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At some point or another, we’ve all been there: staring at ourselves in the mirror, examining the volume and sheen—or lack thereof—of our hair. Maybe you’ve had a terrible hair week, a months-long bender of dry ends and dull strands, or perhaps waning hair health has been a lifelong battle. And it’s not like you haven’t read up on what could possibly be the cause. You’re well-versed in the dangers of chemical processing, heat styling, and running around in the sun or splashing around in chlorine without proper protection and post-care.
Here’s the thing, though. There are a handful of underlying causes affecting your hair health that you might not be aware of, such as hormonal imbalances, genetic predispositions, physiological issues, and even diet. If you’re still trying to pinpoint the reasons why your hair won’t grow, lacks luminosity, or is constantly breaking off, you’re in the right place.
With the help of a dermatologist, hairstylist, and registered dietician, we’re here to help you do a 180 on your string of no-good hair days.
The Top Factors for Hair Health
Though all the factors we’re outlining below won’t apply to everyone, it’s entirely possible that you might be dealing with one or two of them. This is especially true if you’ve been battling unhealthy hair for an extended period of time and can’t pinpoint the issue to some of the more obvious contributors to poor hair health, such as going overboard with heat styling (put the flat iron down, friend) or excessive processing.
1. Your Environment
“Everything you do is either damaging your hair or preventing damage. Sleeping on cotton or silk pillows, the fiber of the brush you use, how often you touch your hair, how much wind exposure it has—on and on and on,” noted Cash Lawless, a celebrity hairstylist for SEVEN haircare.
Sleeping on silk versus cotton and brushing your hair with high quality bristles will prevent tugging and snagging. Touching your hair often can result in greasiness and limpness. Another environmental factor is your water quality.
“Yes, moisture is great for your hair, but when it’s 90 percent humidity, it can be really be your worst enemy.” —Cash Lawless
“Yes, moisture is great for your hair, but when it’s 90 percent humidity, it can be really be your worst enemy.”
Additionally, soft and hard water are notoriously damaging to hair and require adjustments in your routine. Hard water means your water has high amounts of minerals, which can result in brittleness and lack of shine. If your shower has chalky white residue buildup, you have hard water. Either splurge on a water softener, or stock your shower with color-protecting products and chelating or clarifying shampoos. Soft water may require you to wash your hair more frequently, and you should actively avoid parabens and sulfates.
Lawless said that climate is another major factor to consider.
“This is almost solely due to our greatest hair friend and enemy—water! Yes, moisture is great for your hair, but when it’s 90 percent humidity, it can be really be your worst enemy. The right products are essential to battle humidity,” he said.
There are a handful of hormones that affect your hair health, but one of the most pervasive is cortisol, which is known as the “stress hormone,” notes Jeanine Downie, MD, a dermatologist for Zwivel. High quantities of cortisol in your system are responsible for thinning hair and a reduction in overall growth.
Downie said that exercising five to seven days per week, sleeping seven or more hours, and avoiding excess alcohol and caffeine can also help keep the stress hormones at bay. Beyond that, reducing your workload and carving out time for yourself can help reduce stress.
“Thyroid conditions, variations in estrogen and progesterone, as well as testosterone, can all impact hair health, as well as loss and growth,” adds Downie. “Peri-menopausal women typically start to notice hair texture changes and potentially eventual loss that we usually check in the office when looking at causes for hair changes. In addition, many postpartum women suffer from hair loss associated with or directly related to breastfeeding hormones; this is a very common complaint for many women after giving birth.”
These are issues that ought to be addressed by a professional on a case-by-case basis. Schedule an appointment with your doctor or a dermatologist.
3. Medical Conditions
There are a handful of medical conditions that affect your hair’s integrity. If you suspect you have one of the below, we highly advise meeting with a doctor to devise a treatment game plan.
“Androgenetic alopecia—commonly known as male or female pattern baldness—is related to a gradual thinning of the hair that leads to eventual loss,” says Downie. “Common treatments include nutraceuticals (my favorite is Nutrafol, although Viviscal has also had numerous clinical studies to support its effectiveness), Rogaine topical, finasteride for certain male patients, and spironolactone for certain, eligible female patients.”
Hirsutism, or excess, unwanted hair growth, is another relatively common disorder that Downie sees. She said it’s most often experienced by postmenopausal women, those with genetic predisposition for hair in unwanted places, or in individuals with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“We usually check to make sure there is no hormonally-associated condition if this is a new finding for an individual, but most often treat the unwanted hair effectively with laser hair removal,” she said. “Several sessions are required on a monthly basis and depending on the location and the individual, treatments may be required beyond a year. However, permanently getting rid of the unwanted hair is certainly worth the wait, and my patients (and I) can vouch to that!”
Inflammatory conditions that impact the hair growth negatively, said Downie, include seborrheic dermatitis, which is one of the most common causes of adult dandruff, ringworm (clinically known as tinea capitis), psoriasis, contact dermatitis from potentially inflammatory ingredients found in some hair products, and predispositions for inflammation.
“Depending on the cause, treatments range from prescription and over-the-counter shampoos and solutions, anti-fungal topical or oral treatments, as well as prescription oral medications to treat the inflammation, injections of steroids for severe inflammation, and even biologic medications in the case of hard-to-treat psoriasis,” says Downie.
A consistently poor diet will almost certainly affect your overall hair health, noted Brooke Alpert, a registered dietician and author of The Diet Detox. As a general rule, you should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and reduce your intake of processed foods. To help narrow your focus to a specific hair health issue, though, we’re addressing three primary categories: protein, iron, and antioxidant-rich foods.
“Diets low in protein have been shown to result in hair loss, and protein intake has also been shown to prevent hair thinning. Make sure you’re getting the recommended daily amount, which for most women, that’s at least 46 grams of protein per day,” said Alpert. “My recommendation is to have a good quality protein source at every single meal. Opt for organic or wild sources of eggs, fish, beef, and chicken.”
Regarding iron, Alpert noted that iron deficiency is one of the world’s most common nutritional deficiencies and that it is a well-known cause of hair loss. Premenopausal women, specifically, are at the highest risk for this anemia, she said, and they should consume iron-rich foods, like beef, liver, lentils, spinach, and black beans to prevent it.
“Antioxidants are compounds that prevent something called oxidative damage in our bodies,” she says. “Oxidative stress has been linked to hair loss, so fill up on these to keep your mane looking shiny and long. Foods high in antioxidants include blueberries, blackberries, dark chocolate, and dark leafy vegetables.”
5. Damaging Styling Habits
We’re all guilty of making hair mistakes, but with knowledge comes power and, in this case, healthier hair! Lawless said that one of the most common no-nos he’s seen is the combination of oil and heat.
“This is an especially big mistake made by women with texture who love their moisture,” he said. “Oil is an amazing treatment for the hair, but when you add high levels of heat with the oil still in the hair—like irons or blow dryers—this will make the hair incredibly brittle and susceptible to breakage.”
This is also true for leave-in conditioners, so make sure you’re only using a heat-protectant product and not a conditioner or oil before heat-styling your hair. Another big mistake is using sea salt before blow drying, flattening, or curling. Lawless said that sea salt and heat will absolutely fry your hair.
Finally, being overly aggressive with your brush—or creating a lot of tension on wet hair—can damage your locks, too.
“If you are putting your hair under tension, like a pony tail, and then letting it dry in that position, you are stretching the hair under that rubber band and allowing it to dry in a brittle state. The next time you brush or pull that rubber band out, the chances of breakage are much higher,” said Lawless. “Also, I see women just beat their hair with their brush. Please use a detangler. Collectively, your hair may be strong, but each strand is weak. Over time a little snap here and little break there adds up.”
The Last Strand
Our best piece of advice is to be proactive about your hair health. If you notice something is really off, schedule an appointment with a doctor or dermatologist to pinpoint the cause and start turning things around.
Also make small changes that have a lot of impact, like switching out your cotton pillowcase for a silk one, abiding by the recommended daily allowances for all of your macronutrients and micronutrients, taking more evening strolls to reduce cortisol levels, and avoiding the common hair mistakes we outlined above. Not only will your mane look better when you do all the above, you’ll feel better.