Fistfuls. Wastebaskets full. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror when my hair is down and wonder how noticeable it is—hanging from my scalp to my shoulders, the light easily shines through from the other side. Was it like that before?
Every time I brush my hair, comb my fingers through my hair, step out of the shower… literal handfuls fall out. I keep my hair pulled back in a bun or ponytail (loose, because supposedly if you pull it back too tight it only exacerbates the hair loss) because if I don’t, I will find hairs all over my clothes, my back, my chest, all down my pants, and in my food. I even pull hair out of my underwear. Every day I scrape together the hairs that have accumulated on my bathroom floor and put them in the trash, and I have to cut the hairs out of my vacuum roller brush far more often than usual to keep it from jamming up from the tangle of hair.
I’m taking my vitamins. I started those back up a few weeks ago, in part because of this thing with my hair. I was also worried about my crappy sleep, low energy levels, and crappy mood. The vitamins seem to have helped with my energy and mood, but my hair still rains like sad confetti all over my house.
While I know hair is not the most important thing in the world—I’m far more worried about my mental health than whether or not I have long, lustrous locks—it is still disconcerting to see this much falling out.
But I’m not alone. Turns out, many people are experiencing unusual amounts of hair loss right now, and doctors are attributing it to pandemic stress. According to a recent article by the New York Times, doctors are reporting that many patients are losing hair whether they were infected with COVID-19 or not.
Many of us saw the August video of Alyssa Milano pulling out handfuls of hair after months of fighting a nasty COVID-19 infection. “Thought I’d show you what #Covid19 does to your hair. Please take this seriously,” she said in the post, and then proceeded to brush her hair with a gentle detangler and pull out literal wads of hair.
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) August 9, 2020
The CDC website as of yet does not include hair loss as a symptom of COVID-19, but what doctors are saying is that a high number of patients complain of hair loss several months after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal, an associate professor of dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic, says this hair loss is temporary and attributes it to a “shock to the system,” essentially a disruption of the normal hair growth cycle.
But I’m losing hair, and as far as I know, I didn’t have COVID. But that’s the thing. You don’t have to have had a COVID-19 infection in order to experience this type of hair loss, known as telogen effluvium—a nonscarring loss of hair having to do with a disruption in the normal hair growth cycle.
“There are several common triggers,” says Dr. Khetarpal, “such as surgery, major physical or psychological trauma, any kind of infection or high fever, extreme weight loss or a change in diet. Hormonal changes, such as post-partum or menopause, can also be a cause. There are other medical or nutritional conditions that can trigger this as well.”
The pandemic has been a trauma for so many of us, whether we had COVID or not. Our worlds were put on pause, we have watched loved ones become very sick and sometimes die alone, we have worried for our children, we have juggled work with distance learning, we have been kept from elderly loved ones and penned in with spouses we need a break from… the list could go on for pages. We are freaking stressed. Our systems have been shocked.
A normal follicle growth cycle includes a growth phase (anagen), a resting phase (catagen), and a shedding phase (telogen). Hence the name “telogen effluvium”—the “telogen” is for the shedding and “effluvium” is generally defined as “an offensive exhalation or smell,” so that’s a weirdly dark way to talk about our hair falling out.
Anyway, usually, around 90% of our hair is in the growth phase, with 5% in the resting phase and 5% in the shedding phase. Most of us shed between 50 and 100 hairs per day. When a stressful event causes a disruption to this cycle, its outcome in terms of hair loss is often not seen for two to three months. That’s because that’s when the telogen phase—the shedding part—increases dramatically, from 5% to as much as 50%. That also means there is less hair in the growth phase. This is why people see clumps of hair falling out and may even notice thinning or active bald spots. It’s literally up to a tenfold increase in your usual hair loss, coupled with a decrease in growth.
Again, there are multiple events that can trigger this disruption in our hair growth cycle. Many of us know what it’s like to experience postpartum hair loss due to the hormonal disruption to our hair growth cycle. A case of COVID could trigger it, but so could the intense worry that so many feel from dealing with pandemic life and everything else that’s going on right now in the U.S., from civil unrest to forest fires to our constantly lying president and his cult of followers. The root cause of the disruption is different, but the outcome—hair loss—is the same.
According to doctors, this hair loss can go on for as long as nine months, which sounds kind of horrifying, but the good news is, most of us will eventually return to normal hair growth cycles. If you’re experiencing hair loss that you think could be stress-related, there are a few things you can do. Be sure to eat a well-balanced diet, especially ensuring plenty of vitamin D and iron. Adding a biotin supplement can help as well. Engage in stress-relieving activities like walking, yoga, or meditation to help regulate your system. There are some over-the-counter FDA-approved medications for telogen effluvium, such as minoxidil 5% (the active ingredient in Rogaine), but pregnant or breastfeeding people should not use this. And of course, always consult your doctor before taking any new medication.
It may help to remember as well, that though it may be wonderful to show off a head of thick, shiny hair, and though it may be distressing to watch it come out in clumps (I would know) — it is, in the end, only hair.
That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care if mine grew back or not.