Additionally, if you suffer from thinning, your scalp is more exposed to environmental aggressors (such as UV rays) and harsh ingredients. This leads to more inflammation,” says Dr. Lin.
“You may find that your hair is straighter, or it’s suddenly curled in the back, and you have two textures on one head,” says Katelyn Ellsworth, owner of Roslyn Salon in San Diego. Hormones can affect the shape of certain hair follicles, changing them, for example, from circle-shaped follicles that produce straight hair to oval-shaped follicles that produce curly hair.
The coarse, wiry feel of some strands comes from the lack of natural oils. Sebum helps keep hair pH in a healthy acidic range. “The acidity holds the hair cuticle cells tight together like shingles on a roof,” says Dr. Kunin. But less sebum disrupts the pH balance. “Without the acidity, the cells in the cuticle begin to lift and separate, leaving hair dull and rough,” she says.
Your hair plan for menopause
Hormonal (HR) replacement is one way to avoid changes in your hair and the rest of your body, so talk to your doctor to see if it’s an option for you. You can also consider these topical treatments, supplements, and styling tips.
Topical treatments can help keep hair growing longer. “If you’re losing more than 100 hairs a day, using a product with 5% topical minoxidil for women may help reduce the rate of hair loss,” says Dr. Kunin. Research has also shed light on LED therapy, particularly red light. A study in the Annals of Dermatology found that red light stimulated growth and reversed follicle miniaturization. Dr. Marmur says research has also suggested that a pulsed red light setting is optimal for follicular stimulation; she recommends doing four 20-minute sessions a week.
Make scalp care part of your routine
“Caring for your scalp leads to healthier hair,” says Dr. Lin. Keeping it clean, reducing buildup and conditioning it will help reduce inflammation and support the follicles. Scalp serums provide lightweight hydration that won’t clog follicles or leave oily roots, and also hydrate hair. Look for one that contains collagen-boosting ingredients like niacinamide, barrier-supporting lipids like ceramides, and agents that wake up groggy follicles like caffeine.
The products you use can temporarily thicken the diameter of your hair shaft, making your hair look fuller. Look for thickening shampoos and treatments that include biotin, hydrolyzed wheat or rice protein, and kaolin clay, Ellsworth says.
Tame the texture
At-home straightening treatments and deep conditioners filled with nourishing oils such as coconut and avocado can soften coarse, brittle locks and help calm frizz, which stems from dehydration. But if you have really unruly hair, Ellsworth suggests an in-salon keratin treatment, which seals the cuticle layer. “It will make your hair easier to style and blow out at home,” she says.
Try a hair supplement
“Vivascal and Nutrafol are very popular with my patients,” says Dr. Marmur. “There’s only anecdotal evidence that these homemade supplements work, but I still believe in trying a holistic approach to improving your hair,” she says. And the right amounts of vitamins and minerals will help optimize hair growth and health. Look for blends containing vitamins A and C, B vitamins like folic acid and biotin, and minerals like zinc and silica.
Krista Bennett DeMaio has nearly two decades of editorial experience. The former magazine editor-turned-freelance writer regularly covers skincare, beauty, health, and lifestyle topics. His work has been published in national publications, including Opera, Form, Parents, Cosmopolitan, Allure, and websites such as HealthCentral.com, bhg.com and prevention.com. »
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