Losing your hair at any age is a traumatic experience, but if it happens in your teenage years, it can be even worse.
Since most people lose some degree of hair as they get older, thinning and/or receding hair is associated with aging. That means hair loss is a condition that can make us look older than we are.
As a teenager, you don’t want to have to have to worry about losing your hair, checking in the mirror all the time to see if things are getting worse.
In this article, you’ll learn about the most common causes of teen hair loss and why they happen.
Next, we’ll review the most effective treatments for early stage hair loss so you can make an informed decision about what to do next, with the goal to stop any further loss and even regain some of the lost hair.
A Look at the Hair Growth Cycle
Before you can understand the causes of teenage hair loss and why they occur, it’s important to first have a solid grasp of the hair growth cycle.
There are three phases in the hair growth cycle (1). They are:
- Anagen. The ‘active’ phase, which also happens to be the longest lasting from 3 – 5 years.
- Catagen. The ‘transition’ phase, which lasts only about 10 days.
- Telogen. The ‘rest’ phase, which lasts a few weeks to a few months.
At any given time, the majority of your hair follicles are in anagen phase. A small minority are in telogen phase, which is why it’s natural to shed 80 – 100 hairs per day.
There are factors that can cause changes to the hair growth cycle, though, and this often leads to thinning and noticeable hair loss.
The 9 Most Common Causes of Hair Loss in Teens
This is not an exhaustive list, but the causes, below, are some of the most likely to affect teens and young adults.
Hormones are a part of life, and they’re active from before you’re born until the day you die. But there are certain periods in life when hormones are most active. One such period of increased activity is puberty (2).
Hormones are regulatory substances that stimulate certain cells into action (2). This stimulation triggers a series of events which determine the outcome of a physiological or behavioral process.
The hormones most prevalent in puberty include testosterone and estrogen, but others, such as progesterone (female) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), also play a role (3).
Over time, testosterone and estrogen, among others, will help to develop secondary sexual characteristics and contribute to final height, body shape, and mature hair growth patterns.
This means that natural hormone fluctuations, as well as imbalances due to illness or medications, can trigger increased hair shedding and lead to thinning or loss (4).
Due to the constant flow of hormones and the many physical and emotional changes that come along with puberty, adolescence is perhaps one of the most stressful times of life.
The stress can affect you emotionally, but it can also manifest physically. One way it does so is through hair loss.
The exact mechanism is unknown, though oxygen and inflammation play a significant role.
Study: German (2017)
One of the more recent research studies to link stress, inflammation, and hair loss was published in 2017 (5).
The study included 33 female volunteers. All of the volunteers were college students, with 18 currently in the midst of exams. The remaining 15 students were used for comparison.
Stress levels were tracked using various tests, including:
- Self-reported distress and coping strategies (Perceived Stress Questionnaire [PSQ]
- Trier Inventory for the Assessment of Chronic Stress [TICS]
- Cytokines in supernatants of stimulated peripheral blood mononucleocytes (PBMCs)
- Trichogram (hair cycle and pigmentation analysis)
The tests were administered during different periods.
The first period (T1) was before the start of the learning period. The second period (T2) was between the three-day written exam and oral exam. The third period (T3) was after 12 weeks of rest following the testing period.
The main indicator of stress and inflammation in this study were cytokines, pro-inflammatory substances released by the immune system.
The exam students experienced a notable increase in cytokine levels between T1 and T2, while the non-exam students’ cytokine levels remained stable.
And during T3, the exam students stress levels were still higher than their non-exam counterparts.
But even more interesting are the percentage of hair follicles in anagen phase and telogen phase during this time.
The exam students had significantly less follicles in anagen phase and more in telogen phase than their non-exam peers.
As concluded by the researchers, the study suggests that there are:
“increased hair growth hampering immune-responses and decreased hair growth during times of high stress.”
The internal struggles you face as a teenager can sometimes manifest themselves physically. For example, weight loss or gain are commonly associated with poorly managed mental health.
But another physical manifestation of stress, anxiety, or depression is trichotillomania (TMM).
Trichotillomania is a compulsive disorder in which sufferers will pull on, or completely pluck, scalp and body hair from the follicles.
The result is short-term baldness.
While hair lost because of this condition can regrow in the short term, the failure to treat trichotillomania can lead to long-term follicular damage. In simplest terms, the hair follicles will eventually become too damaged to function (i.e. grow hair) as they should.
This is why TMM is a major problem for teenagers and adolescents and also why it’s considered to be one of the more common causes of teenage hair loss.
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
Between academics, extracurricular activities, and social life, teenagers are constantly on the go. Because of this, their food is more likely to be convenient and, therefore, heavily processed and nutritionally inadequate.
The truth is that teenagers can, and often do, suffer from nutrient deficiencies from time to time (8).
There are many reasons for this, including:
“peer influences, parental modeling, food availability, food preferences, cost, convenience, personal and cultural beliefs, mass media, and body image.”
The most prevalent of these deficiencies include iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium (9). These can cause various problems in the body, especially when they are present concurrently.
A few such problems are hair thinning, breakage, and loss.
When your body is not getting what it needs, it will take what it does get and provide it to the vital organs first. The “non-vital” organs, including the hair, skin, and nails, will then be left with the remnants.
5. Traction Alopecia
Traction alopecia is a form of thinning/hair loss that is most often caused by overstyling or the constant wearing of hats/bandanas/doo-rags/etc.
This type of hair loss is typically seen in adolescents and young adults, but it can occur at any age.
The cause is traction, or mechanical stress (10). The constant pulling on the same areas of hair will cause breakage or complete removal of the hair from the follicle. The area may thin as a response to the constant irritation.
The good news is that traction alopecia is completely reversible as long as you treat it in its earliest stages.
6. Androgenetic Alopecia
The most common cause of hair loss in men and women, Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA) is pattern hair loss that first occurs at the hairline (in males) or the vertex (in females) (11).
And while this condition is most likely to occur in men over the age of 35, it can start as early as your teens (12).
The exact cause of AGA is unknown, but scientists believe that a variety of factors contribute to its development and progression (13). These include:
- Androgen (DHT) levels and sensitivity
- Lifestyle (stress, depression, activity level)
- Environment (air quality, water and soil quality)
Androgenetic alopecia has no cure. However, there is a lot you can do to slow down the progression of the condition, especially if you start early.
7. Alopecia Areata
Another condition without an exact known cause, Alopecia Areata (AA) is a hair loss disorder that results in round, patchy bald spots.
There are many medical professionals who believe AA is an autoimmune disorder (14). In this case, the immune system attacks the hair follicles as it perceives them as a threat.
However, there are those who believe it’s more likely that AA is a viral or bacterial condition where the immune system attacks the virus or bacteria in order to kill it, damaging follicles in the process (15).
But whatever the cause, the results can be devastating for the sufferer.
Emotional stress isn’t the only type of stress that can trigger hair loss. Physical stress, including illness and injury, can also result in temporary or permanent balding.
Illnesses can put a lot of strain on the body. Whether they are hormonal (such as PCOS) or physical (such as lupus, or influenza), they can require a lot of the body’s immune and metabolic systems.
These illnesses, especially if long term, can then cause what is known as Telogen Effluvium (TE) (16).
TE is a type of temporary alopecia. It occurs anywhere from weeks to months after an illness or injury, and it results in excess shedding and diffuse (all over) thinning.
In the majority of cases, TE will resolve on its own and your hair will regrow. It can turn into a chronic problem, though, if your medical condition is left untreated or uncontrolled.
Just as illness can wreak short-term and long-term havoc on your body’s various processes, so can medications.
The medications taken by teenagers that may trigger hair loss and other symptoms include birth control, antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and prescription acne drugs.
They can trigger one of two types of loss – TE, or Anagen Effluvium (AE) (17).
As mentioned above, TE causes the follicles to prematurely enter telogen phase which initiates large scale shedding of the scalp.
AE takes place during anagen phase, and it happens when the anagen phase of hair growth is suddenly interrupted. Instead of transitioning to telogen phase, as happens in TE, the hair sheds without the bulb in the midst of active growth.
Anagen effluvium is less common than TE and the results are more severe.
So, what determines which type of effluvium you might experience while taking medication?
It depends on the mechanisms of the medication you’re taking.
AE is often experienced by those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Both of these treatments cause hair growth to cease immediately, which is soon followed by shedding.
On the other hand, TE takes time to occur (anywhere from weeks to months) and is the type of effluvium caused by the majority of medications.
In the cause of TE-inducing medications, the side effects are often temporary, and the majority of them will resolve over a few months. You should speak with your doctor if hair loss continues.
NOTE: Do not stop taking medication without the guidance of your physician.
Signs of Early Stage Hair Loss
For the best treatment results, it’s important to catch – and treat – hair fall as soon as possible. By knowing the signs of early hair loss, you can get ahead of the issue.
As mentioned previously, it’s normal to shed 80 – 100 hairs per day. An increase in these numbers – whether consistent, or sudden – is often a sign of early hair loss.
The easiest way to measure shedding is in the mornings by checking the hairs on your pillow and after you shower by counting the hairs in the drain.
You can also perform a ‘pull’ test. Just run your fingers loosely through your hair and count the number of hairs that end up in your hand.
By performing these checks regularly you can have a good idea of your average shed numbers so you can catch hair loss at the very beginning stages.
Pattern Hair Loss
While not common in teens, pattern hair loss can occur. The most likely cause is androgenetic alopecia, and this is especially true for anyone with a family history (paternal or maternal) of pattern balding.
The pattern differs by sex, with males experiencing a receding hairline and females suffering from a thinning crown.
You’ll likely notice this pattern gradually, but it’s important to treat it right away for the best possible outcome.
Slowed Hair Growth
It’s normal for hairs to shed on a regular basis, and that’s not a problem for most people. But when your hairs are slow in growing back, it can create noticeable thinning.
Slowed hair growth is often a sign of telogen effluvium, as more follicles are in telogen phase than normal. There are less follicles in anagen (active growth) as a result, which means it takes longer to see regrowth.
This will often resolve on its own, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on shedding patterns and take action if the shed count increases.
Scalp Itching and Irritation
The scalp is a complex, yet delicate, environment. There are many irritants – both internal and external – that can trigger itching, irritation, and general discomfort.
If the itching and irritation continue for longer than a few days, you may be at risk of hair thinning and balding.
The likeliest causes include dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, DHT sensitivity due to untreated AGA, or an allergic reaction (18).
And while the itching and irritation themselves can be a sign of hair loss, they can also be the cause. This is because scratching at your scalp can dislodge hairs from the follicles.
Split Ends and Breakage
Hair fall and thinning is most often initiated at the root of the follicle. In this way, the entire hair strand sheds.
However, certain causes of hair loss can trigger split ends and breakage which will eventually lead to noticeable thinning throughout the scalp.
Trichotillomania is one major cause of split ends, as the condition involves compulsively pulling on the hair strands. While some of these strands will completely split from the follicle, it’s also possible to stretch out the strands until they become weaker and break.
Another cause for weak hair and breakage is nutrient deficiencies, which can affect the integrity and strength of the hair. You’ll likely notice a lackluster appearance in conjunction with split ends.
These deficiencies can also extend to the nails, where you may notice flaking, indents, and breakage.
How to Treat Teenage Hair Loss
There are many products available on the market that claim they can treat hair loss and regrow hair. These products, including Rogaine and Propecia, tend to have side effects and the results are only temporary.
That’s why you should consider a more natural form of treatment. These include lifestyle changes and preventative measures. Let’s take a look.
1. Make an Appointment With a Hair Loss Specialist
While you may be wary of visiting a doctor, this can be one of the best things you can do when it comes to treating hair loss.
As highlighted above, hair loss has many causes. And while comparing signs and symptoms may give you a general idea of the cause of your hair loss, it’s not a fool-proof technique.
A medical doctor can perform tests – including blood work, scalp biopsies, and physical examinations – to gain a better understanding of your overall health and wellness. The results of these tests may be able to definitively pinpoint a cause of hair loss, or at least rule out some of the most common ones.
And if you’re worried that a doctor will only push prescriptions medications on you, there are also many who will work with you to find a more natural approach to treating the problem.
So, which type of doctor should you see?
A trichologist is a dermatologist who specializes in hair and related conditions. They are probably the best equipped when it comes to finding out the cause of your thinning and balding.
However, if the wait list for a trichologist is long you can also start the process with your primary care doctor.
They can begin the various tests, including blood panels, that will later be helpful in pinpointing the trigger for your hair loss.
2. Improve Your Diet
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high carb, high fat, and otherwise all-around unhealthy. It includes processed and preservative-laden foods, and many of these lack the nutrients that our bodies require.
This is why the first step in treating hair loss, no matter the cause, is to improve your dietary choices.
A poor diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies and, in the long-term, it may trigger hormonal imbalance and illness and contribute to depression and stress.
When combined, these factors create the perfect storm for early hair loss.
The best thing you can do is transition to a whole foods diet, one which focuses on lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
3. Use Natural Hair Products
Hair products – including shampoo, conditioner, gel, hairspray, and serum – are used often by teenagers and adults alike. However, they may be interfering with healthy hair growth and contributing to your problem.
The majority of hair products on the market contain preservatives, sulfates, and alcohols.
These ingredients prolong the shelf life of the product, but they can also cause harm to your hair and scalp by stripping it of its natural oils and triggering a pH imbalance (19).
Fortunately, alternative options do exist.
All-natural products are those that are free of preservatives and other harmful ingredients. They contain real ingredients with proven results.
4. Avoid Harsh Chemicals and Heat Styling
There may be some causes of hair thinning and loss that are out of your control. But there is always something you can do to reduce the damage and prevent hair breakage/loss in the future.
One of those things is to avoid overstyling your hair.
Harsh chemicals and heat styling can wreak havoc on your hair. They strip the scalp and hair of its natural protective oils, and they also make the hair strands more susceptible to stretching, breakage, and splitting.
When combined with the cause of your hair loss, you can increase the risk of permanent baldness significantly.
The simple solution is to avoid the use of harsh chemical styling products, and use heating appliances such as blow dryers, straighteners, and curling wands as little as possible.
If you must rely on the use of heating appliances to keep your hair manageable, you’ll want to moisturize often and use natural heat protectants (such as argan oil).
These techniques can mitigate the damage, though they may not be enough in the long run.
Teenagers face enough struggles in their day-to-day lives, and worrying about thinning hair and balding shouldn’t be one of them. But unfortunately, hair loss can happen to adolescents and young adults.
For many, the cause can be easy enough to pinpoint. This makes it possible to treat the issue early, which will increase the odds of successful regrowth.
You may also need a bit of help from your doctor or a hair loss specialist, and that’s okay, too.
Fortunately, it’s possible to implement the recommended treatments, above, on your own, and because they’re natural, you don’t need to worry about side effects. It also means you don’t need inordinate amounts of money, which is inaccessible to most teenagers, to treat the problem.