As hair loss is on the rise (thanks, Covid-19), Sarah Macken examines what we can do to coax our tresses back on track …
There’s a scene in Sex and the City where Samantha, confronted with hair loss from chemotherapy, tries to find a wig. “My hair is my thing,” she affirms, after rebuffing a questionable acrylic wig named Candy. The sentiment is relatable: to lose our hair feels like losing a part of ourselves. It may sound like a hackneyed statement, but it’s a cliché for a good reason. Good hair, as Vidal Sassoon put it, means there’s a twinkle in our eye when we look in the mirror. On the flip side, seeing clumps of your hair circle the shower drain, or come out in handfuls with one touch of your head, is utterly nightmarish.
It’s on the rise, too. According to the American Academy of Dermatology one of the biggest long-term effects of Covid-19 is noticeable (albeit, temporary) hair loss. Coined the “Covid hair shed”, the hair loss usually begins two to three months after having the virus. What’s going on?
It’s something that Hatim Shweiki, a hair and scalp consultant, explains as telogen effluvium, a medical term for short term hair shedding, usually triggered by a shock to the body like a fever or illness. The trauma effectively fast-tracks hairs to the shedding phase of the hair growth cycle, forcing more hair than usual to fall out.
“With Covid-19, the immune system collapses, and when the immune system collapses the first thing it affects is our hair,” Shweiki explains. The same kind of hair loss is common in women after having a baby, or in the wake of traumatic life events like losing a loved one, or a break up. One expert tells me it’s huge after moving house. With stress an endemic part of modern living that has sky-rocketed over the last two years it’s little wonder we’re not all bald. Even if you managed to avoid contracting the virus, it’s thought the emotional distress of living through a pandemic is enough in itself to trigger a hair fall. I meet Shweiki in the wig room of his clinic Trendcology in Drummartin, Dublin 14, a safe space for those suffering with hair and scalp issues. Shweiki is an expert in hair loss and alternative hair replacement treatments such as hair transplant, wigs and hair systems, having trained with The Trichological Society in London. The petite space belies a cult following, which Shweiki has honed since setting up the business in 1994.
His client base stretches from teens to mature women who experience telogen effluvium and severe forms of alopecia. With teens, one of the causes of hair loss is overuse of hair extensions, there are rarer cases with children, also (a recent example was stress-induced hair loss from school bullying). There are a few men, too. Although telogen effluvium seems to be largely a woman’s prerogative: lucky us.
Shweiki encourages us not to panic. “What’s really important to know is that this kind of hair loss is not permanent,” he says. “Most people see their hair regain its normal fullness within six to nine months, usually denoted by a regrowth of ‘baby’ hairs around the hair line.”
As the hair repopulates naturally, it’s not so much intervention that’s needed as reassurance, says Professor Caitriona Ryan, a consultant dermatologist at the Institute of Dermatologists in Ballsbridge who often treats GPs with telogen effluvium. Stressing about hair loss is, naturally, the worst thing you can do when you have hair loss. It’s only when the stress passes that the excessive shedding stops.
It’s psychological, too. While men might feel a stigma around coming forward, women often skip to the worst case scenario: that it’s all going to fall out fast. “I’ve had clients call me saying their hair is coming out in clumps and they’re in a panic going, ‘I don’t know what’s going on and I’m afraid by the time I see you I’ll have no hair left’,” Ryan says.
The path to help isn’t always straightforward. The world of trichology, the science of hair and its diseases, is largely unexplored in Ireland: with no official training over here, the route to a diagnosis is via your GP, who will run some general health checks, particularly for iron, vitamin D and thyroid levels, before referring you to a dermatologist, who can prescribe treatment and medication.
“Even if you managed to avoid contracting the virus, the emotional distress of living through a pandemic is enough in itself to trigger a hair fall.”
This is where Shweiki comes in, as a kind of support system for tying all the pieces together. Part-hairdressing, part-psychology, the first step is to examine the person’s lifestyle for the last twelve months, from diet and exercise, stress and work, to whether they practice mindfulness. There are, of course, treatments, too. Big at the clinic is scalp dermabrasion, a type of intense exfoliation which clears the accumulation of product and debris, like oils and dead skin, boosting blood flow.
Most of us wash our hair incorrectly, Sheiki tells me. “People who wash their hair too quickly have a lot of debris,” he says, who encourages clients to wash their hair daily to stimulate hair growth. Speaking of which, Sheiki advises always washing hair upside down, otherwise product accumulates at the nape of the neck, resulting in build-up and irritation. A good diet is a precursor to great hair, too. “Vegetarians often have flyaway hair,” he says, due to a lack of protein from red meat. Eating protein rich foods like eggs, nuts, carrots and plenty of fish for Omega-3, is key.
A common myth with hair loss is that we shouldn’t colour our hair. “I have clients come to me with grey hair; they stopped dying it because they felt it was worsening their hair loss,” Ryan says. The two aren’t connected: the cause is more likely related to lifestyle, diet, stress, or a hereditary issue. Thankfully, there’s no need to cope with thinning hair, and suddenly go grey, too.
What’s key is the right colour. Shweiki sends clients home as far as London and New York with bespoke colour recipes for their colourists to follow. Over the years, he’s honed a technique that creates the effect of fuller hair with minimal damage, applying darker colour at the roots helping to mask gaps, and a lighter one at the ends (something he perfected in the 1990s when giving teenage boys frosted tips). In extreme cases, he uses pure vegetable colour, which he likens to more of a gentle stain than a hair dye, as it simultaneously conditions the hair.
What about other types of hair loss? In mid-life, the menopause speeds up the process of female pattern hair loss. It’s substantial, affecting about 50 per cent of women by the age of 70. However, female baldness is different to mens’. “Women don’t suffer a recession of the hairline as much as a diffuse loss of follicle – you see more of the scalp,” Ryan says. Some women have that as early as their 20s or 30s, especially if they have a syndrome such as polycystic ovaries (PCOS).
A promising solution is platelet-rich plasma (PRP), commonly known as the vampire treatment, that’s been popularised in facials. It’s a process whereby blood is drawn, circulated in a centrifuge, platelet-rich plasma is collected, then injected into areas of hair loss across the scalp. This, combined with a topical over-the-counter treatment such as Regaine, is an effective route. Shweiki endorses Vicapteina, a hair loss prevention treatment that protects hair cells from premature ageing. Discreet, it comes in the form of a plaster, similar to a nicotine or estrogen patch.
In May, the government announced a grant of up to €500 per calendar year for non-surgical hair replacement – that is, hairpieces and wigs – for those suffering hair loss due to disease or illness. It’s a boon for those with alopecia, or those going through chemotherapy.
At his hair loss clinic, Shweiki has 50,000 wigs available to order and is unrelenting in helping clients find “the one”. They could try on anything from 15 to 60 wigs. He estimates about 95 per cent of clients choose a different style to their original hairstyle. “It’s an excuse to try things your own hair can’t naturally achieve: thickness, curls, sometimes a fringe,” he says.
A lifeline for telogen effluvium is a course of Viviscal Professional supplements (higher strength than the Viviscal you see in the pharmacy, Sheiki recommends these above others). What’s important to remember with hair loss of any kind is that it’s rarely permanent. Although, it may take as long as six to nine months before your hair – and your mojo – returns to its peak, it’s a worthwhile journey. As Shweiki keenly observes, “When you look in the mirror, the first thing you see is your hair, liking what you see is important.”
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