Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/16/2021
Hair shedding is a scary thing for anyone to experience. You’ve likely seen some version of it in the movies.
There’s one person, standing in a bathroom, looking in the mirror and things seem fine. Their teeth are white, their skin is clear and they smile as they run their fingers through their luscious hair.
But when they pull their hand away, it’s matted with clumps. They scream themselves awake, only to realize it was all a nightmare.
Film does a good job of conveying the emotions, but it’s our job to capture the facts. And the fact is, hair shedding isn’t necessarily as scary a problem as you may believe.
Shedding can be caused by a variety of factors and underlying conditions. It can also be completely normal day after day. What makes the difference is the volume of hair shed.
If you think you’re experiencing hair shedding, you probably have some urgent questions: Why am I shedding hair? How much shedding should I expect? What do I do to stop this?
Let’s take these questions one at a time, so you can get the problem addressed and your locks back to full strength.
A little hair in the shower, sink or on your collar or pillow might scare you, but even if your fingers come away wrapped in strands when running them through your scalp, it’s possible your hair shedding is perfectly normal.
The lifespan of a hair follicle consists of three phases: anagen, catagen and telogen. And each hair is in an independent phase from the others around it.
Your hair grows in the anagen phase, slows in the catagen phase and goes (away) in the telogen phase. This is perfectly natural.
In fact, each person is expected to have about nine percent of their hair in the telogen phase at any given time.
Let’s put this in perspective.
The average person has more than 100,000 hairs on their head, and according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) it’s perfectly normal to drop about 100 a day anywhere you go.
This is normal, expected and it’s actually important for your body to shed these hairs and continue to refresh the cycle for healthier hair.
What’s not normal is when the numbers go up. Specifically, when your hair’s normal three-phase cycle of growth is interrupted, which causes more than nine percent of your follicles to enter the telogen phase.
The difference between hair shedding and hair loss is a question of permanence — hair is shed at the end of its cycle. But hair is lost when the growth cycle doesn’t repeat.
The key to understanding this is understanding a condition called telogen effluvium, which is simply a condition in which more than the normal number of follicles get stuck in the telogen phase.
Telogen effluvium is typically caused by trauma or stress to the follicle — severe injuries and stressors can cause an extended vacation for the hair follicle.
The good news is that, in most cases, telogen effluvium is temporary, and hair follicles will return to normal function once whatever caused them to fall out in the first place has subsided.
There are other hair loss types that can cause the appearance of shedding as well, and they can be more serious.
Traction alopecia is caused by trauma to the follicle itself, in the form of burning, pulling or irritation by chemical means.
It can be caused by stress disorders that literally make you pull your own hair out, or it can be caused by hairstyles like ponytails, which involve pulling tightly on your hair.
But the worst case scenario isn’t a receding hairline due to high ponies; it’s that you might have a more serious disease pulling the strings.
Alopecia areata isn’t technically a type of hair loss, but rather a symptom of certain autoimmune diseases.
With alopecia areata, your hair will fall out as your immune system attacks the follicles, and can stay dormant as long as the condition goes untreated — sometimes permanently.
Unfortunately, in both of these cases, the damage is often permanent after a certain point, which is why you should always address the problem at the first instance you notice it’s happening.
So how does hair shedding resolve itself?
Well, as we mentioned, telogen effluvium corrects itself most of the time. But there are things you can do to reverse course and stop hair shedding immediately, starting with taking care of your health.
You might speed up the process by reducing stress, eating a balanced, healthy diet or generally taking better care of your health.
At which point, the hair follicles return to anagen growth after a period of a few weeks or months.
Regardless of the hair loss type you’re experiencing, attention to your nutritional needs is key.
Evidence suggests, for instance, that alopecia caused by chemotherapy may be made worse by poor nutritional health.
Taking care of your health may also include embracing some important medications to assist in the regrowth process.
Topical minoxidil (better known as Rogaine®) is effective in increasing blood flow to hair follicles, which is believed to possibly stimulate the dormant ones to reenter the anagen phase and begin growing your locks again.
Studies are mostly conducted on men, but the results are promising, regardless. In one case, minoxidil increased thickness and boosted hair count by as much as 18 percent over a 48-week period.
It’s an effective and safe option to speed up the recovery process, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Other ingredients that appear in shampoos or conditioners might also provide some relief and support for whatever is plaguing your scalp — check out our Women’s Hair Loss Shampoo guide for more.
Let’s talk for a second about the reality we live in.
There’s an unfair and imbalanced amount of pressure put on women to look flawless at all times.
Women are expected to be blemish free, have full voluminous locks and fit unrealistic standards of beauty from an early age.
It’s the kind of thing that causes so much stress you might want to, well, pull your own hair out.
Shedding your hair in excessive amounts is double a cause for worry, because in addition to the medical fears it may represent, it can also be a crushing blow to our self esteem.
We get how it feels — the desire to hide, to conceal, to ignore and hope it goes away. But as much as avoiding the problem might be less scary than addressing it, it’s definitely not safer.
If you’ve begun to see more of your scalp than you’d like, the first step you should take is to speak with a healthcare provider about your observations and concerns.
Proper attention to hair health makes all the difference, and that starts with following up on warning signs.
Hair shedding might very well be nothing to worry about, but it might also be a sign of major health issues — or at the very least, questions that should be asked.
Don’t wait to get answers. Talk to someone today. If your hair loss has been sudden, learn more about sudden hair loss with our guide.