Across the globe, reports have surfaced of COVID-related hair loss and shedding. While a survey from Indiana University School of Medicine has circulated in news feeds since publishing last month—showing 423 of 1,567-plus “long haulers” surveyed have noticed hair loss—field experts are reporting that even individuals who haven’t tested positive for the virus are experiencing similar effects. “Although there is no doubt the symptom of hair loss occurred in many of those surveyed, this type of study does not provide enough data to directly associate hair loss specifically to COVID infection,” says board-certified dermatologist Annie Chiu, founder of… in Los Angeles and associate faculty member of dermatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Hair loss and alopecia are among the most common conditions that she treats at her practice. “Severe sudden stress can lead to hair loss,” Chiu says of the condition known as telogen effluvium in the medical world. “Normally, about 85% of hair is in an active growth phase called anagen, with 15% of hairs in the resting telogen phase, where it can be shed. Physiological or major psychological stressors on the body can essentially shock up to 70% of growing hairs into the telogen phase, where more hairs are shed in a short period of time. This type of hair loss is typically diffuse, not patchy, and patients will notice handfuls of hairs coming out with showering, brushing, or even on their pillowcases.” She points out that half of the hair or more can be shed with telogen effluvium, and patients typically see a dramatic increase in shedding around two or three months after an acute event or illness. Lars Skjøth is seeing fallout even faster. He’s founder and lead scientist behind Harklinikken, the Danish-born clinic that’s gained a cult following among European royalty and Hollywood elites for its customized hair-restoration treatments. (Celebrity hairstylists like Chris McMillan, Harry Josh, and Tracey Cunningham are known to recommend Harklinikken to their clientele.) As soon as the pandemic hit in March, Harklinikken offered its 50,000 clients spanning six continents free consultations to understand what was happening in real time. “That has given us the opportunity to see that certain people have been suffering from much more shedding despite that there has been no COVID attack on that individual,” says Skjøth, who’s spent the last 28 years intensively researching hair loss with a team that spans dermatologists to scientists. “Because there’s been so much stress for so many people for so long before they even get to the place where they may have COVID, I truly believe it has been exacerbating the symptoms of hair loss dramatically,” he shares. “More than 30% of the people we’ve been speaking with have had severe shedding for months, 400 and 500 hairs a day, meaning in a month they’re losing 12,000 to 15,000 hairs of maybe 100,000 total. If you go on like that for two or three months, you can lose half your hair.” Chiu empathizes with the psychological impact this kind of shedding has on her patients but notes that telogen effluvium cases are usually self-resolving—with time. “Our bodies eventually reset the ratio of growing to resting hairs back towards normal, but this process can take months,” she says.
This phenomenon appears to be different from hair miniaturization, the slow and steady process of shrinking hair follicles that produce weaker strands no longer able to reach their maximum growth potential.
Hair miniaturization unfolds throughout a lifetime in what Skjøth describes as “the salami method,” where small “slices” of hair disappear so slowly and consistently that you don’t immediately realize anything is missing. Interestingly, this COVID-related news comes on the heels of Skjøth’s latest tests showing that hair miniaturization can occur in females as young as teenagers. “The new research shows that young women are reaching a point where they’re experiencing this in their teens before they reach 100% of their hair potential,” says Skjøth. “The gradual thinning of 2% or 3% a year becomes 20% or 30% after 10 years.” It’s a condition that more than one-third of females are expected to experience by the time they exit their 30s—whether they know it or not. “A lot of women see these short, thin hairs at their temples and think it is breakage or just the way their hair is—but for many this could be a sign of hair miniaturization,” says Skjøth.
Once a category (and conversation) dominated by male statistics, the American Hair Loss Association reports that nearly 40% of the country’s hair-loss sufferers are, in fact, women. Triggers include (but are not limited to) everything from hormone shifts often following pregnancy, stress and emotional trauma, illness, overuse of hot tools or chemical treatments, and, of course, age. “As we age, most hair is reduced either in the form of balding, receding, or thinning,” says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, who increasingly sees afflicted female clients at her Manhattan-based practice. “Genetics, as well as life changes, contribute to the interference of hair growth.” And unfortunately, like most other health-related issues, the longer one waits to address the problem, the harder it is to treat. However, there are at-home and in-office options that can be practiced now. Below, five ways experts suggest caring for your scalp and hair…