When your hair feels like straw and is falling out, you might jump to conclusions about your health. But don't panic: A number of things can cause dry, brittle hair that sheds easily, and some are fairly simple to fix.
Chronic dry hair can fray and break more easily, contributing to hair loss, says Mary Stevenson, MD, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, which is why you'll want to get to the root of the problem. (Keep in mind it's also possible to have dry hair that's not falling out or hair that's falling out but not dry.) Here's what might be going on:
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1. Poor Hair Care
The way you style and care for your hair may result in dry or thinning locks. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), factors that can damage your strands and lead to brittle hair include:
- Harsh shampoos
- Hot-oil treatments
- At-home coloring, chemical straightening, perming and relaxing treatments
- Overuse of flat irons, curling irons, blow dryers or hot combs
- Tight hairstyles
- Rough combing
Be gentle. "Too much traction and pulling on hair can cause permanent thinning," Dr. Stevenson says.
According to the AAD and Dr. Stevenson, good hair care practices that help keep hair healthy include:
- Avoiding harsh styling products and limiting heat styling with hot rollers, curling irons, etc.
- Limiting sun exposure (wear a hat on bright, sunny days)
- Using conditioner after every shampoo, and generally shampooing less — this is especially good advice if your hair falls out when you wash it
- Avoiding tight ponytails, braids or other hairstyles (wear hair loosely whenever possible)
- Limiting perms and hair color
- Skipping harsh combing or brushing, especially when hair is wet (use a wide-toothed comb when detangling)
2. Older Age
Getting older, combined with genetics, can cause dry hair and hair loss that may not be preventable.
Your hair and skin may get drier as you get older because the body produces less sebum, the oil that keeps hair and skin hydrated, over time.
Balding, or alopecia, typically affects more people assigned male at birth (AMAB) than female. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), pattern baldness affects a quarter of people AMAB by age 30 and about two-thirds by age 60.
Over-the-counter and prescription drugs can help. "Topicals and oral mediations and anti-androgens can be used to treat both female and male pattern variations," Dr. Stevenson says.
Wigs, hair extensions and surgical hair transplants are also possibilities when hair is dry and falling out, to help diminish the appearance of baldness.
Emotional or physical stress can cause 50 to 75 percent of hair to fall out, according to the NLM (although it typically won't dry out your hair). Hair loss due to stress means you may notice clumps or large handfuls when you brush, wash or run your fingers through your hair.
Certain stressful events that can lead to hair shedding include (but are not limited to):
- A death in the family
- Severe illness
- Job loss
- Major surgery
Try to be patient and know that after this particularly stressful period is over, your hair should eventually grow back. You might also consider practicing some yoga to reduce the stress you feel — and there's even some science behind it. A January-February 2016 study in the Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry found yoga poses reduced cortisol, which is the body's main stress hormone.
Nutrient deficiencies, weight loss and eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia can lead to dry hair or hair loss. Per the AAD, a deficiency in protein, iron, zinc or biotin may lead to hair loss, as can getting too much vitamin A.
Hair loss and dry hair due to malnutrition can be corrected with a balanced diet and supplementation to correct nutrient deficiencies. See your doctor if you think you might be lacking a specific nutrient.
For thicker hair, Dr. Stevenson recommends "biotin, which is a member of the vitamin B family, though we should generally eat the rainbow rather than rely on supplementation if you're otherwise healthy."
Biotin can alter some lab results, so it's important to let your doctor know that you plan to start biotin supplements.
5. Hormone Changes
A decrease in estrogen levels that typically happens during menopause or after having a baby can increase hair loss, according to the NLM. This type of hair loss due to hormone changes should be temporary, and hair will typically resume a normal growth pattern within six months to two years.
Go easy on your hair in the postpartum period, which means gentle shampooing, wearing it down and skipping chemical treatments. You might also check in with your doctor to see whether there's another hormonal condition causing your dry, brittle hair, like a thyroid problem.
6. Medical Conditions
Certain diseases can affect hair growth and texture, including:
- Ringworm of the scalp
- Certain types of tumors
- Radiation therapy to treat cancer
We lose about 100 hairs a day, so some hair loss is normal, but get help from your doctor if you're worried about your strands. "Definitely seek out a board-certified dermatologist if you think your hair is falling out, shedding excessively or thinning," urges Dr. Stevenson.
7. Certain Medications
Some medications may contribute to dry hair and/or hair loss, according to the Mayo Clinic, including those used to treat:
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
Never stop taking a medication you've been prescribed without talking to your doctor. Let them know about your symptoms — they may be able to prescribe an alternative drug or offer solutions to help with the side effects.
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Hair Loss: Tips for Managing"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Hair Loss
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Hair Loss: Who Gets and Causes"
- Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry: "Association of yoga practice and serum cortisol levels in chronic periodontitis patients with stress-related anxiety and depression"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hair Loss: Symptoms and Causes"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.