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Cowlick vs bald spot: This is the difference

Is a cowlick an early sign of hair loss?

Written by
Deirdre Fidge
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 19, 2024
min read
Cowlick vs bald spot: This is the difference
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You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who claims they have never had a bad hair day (and if you do, ask who their stylist is) but there are certain elements of hair growth that can make it feel like it's a constant battle: cowlicks, thinning, excessive shedding.

The first step to managing any hair issue is to work out what the issue actually is. While it sounds obvious, it can be difficult to ascertain whether a follicle pattern on the scalp is a cowlick or bald spot. We've taken the time to do the research, get the facts, and hopefully, help you have fewer battles with your hairline.

What is a cowlick?

A cowlick is one of those things thats cute name belies the experience of actually living with one (this writer struggles daily with her own). The word originated in the 1590s because a cow mother grooms their calf by licking upwards and, well, it kind of does look like a cow licked that one patch of your head.

Cowlicks are growth patterns in the hair that cause some of the strands to go in opposite direction, resulting in the affected area having hair that sticks straight up, or lays flat to the head. If you were lucky enough to be born with one, you know the specific frustration this tiny patch of hair growing in a different direction can cause. (But the good news is, it also means you have something in common with Brad Pitt, Anne Hathaway and Megan Fox.)

These little hair whorls don't suddenly appear. It's worth keeping in mind that a person's scalp hair pattern remains unchanged throughout their entire lifetime. The sloping angle of hair results from stretch on the scalp from the growth of underlying foetal brain during just 10 to 16 weeks gestation. It's been reported that around 95 to 95 per cent of Caucasian infants have a single 'hair whorl' at the back of the scalp, typically in a clockwise spiral pattern.

A recent study in the International Journal of Trichology reports that one's natural hair growth pattern is determined in the womb and suggests there is a strong genetic link. If you have a cowlick, there is a strong chance one of your parents or siblings do too. It may just be part of your family history.

Is a cowlick an early sign of balding?

No, not necessarily. This is a common misconception because the shorter hairs in a cow lick can often give an illusion of thinner hair. Cowlicks are sometimes more noticeable in longer or thinner hair, but they can be found in every hair type and across all genders.

Because the cowlick can cause the hair to stick straight up or in the complete opposite direction, it can create a partially exposed area of skin which may look similar to early balding or a receding hairline. But the long and the short of it is that if you were born with a cowlick, this doesn't mean you are more prone to hair loss.

If you happen to experience thinning hair (which is super common as we age) or notice your hair changing, this may be an early sign of hair loss or balding.

What are the first signs of balding?

Hair loss, also referred to as alopecia or balding, typically refers to excessive hair loss from the scalp. Some early signs of balding can look like one or more of the following:

  • Gradual thinning hair on the top of the head: This is the most common type of hair loss and usually a result of ageing.
  • Circular or patchy bald spots: In some people, hair loss occurs in circular or patchy bald spots on the scalp (this can occur on the beard and in eyebrows, as well).
  • A sudden 'loosening' of the hair: If hair falls out dramatically, this is often caused by physical or emotional stress or shock and is usually temporary.

What causes bald spots?

Did you know we lose around 50 to 100 hairs each day? Usually, this isn't noticeable because new hair strands are growing in at the same time the others fall out. Hair loss occurs when there is no hair regrowth so the normal hair growth cycle does not occur. It is most commonly related to one or more of the following factors:

  • Family history: The most common cause of hair loss is a hereditary condition that happens with ageing.
  • Hormonal changes or medical conditions: Permanent or temporary hair loss is associated with a variety of conditions including hormonal changes due to thyroid problems. Some immune conditions or autoimmune disorders can cause hair loss or hair thinning.
  • Medications and supplements: Hair loss can be a side effect of certain medications, in particular drugs used in the treatment of cancer, depression, arthritis, heart conditions, gout or high blood pressure.
  • Radiation therapy
  • External factors: As mentioned earlier, if someone experiences shock or trauma, this can lead to hair loss.
  • Certain hairstyles or hair products: Sometimes, baldness occurs from wearing tight hairstyles such as a high ponytail or cornrows, or using a product like a relaxer that can damage the hair and cause it to fall out.

What's the difference between a cowlick and a bald spot?

Essentially, they are two completely separate things, like apples and oranges. A cowlick is a pattern in the hair follicles, and not related to male pattern baldness. A bald spot is a patch of hair loss that is visibly noticeable and usually a sign of more general balding.

Confusion between the two can occur in people with particularly thin hair or light-coloured hair as a cowlick can often look like a balding spot.

The commonality between a cowlick or balding issue is that they can both be managed — just very differently!

Ways to treat bald spots

The good news is that if you suspect you may be experiencing hair loss or excessive shedding, there are a range of treatments available. It has been found that people who treat their hair loss in the early stages can prevent further balding, and have a better chance at regrowing their hair. You can chat to a medical professional and receive a personalised hair loss treatment online with Pilot.

Developed by Dr. Russell Knudsen, a hair loss expert with over 35 years of experience, our treatment plans get to the root of the issue and address what's causing your hair loss directly. Using a combination of lifestyle changes, over-the-counter treatments and clinical-strength ingredients, we're happy to report that over 80 per cent of our patients report improved hair growth and stronger, healthier hair.

When it comes to hair loss, though, time is of the essence, so be sure to get started sooner rather than later.

Alongside specialised treatments, you can consider the following tips if your hair loss is contributed to by external or lifestyle factors:

  • Be gentle with your hair. Use the right hair products for your hair type, and avoid brushing wet hair (especially long hair, but even short hair can be easily damaged). You can opt for using a wide-toothed comb to prevent any hair pulls and try to avoid harsh treatments like heated styling tools or bleach. If you use a blow dryer, try to limit the use to keep the remaining hair healthy and try to air dry more days than not.
  • Protect your hair. If you do want to blow dry, use a heat protectant spray beforehand. We also now know how damaging the sun can be on the hair — remember the classic Slip Slop Slap mantra of suncare? That also applies to your head. Be mindful to wear a hat when outdoors and limit swimming in chlorine if you suspect it is contributing to hair damage.
  • Consider quitting smoking. There are a range of reasons to quit, but if you need another, some studies have found a correlation between cigarette smoking and hair loss.

Can a cowlick be treated?

A cowlick can be managed and treated, but not 'cured' permanently, as the growth pattern will remain the same and keep growing out in that pattern. That is to say, if the majority of your hair grows in a clockwise pattern but your cowlick insists on charging in the opposite direction, this will continue because it's the natural pattern.

Just like a 'perm' treatment or dye job, the new hair will always keep doing its own thing. (Sorry.)

But don't give up hope! Try some of these tips to manage your cowlick:

  • Chat to your hair stylist. It's important to make sure the cut and styling of your hair matches your hair type. Some stylists suggest they can be more prominent-looking in super short hair, but it really depends on the location of your 'lick and the rest of your hair type and pattern.
  • Use tools (sparingly!). Okay, yes, we did just mention limiting heat tools on the hair. And we stand by that. But for special occasions, a clever blow dry or flick of a hair straightener can tame those stubborn locks.
  • Use products. As we mentioned earlier, cowlicks are sometimes more noticeable in light or fine hair. A clever little styling wax or even dry shampoo can also help tame it into place.

One last takeaway

The key message from all this is that whether you have thinning hair, a cowlick, or both (it happens), there are a lot of ways you can learn to manage these problems. While any issue with hair can be stressful, there is nothing to be ashamed about, and more people struggle with their hair than they might admit. Have a chat with your doctor or online with a medical professional to chat through your specific needs.

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