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What causes hair loss?

The causes of hair loss are still largely misunderstood by many people.

Written by
Joe Cutcliffe
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
May 17, 2023
min read
What causes hair loss?
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Hair loss is easily the most common condition from which men suffer globally. While it usually comes down to one or two factors, the causes of hair loss are still largely misunderstood by the general population.

Almost entirely because it’s so popular, old wives’ tales and household myths about what cures hair loss is rife, and misinformation is everywhere.

Adding to that, many aren’t aware that, if caught early, the effects can be stopped in their tracks and, in most cases, even reversed.

Here we’ll look at some of the less commonly-known causes of hair loss, how they can be triggered, and what treatment is available.

But first, let’s look at the most common hair loss cause, which is genetics.

That’s right: you can blame your parents for some things.

Male-pattern baldness (and even female-pattern baldness) are the most common types of hair loss. In fact, 70 per cent of men will experience a naturally receding hairline at some point in their lives, with more than half of that figure noticing it before their 40th birthday.

Generally, male pattern baldness gets more progressive with age, and the first signs of it aren’t always obvious until it has well and truly set-in.

Hair treatments

Bizarrely, it’s not an overly advertised fact that some hairstyles and treatments are actually pretty bad for your scalp. Particularly, hairstyles that pull at the hair are known to cause a type of hair loss called traction alopecia.

Severe pulling of hair at the root is usually the hallmark of styles such as very tight ponytails or cornrows: its prevalence amongst both ballerinas and African women is markedly noticed, as well as in Sikh men, whose hair can be pulled too tightly beneath a turban, causing damage to the follicles at the root.

Treatment for this less common type of hair loss is usually non-pharmaceutical.

Other hair treatments that use hot oil, as well as the traditional ‘70s pornstar “perm,” can inflame the hair follicles to a point of permanent damage and should be approached with caution.


Stress is one of the most damaging external factors when it comes to your health, and also one of the most commonly ignored.

Many will experience a form of hair loss to some degree in the months that follow a very stressful event, usually in the form of thinning hair. This is usually due to a condition known as telogen effluvium, which sends hair follicles into a “resting” phase, causing an accelerated rate of hair loss (most people shed about 120-130 hairs a day with no discernible difference to their appearance.)

This can be caused by a very broad set of factors, including eating disorders, fever,, pregnancy/childbirth, chronic illness, surgery, anemia, severe emotional disorders, crash diets, hypothyroidism, and drug abuse.

A few months after a stressful event triggers your hair loss, it’s common to see more hair than usual in your brush or down the drain. Luckily, this can be reversed in a matter of months by removing the trigger that causes the stress in the first place.

A far less common type of stress-related hair loss is trichotillomania (in plain English: literally pulling out your hair), which is classified as a mental disorder.

Trichotillomania, though not prevalent, affects women far more than it affects men, and usually shows first signs and symptoms around puberty. It is generally exacerbated by high levels of stress.

Lastly, there’s alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease which causes hair to fall out in patches, and can be triggered by stress of varying degrees.

Radiation therapy to the head

This one might sound obvious (and there’s a reason we haven’t included chemotherapy on this list as the effects are only temporary), but ongoing radiation therapy to the head can cause the hair to grow back differently once treatment has ended.

Radiation therapy is used to treat certain kinds of cancer, and uses large, acutely targeted blasts of ionising radiation to kill malignant cells. Of course, similarly to chemotherapy, radiation therapy doesn’t only kill “bad” cells, and can also damage good, functioning cells in the process.

Differently to chemotherapy however, which makes all of the hair in the body fall out, radiation therapy only affects the hair at the site of treatment, hence hair loss from the scalp would only occur when radiotherapy has been used to treat a condition like a tumour in the brain.

Side-effects of medication(s)

While not hugely common, some medications can cause hair loss as a side-effect. And while we already know about chemotherpy’s impact on hair, there are plenty of others that can have this effect to varying degrees.

Medications that list hair loss as a potential side-effect include the cholesterol-lowering atorvastatin and simvastatin, the anticoagulant warfarin, and blood pressure medications captopril and lisinopril.

Other drugs known to cause potential hair loss include acitretin (a psoriasis treatment), amiodarone (an antiarrhythmic drug), divalproex (an anticonvulsant), cimetidine (an antacid), colchicine (a gout medication), and ketoconazole—an anti-fungal medication.

Lastly, steroids like testosterone and progesterone have a well-recorded history of accelerating hair loss, as does common acne treatments which contain isotretinoin.

Curiously, Minoxidil, a common treatment for hair loss which is readily available over-the-counter, can also trigger hair loss in the first few weeks or even months of use. This, however, is a normal part of the scalp-healing process, and the majority of users experience thicker hair after continued use.

Hormonal changes

Perhaps a more common reason for hair loss in women (usually thanks to pregnancy or childbirth), hormonal changes and medical conditions can also play their part in aggravating an ailing scalp.

As mentioned previously, alopecia areata can cause a patchy type of hair loss, and even ringworm can affect a once-healthy scalp.

The good news is that it’s not a death sentence, especially not for your failing follicles, and modern hair loss treatments can be quite cheap.

Near 70 per cent of men even regrow all or part of what has already been lost, with medications that can be sourced from a regular GP (that’s right: those fancy clinics you see on TV are essentially rip-off merchants, and have been hung out to dry in the courts before, as a result of their dodgy practices)

If all of these reasons for hair loss have you ticking and you want to read up on other treatments and causes, check out Pilot’s guide to hair loss here.

Photo credit: HBO

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