Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/30/2021
Search online for proven, FDA-approved hair loss treatments and you’ll find two medications mentioned more than any others: finasteride, an oral hormonal treatment that blocks the key hormone responsible for hair loss, and minoxidil, a topical solution for preventing baldness.
There’s only one problem -- the vast majority of information about these two medications is written for men.
Statistically, this isn’t much of a surprise. While almost everyone is familiar with male pattern baldness, far fewer people are aware of hair loss in women, even though 40% of women will encounter some level of hair loss by age 50.
One of these medications -- finasteride -- isn’t approved by the FDA for treating hair loss in women.
Because finasteride works by targeting a specific byproduct of testosterone (a male sexual hormone), it’s generally not used as a treatment for female hair loss.
Minoxidil, on the other hand, can be highly effective at preventing female hair loss.
It also has one of the best safety track records of any hair loss medication, making it something you can use to prevent your hair from thinning and falling out without any concerns.
It’s even approved by the FDA as a hair loss treatment for women.
Sold as a topical liquid solution, a foam and a spray, minoxidil (also known as the brand Rogaine) is the most popular topical hair loss medication on the market.
In this guide, we’ll explain how minoxidil works to prevent your hair from falling out, as well as how you can use it to prevent hair loss.
We’ll also look specifically at how female hair loss can occur and the key steps you can take to minimize its long term impact.
While many people think of hair loss as a male issue, statistics show that women are almost as likely as men to experience some degree of hair loss.
Dealing with hair loss can be a challenging, difficult experience. If you have naturally light and thin hair, even a small amount of hair loss can have a huge impact on your appearance.
Even with a naturally dark, thick head of hair, the emotional impact of dealing with extra hairs in the sink, on your pillow and around the house can be a serious challenge.
Unfortunately, while there’s a wealth of information about male hair loss online, female hair loss isn’t a topic that’s covered in as much detail.
As a result, many women with hair loss fail to take action, often with worsening effects on confidence and self-esteem.
Like male pattern baldness, female hair loss can start surprisingly early.
Based on data from the Canadian Dermatology Association, it’s far from uncommon to notice some degree of hair loss before your 50th birthday, with hair loss typically worsening with age.
By the age of 50, approximately 40% of women will have some degree of hair loss, ranging from slight thinning to more severe Type II and III female pattern hair loss.
If you’ve noticed hair loss, the reality is that proven, safe options are available to help you bring it to an end.
Using medications like minoxidil, it may be possible to bring back some or all of the hair you’ve lost over the past few years.
Female hair loss can occur for a variety of reasons, from stress and nutritional deficiencies to hormonal issues. Below, we’ve listed some of the most common reasons for female hair loss:
Androgens are male sex hormones. Despite being “male” hormones, most androgens are also present in women in tiny quantities.
If you’re genetically sensitive to hormones such as DHT (dihydrotestosterone), this could affect your hairline.
Androgenic hair loss is a result of androgens and genetics, which is why some people experience it and others don’t.
Hair loss from androgens is usually gradual, with your hairline and hair thickness gradually changing over several years or decades.
It’s not uncommon for women to temporarily lose their hair after giving birth. This is called postpartum telogen effluvium.
Research indicates that most women experience postpartum hair loss between two and four months after giving birth, and continues for as long as six months, but generally doesn’t exceed 15 months.
Changes in your body’s hormone levels can affect your hair thickness and health, meaning you could lose hair due to a hormonal imbalance or a change in your use of hormonal birth control.
Both physical and emotional stress can trigger female hair loss, meaning an overly stressful professional life or a traumatic experience could be to blame if you’ve noticed your hair starting to thin.
Sometimes, your immune system can mistakenly target your hair follicles, resulting in thinning and hair loss. This type of hair loss is called “alopecia areata.”
If your diet is low in protein, iron or other essential vitamins and minerals, it could affect your hair health. Between nine and 20% of women suffer from iron-deficient anemia, which can often lead to noticeable hair thinning.
Certain medications, such as antidepressants and drugs used to treat cancer and other serious diseases, can result in hair loss. This hair loss will usually reverse once the treatment ends and is rarely permanent.
Hairstyles and treatments that stress your hair, such as weaves, hot oil treatments and braids can damage your hair over the long term, causing it to thin and fall out.
Does minoxidil work? Minoxidil works by speeding up your hair’s growth cycle. For both men and women, hair follicles go through four different stages as each of your hairs grow, rests and eventually sheds:
The anagen phase. This is the first phase in the hair growth cycle. During this phase, the hair grows from barely visible to its full length. This phase can last for years while your hair grows to its full length before starting to detach and shed.
The catagen phase. During this phase, the hair follicle begins to shrink and the hair eventually detaches from your scalp.
The telogen phase. Also known as the “resting” phase, during this stage the old hair rests while a new hair begins to grow under the skin.
The exogen phase. Also known as a “shedding” phase, this is when the old hair starts to fall out and the new hair breaks through the surface of your scalp to replace it.
Researchers believe minoxidil works by prematurely putting your hair follicles into the anagen phase, causing hair follicles to quickly go through the resting and shedding phases before they start to regrow.
The result is a faster hair cycle, with resting and shedding hairs quickly entering into the anagen phase and stimulating the growth of new hair.
You can almost think of minoxidil as a “reactivate” button that tells dormant hair follicles to start growing again.
Unlike many over-the-counter hair loss treatments, minoxidil is backed up by a large amount of scientific research.
In a 2014 study, researchers found that 5% minoxidil foam was effective at treating hair loss in women.
Other studies show that about 60% of women who use minoxidil report some level of new hair growth, compared to just 40% of women given a placebo.
In short, while minoxidil isn’t a miracle cure for hair loss (depending on the severity of your hair loss, you might not regrow everything), it’s proven to work effectively for both men and women as a hair loss treatment.
However, there’s a caveat to this. While minoxidil is highly effective at stimulating hair growth, it’s not a cure for all causes of hair loss in women.
If your hair loss is caused by a nutritional deficiency or the use of another medication, minoxidil might not be the best solution.
It’s also remarkably easy to use, with no tablets or capsules to worry about -- something we’ll explain in more detail below.
Using minoxidil is simple. As a once-daily topical treatment, you can apply minoxidil to affected areas of your scalp in the morning.
Is minoxidil safe? Minoxidil is safe to use with most hair products, meaning it’s usually not necessary to make any changes to your existing hair care routine.
Before you start using minoxidil, it’s important to make sure it’s the best option for treating your hair loss:
If you’re currently prescribed a medication that could contribute to hair loss, such as an antidepressant or treatment for cancer or any other serious disease, talk to your healthcare provider before considering minoxidil as a treatment option.
If your hair loss is the result of a nutritional deficiency, anemia or other diet-related health issue, it’s important to take steps to improve your diet and make sure you consume all of the essential nutrients for healthy hair growth prior to using minoxidil.
If you have hair loss due to pregnancy, consult your healthcare provider before considering minoxidil as a treatment option. Minoxidil has a Category C pregnancy risk category, which means that there aren’t enough well-controlled human studies to assess its pregnancy risk.
Minoxidil is designed for once-daily application, with the morning the best time to apply the liquid solution to your scalp.
Before applying minoxidil, make sure your scalp and hair are dry. Moisture can affect minoxidil’s absorption rate, meaning that a reduced amount of the medication could make its way into your hair follicles.
You should avoid shampooing your hair for four hours after using minoxidil. This means it’s often best to wash your hair and scalp before applying the treatment.
Apply the minoxidil solution to the affected areas of your scalp. If necessary, you can spread the minoxidil solution over the target area using your fingers.
If you use your fingers, make sure you wash them immediately after applying the solution to your scalp.
Allow the minoxidil to dry naturally (do not use a hairdryer to dry the liquid solution). It’s best to avoid wearing hats or other garments that cover your scalp in the two to four hours after using minoxidil.
Is your hair starting to thin? Female hair loss is more common than people think, with upwards of 40% of women aged 50 and up reporting some degree of hair loss.
This is detailed more in our blog on hair growth rate by age.
While minoxidil can treat many cases of hair loss, it’s not the only option available.
From habits and diet to vitamins and minerals, a range of factors all play a role in the health, thickness and appearance of your hair.
Want to learn more about treating female hair loss? Does biotin shampoo help thinning hair? Does saw palmetto shampoo work for female hair loss?
All valid questions. Read our guide about the other two treatments for female hair loss, both of which can be safely used with minoxidil for optimal results.
Our guides to saw palmetto shampoo and biotin cover two other treatments for female hair loss, both of which can be safely used with minoxidil for optimal results.