Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/16/2023
Have you ever brushed your hair and felt like a lot of strands of hair fell out? Or maybe you’re constantly seeing more than a few hair strands go down the drain when you wash your hair.
You can relax knowing that everyone loses 50 to 100 hairs per day on average, so seeing a few strands is expected, even if it seems like more.
On the other hand, if you’re seeing bald patches or pulling out large clumps of hair often, it could be cause for concern. You may be wondering, “Why is my hair falling out?” And how are you supposed to tell the difference between hair shedding and hair loss?
Hair loss and hair shedding are two different conditions that call for different treatments. We’ll cover the differences between normal hair shedding and hair loss and what you can do about each.
Hair shedding vs. hair loss — while neither situation is desirable, there are differences between the two.
As we stated above, 50 to 100 strands per day is normal shedding. But depending on how you style your hair, you may lose more than that. In fact, 40 percent of women experience excess hair shedding.
Hair loss, on the other hand, is when hair growth stops, not just when you see some strands when you brush.
So normal hair shedding and hair loss are two different things. We’ll break down each condition and the reasons why you might be experiencing one or the other.
Normal hair shedding is what we all see most days when we brush our hair or notice hair strands on our pillows.
But if you find yourself losing more than the average amount, you may be experiencing excessive hair shedding. Excessive shedding, which is when you have more hair shedding than usual, is a condition also known as telogen effluvium.
Hair shedding happens as a part of the hair growth cycle. As new hairs grow in, old ones fall out. The cycle of hair growth occurs in three phases — the anagen phase or growth phase, the catagen phase or transitional phase, and the telogen phase or rest phase.
There’s a potential fourth phase, which as of now has only been studied in mice. This phase, known as the exogen phase, is when the hair is shed and new hair begins to grow.
Excessive shedding may occur as a result of several different causes, namely emotional, physical or psychological stressors. These can include:
A large amount of weight loss
Being under excessive stress (like losing a job, going through a divorce or a breakup)
Recovering from illness
Stopping birth control pills
You might start to notice excessive hair shedding a few months after the stressful event. For example, women who gave birth might see excess hair shedding about two months after delivery, because of falling estrogen levels.
Excess hair shedding over time can lead to hair loss. However, there are other differences between hair loss and hair shedding.
Hair loss is more serious than hair shedding and can occur in a variety of hair types.
Hair loss occurs because something has stopped the hair from growing. A few different types of hair loss include:
Androgenic alopecia. Hair loss in women is also referred to as female pattern hair loss or androgenic alopecia. The medical term for this type of hair loss is anagen effluvium. This type of hair loss is due to an excessive response to androgens, or sex hormones, and affects up to 50 percent of both men and women — in men, it’s known as male pattern hair loss.
Alopecia areata. This type of hair loss typically shows up as baldness in patches, or patchy hair loss. While the cause is not fully known, genetics and environmental factors are believed to play a role.
Traction alopecia. Traction alopecia is a type of hair loss that occurs when tight hairstyles pull on your hair over time.
Severe hair loss can also happen for a variety of reasons and can have different signs. Hereditary hair loss, for example, means you’ve inherited genes that cause the hair follicles to shrink and eventually stop growing hair. The first noticeable sign of hereditary hair loss is a widening part or overall thinning.
Other reasons for hair loss in women include:
Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy
Illness or medical conditions
Damaging hair care, such as heat styling
Scalp infection or psoriasis
Our guide on female hair loss goes more in-depth on causes and treatments for women with hair loss.
Depending on the type and cause of hair loss you’re dealing with, there are different treatment options. But whatever the cause of your hair shedding or severe hair loss, there are ways to treat it.
Telogen effluvium — or excessive hair shedding due to a stressor — is usually temporary and hair follicles return to normal once whatever caused them to fall out in the first place has subsided. So if you’re under a lot of stress or going through hormonal changes (say, after giving birth), your hair shedding will likely stop once the stress is gone or the hormones have settled down.
You can also improve hair shedding by eating a balanced, healthy diet or generally taking better care of your health. And reducing stress not only helps with hair growth but also benefits your mental health as well.
There are also medications you can use to help with hair regrowth. Topical minoxidil (also known as Rogaine®) increases blood flow to hair follicles, which stimulates dormant ones to reenter the anagen phase and restart the hair regrowth process.
Certain shampoos and conditioners may also help boost hair growth and prevent shedding.
Another type of medication that may prevent hair loss is anti-androgens, which lower levels of male sex hormones (androgens) responsible for hair loss, such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
One well-known anti-androgen, spironolactone, is used to treat hair loss caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), as well as female-pattern baldness. Spironolactone can cause side effects, however, so it's best to talk with your healthcare provider about the pros and cons.
There are more ways to prevent hair loss in women, which are covered in this article.
You may wonder what the difference between hair shedding and hair loss is. Hair shedding is rather normal — so if some hair strands fall out when you brush your hair, there’s no need to panic.
Hair loss, on the other hand, results in larger amounts of hair falling out or patchy hair loss. Female hair loss can have several different causes, from medical conditions to stress or hormonal changes.
While hair loss is not dangerous, women with hair loss may experience a drop in confidence or mood. There are ways to prevent either hair shedding or hair loss, from medications to lifestyle changes. The best way to understand your hair loss and figure out which treatment is right for you is to talk to a healthcare professional.