Stress hair loss: why the pandemic is causing hair loss in young women

The pandemic has seen an untamed growth in stress hair loss, but here’s how you can tease your mane back to its voluminous former state...

stress hair loss
(Image credit: Getty Images / Maskot / Holger Scheibe / Miljko)

You may have thought the year 2020 would result in inches of healthy hair rather than stress hair loss – with lots of rejuvenating sleep and an absence of social events to scorch-style our locks for. After all, lockdown saw us master the TikTok trend of curling our mane with socks (yep, really) and fall in love with the plastic-free, ultra-nourishing wondrousness of shampoo bars.

However, while 40% of women will suffer from hair loss at some point in their life, its prevalence has shot up during the pandemic. This is particularly among younger females, many of whom, in normal times, wouldn’t be likely to experience shedding and thinning until they’re skirting 40. ‘A rising number of women are reporting a disproportionate amount of hair loss during lockdown,’ says Kuldeep Knox, Founder of Chāmpo Haircare. ‘The 25 to 30 age group is currently the fastest growing in the hair loss sector.’

First things first, some hair loss is normal – we lose an average of 100 strands a day (250 on wash day), much of which collects up in Tangle Teezers throughout the nation. However, hormone changes (such as during pregnancy and the menopause) can trigger our locks to thin and shed. Likewise, as we age, the rate at which hair grows slows down. And not getting enough of the right nutrients in our diet, as well as medical conditions – such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or thyroid disorders – may also play a part.

But the, er... mane question is what on earth has been going on during the pandemic?

The role of stress in hair loss

Even if you haven’t lost a job or loved ones, the uncertainties of lockdown have gradually worn many down. Indeed, a recent study found that one in four have seen their mental health suffer during this time, with women and young people particularly at risk. ‘We can't attribute the rise in hair loss down to any one factor as it’s a complicated issue, but we do know that stress can impact our hair growth,’ says Dr Bessam Farjo, an aesthetic doctor and founder of the Farjo Hair Institute. ‘And there’s no doubt that this year has been a challenging one for many.’ 

Exactly how does psychological strain from life events do this? ‘Hair grows and then reaches a resting phase where it will eventually shed, and new hair will grow – that’s normal,’ explains Dr Adam Friedmann, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Clinics. ‘In the case of stress-related hair loss – medically known as telogen effluvium – stress hormones, called neuropeptides, push hairs out of the growing phase, and into the resting phase, slowing regrowth to the point where thinning hair becomes obvious.’

This is because, when the body is under stress, a lovely, swishy mane is the last thing it’s preoccupied with. ‘It limits nutrients and blood flow to non-essential functions – like hair – in order to prioritise vital organs and tissue,’ explains Kieran Tudor, principal stylist at Josh Wood and creative director for Centred.

In addition to telogen effluvium, stress can also trigger other forms of hair loss, such as alopecia areata. ‘This is an autoimmune hair loss condition which typically results in circular bald patches, most commonly on the scalp,’ explains Dr Sharon Wong, consultant dermatologist at London Bridge Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare. ‘In others, stress can lead to the repetitive hair pulling disorder trichotillomania.’

Similarly, Dr Shirin Lakhani, cosmetic doctor at Elite Aesthetics, adds that stress can ‘also give rise to a number of other issues, such as scalp problems – like dandruff – and a change in eating habits, which may in turn impact the hair’. Indeed, stress-snacking won’t be helping...

Coronavirus and hair loss

For some, it might be having encountered COVID-19 itself. ‘Whether hair loss is an actual symptom of coronavirus is still under investigation,’ says Dr Farjo. But it’s common for people to lose their locks six to 12 weeks after any vicious illness. 

What’s more, being infected by a potentially deadly virus is rather scary in itself. ‘Many COVID-19 patients may have felt stress, shock and trauma, which can bring on hair loss,’ says Eva Proudman, a consultant trichologist and chair of the Institute of Trichologists. She points to a study which discovered a third of people have reported hair shedding as long-term post-coronavirus issue.

Is your lifestyle contributing to hair loss?

Hair loss may also be down to your WFH eating habits. ‘Another common cause is nutritional deficiency,’ says Dr Lakhani. ‘Vitamin B12 can impact the health of the red blood cells which carry oxygen to your tissues, while an iron deficiency – or anaemia – means that the body does not produce enough essential protein for the hair cells. Vitamin A and Biotin are also needed for growth.’ So try to eat plenty of sweet potatoes, carrots and leafy greens as well as whole grains, almonds, meat, oily fish, seafood and eggs.

Spending a lot of time indoors on the sofa watching all the new shows added to Netflix likewise won’t have helped. ‘Lockdown has restricted our access to sunlight and therefore vitamin D,’ says Proudman. ‘Hair follicles have vitamin D receptors which stimulate hair growth, so if your vitamin D level is low or deficient then your hair is at risk of shedding excessively.’

How to help your hair regrow after hair loss

Patience is a virtue. If hair loss is caused by stress, it will grow back naturally if you can take steps to calm your mind. Dr Lakhani advises trying things like meditation or walking. Or you can seek the support of a therapist.

But it is important to establish whether there are any additional factors which may be making the hair loss worse, notes Proudman. ‘For example, nutritional deficiencies or hormone imbalances, so seeing your GP to undertake some routine blood tests will be helpful.’

If you’re worried that you’re not eating a varied enough diet with everything going on, Dr Sophie Shotter, an aesthetic doctor, reccommends ‘vitamin D3 and biotin as excellent places to start’.

Knox suggests treating your scalp to a five to ten minute massage in the shower ‘which stimulates blood circulation to the follicles, ensuring delivery of oxygen and nutrients’. She says when you’re finished, gently pat hair dry and use a wide-tooth comb if you need to detangle. 

But try to limit hair washes to a maximum of three times a week to prevent your locks being stripped of nourishing natural oils. Tudor adds, ‘Avoid shampoo containing sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), as these detergents leave locks dry and brittle.’ Limiting heat styling and tight hairstyles, like top knots, will also do wonders.

However, Dr Shotter adds, ‘If your hair continues to shed with no sign of stabilisation then seek specialist advice from a professional – there are a range of in-clinic treatments that may help.’ Sounds pretty good.

Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. Most recently, she has been the Acting Commissioning Editor of Women's Health—where she co-produced the Going For Goal podcast—and has previously also written news and features for titles including The Telegraph, Grazia, Stylist, Dazed, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss. She covers all aspects of lifestyle, specializing in health, beauty, and travel. Can't live without: oat milk lattes, new podcast episodes, long walks, and great skincare.