They had warned me about post-partum hair loss, but just like most things, it’s hard to believe it until you see it. It all started about four months post-partum and then again when stopped I breastfeeding at one year. Round-the-clock shedding. And it wasn’t discrete. If I had been in a room, you knew, because I left evidence. And just in case that wasn’t proof enough, the impossible-to-groom baby bangs that followed confirmed just how much hair I had lost.
It all started about four months post-partum and then again when I stopped breastfeeding at one year. The shedding was round-the-clock, and it was far from discrete. If I had been in a room, you knew, because I left evidence. And just in case that wasn’t proof enough, the impossible-to-style baby bangs that framed my face confirmed just how much hair I had lost.
Having experienced situations like this before, I wasn’t that alarmed. But post-partum hair loss can come as a shock to new mamas out there which is why I’ve put together this post on how to care for your hair. So whether you’re expecting your first child, recently gave birth or want healthy haircare tips, keep reading.
The cycle of hair
Did you know that hair has its own biological clock? Every hair follicle follows a cycle that includes four phases: Anagen, catagen, telogen and exogen. Here’s how it works:
Anagen: This is the growth phase and lasts between 3-6 years
Catagen: Also known as the retracting phase
Telogen: This is the resting phase. It’s estimated that approximately 15-20% of scalp hairs are in the telogen phase. This lasts about 3 months until a new follicle appears and pushes the old one out.
Exogen: This is the exit phase, resulting in shedding of the hair and the end of its life cycle.
Shedding: how much is normal?
The average person will shed on average 50-125 hairs every day, all of which will grow back if the follicle is still healthy and following its natural cycle. If however you are worried you may be shedding excessively (and you haven’t recently given birth which as you’ll see can cause more shedding than usual) then you may want to consult. This may be a sign of an underlying condition or deficiency. Keep count of how many hairs you lose for a few days; most dermatologists will ask for this, so it is helpful to come prepared.
What is postpartum hair loss?
During pregnancy, you rock what is arguably your best head of hair ever. Why does this happen? Elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy cause hair follicles to stay “stuck” in the growth phase. As a result, shedding is delayed, with only 10% of hair in the telogen phase versus the usual 15-20%. The result? Thick, voluminous hair.
After birth or after you’ve stopped breastfeeding, there is another hormonal change which signals to all the hairs that were “stuck” in the growth phase to shift into the next phase of the cycle all at once. The resulting thinning can represent a 30% drop in volume, which happens roughly 2-4 months after birth and continues up to 1 year or so.
The hair you are shedding post-partum is the extra hair you had during pregnancy. It was always destined to be shed it’s just happening all at once.
It may seem alarming, but remember that it is entirely normal. The good news? It will come back. And while there is no way of stopping the hair that is destined to shed from falling, there are things you can do to care for the hair you do have and support regrowth of strong, healthy hair.
Tips for postpartum hair loss
A hairstylist once told me she knew when her clients were on a low-calorie diet because she could see it in their hair. Hair loss is one of the first signs of an inadequate diet, specifically one that is too low in calories or protein. Rapid weight loss can also affect the hair growth cycle and result in increased shedding and eating too little can lead to deficiencies in hair-supporting nutrients like zinc and iron, compromising hair strength, structure and texture.
Many new moms fall short on their fourth-trimester nutrition either from lack of time to cook for themselves or from volountary attempts to shed the baby weight. Finding ways to care for yourself when you’re caring for a newborn 24hours a day is a real struggle, I’ve been there. But I cannot stress how important it is to nourish yourself adequately in the months post-partum if you want your hair, body and mind to bounce back quickly. So if you’re struggling to nourish yourself, reach out to family, friends and your partner for a hand.
Eat quality protein with every meal and snack
Protein and its building blocks, amino acids, are necessary for healthy hair. The rate of hair growth, volume and shine all depend upon the presence of these nutrients in the diet. Amino acids, such as sulphur-containing cysteine and methionine along with lysine and arginine are necessary for the production of keratin, the structural component of hair. So you can see how eating insufficient protein can not only result in hair thinning and loss but brittle and weakened hair.
Including quality sources of protein in every meal and snack not only helps to meet your protein and amino acid requirements, but most of these foods are also sources of iron and zinc, two other critical hair-supporting nutrients.
Eat one palm protein-rich foods at meals and half of a palm at snacks. Here are some examples;
- Free-range eggs
- Quality meat such as grass-fed beef, organic chicken
- Wild fish and seafood
- Yogurt, kefir
- Legumes such as beans, lentils chickpeas
- Edamame, tempeh
- Hemp seeds
Take on food-first approach
Key nutrients for hair health include iron, zinc, B3, fatty acids, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, biotin and as we just learned, protein. During pregnancy, your needs for some of these (iron, zinc, folic acid, biotin and fatty acids) are increased with reserves needing to be replenished post-partum. For this reason, it is wise to continue taking your prenatal supplement into the fourth trimester, especially if you are breastfeeding.
Beyond this though, I would advise a food-first approach despite. What about the increasingly popular hair vitamin supplements? Although it’s clear that supplementation to correct nutritional deficiencies can stimulate hair growth, there is no evidence that any supplement will have any impact on hair in the absence of a deficiency. In fact,
“Over supplementation of certain nutrients, exceeding tolerable upper intake levels such as vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium can actually result in hair loss.”
In a nutshell, don’t take supplements blindly. Consult with a dietitian if you are unsure of your needs and in the meantime, focus on a nutrient-dense, whole food diet loaded with these hair-supporting foods:
- B vitamins: whole grains, meat, eggs, legumes,
- Biotin: egg yolk, liver, nuts, seeds, avocado
- Iron: Meat, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens
- Zinc: seafood (oysters), meat, eggs, walnuts, legumes, nuts, seeds,
- Omega-3 fats: wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, chia seeds, walnuts, flax
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish
- Vitamin A: orange, yell and green fruit and vegetables
Have your vitamin D status checked
Vitamin D plays a role in hair follicle cycling and deficiencies in this vitamin are associated with hair loss. If you live way above the equator, a supplement is warranted, especially in the winter months given that our main source of vitamin D is sunlight. How much should you be taking? I strongly recommend having your vitamin D status checked if you haven’t already, as this is the best way to determine adequate dosage, but 1000 IU per day of vitamin D3 is a good start. Though dietary sources of vitamin D are limited, main sources include fatty fish like wild salmon, full-fat milk and fortified beverages.
You may be at risk for a vitamin D deficiency if you get little sun exposure, are above 50 years of age, have dark skin, have an elevated BMI, have had gastric bypass surgery, have inflammatory bowel disease or any condition affecting fat absorption.
Keep it cool and avoid high-heat styling
If you’ve ever made scrambled eggs then you know the key to light and fluffy eggs is to cook them low and slow. If you cook them over high heat, they’ll be tough and rubbery.
Hair is also made of protein and when subjected to dramatic temperature changes, it affects its structural integrity. This is why heat and the elements are so damaging to hair and can affect texture and appearance. Minimize high-heat styling as much as possible. More importantly, avoid adding heat to wet hair. Applying heat to wet hair causes steam to bubble within the hair, damaging it and affecting the texture.
- Try to keep shower water warm, rather than hot
- Air-dry whenever you can
- When using a hair-dryer, increase the heat gradually or use the lowest heat setting.
- Minimize high-heat styling and if possible, wait until the hair is fully dry before applying very high heat.
My routine: In the summer, I air-dry most of the time. In the colder months, I use a hair-dryer on the number 2 setting, rather than 3. It takes a little bit longer to dry but I’m ok with it. Since I shower and dry my hair in the evening, I’ll usually wait until the following morning, when I know it’s completely dry to style it, usually with a round brush for more shape or on occasion, with a curling around for soft waves.
Don’t over wash your hair
Frequent shampooing washes off the protective layer of sebum that covers the hair, drying out the shaft and making it vulnerable to the elements which is why you want to avoid over washing. Only wash hair when it needs it and give yourself a scalp massage while you’re at it. Scalp massage is great for promoting circulation around the root of the hair. There’s no evidence that this makes hair grow faster, but hey, it feels great and mama, you deserve it.
My routine: If you’re a new mom, this one should be easy since showering is more of a luxury than a necessity, ha! Jokes aside, I got into the habit of washing my hair only as needed long ago, which is now about twice per week.
Groom and style gently
Be gentle with your hair:
- Avoid any rough towel drying
- Don’t brush hair when it is wet. This creates too much force on the root and can damage the hair.
- Use wide-toothed combs and brushes with rounded tips
- Opt for natural bristle brushes and combs made of wood or bamboo. These are more gentle and will create less static than plastic tools do,
- Avoid tight styling and tight elastics.
My routine: I probably should have included a chapter titled: “#1 cause of post-partum hair loss: letting hair down around your child “. If you have a child, you know you need to tie that up. My daughter loves wrapping my hair around her little fingers and snuggling into it. It’s adorable until she pulls the strands right from my head. So I’ll often tie my hair using a big, soft scrunchie or I’ll twist it, form a loose bun and secure it with a small hair clip, rather than tightening it in an elastic.
Keep it natural
Although hair products, bleaches, dyes, colours and treatments can momentarily make our hair look better, they are actually harsh and damaging to our hair. Remember that the cells that make up each strand are no longer alive. This means that you can’t truly repair the damage that’s already been done to your hair, only prevent it.
The only way hair truly repairs itself is through shedding and growing anew. This means that if you truly want a good head of hair, you must have a long-term mindset and focus on nourishment and good practices so that new hair is strong and healthy. Afterward, you want to be gentle and protect it.
Add pre-conditioning and rosemary to your routine
Pre-conditioning with an oil-based solution before a shower helps water-proof hair. By reducing the amount of water that enters the hair, there is less risk of steam damage when heat is applied afterward. Coconut oil and olive oil have been shown as the most effective for this purpose.
Why rosemary? It turns out that this herb has applications outside the kitchen. Rosemary oil has been suggested as a possible alternative treatment for hair growth by improving blood flow at the scalp. One study showed rosemary oil as an effective treatment in patients with alopecia areata who rubbed the oil-based solution into their scalp daily for over six months. Another trial in men with androgenic alopecia showed rosemary oil increased hair growth comparatively to minoxidil 2%.
My routine: The use of rosemary oil on a daily basis as in these trials is for me, unrealistic. So I incorporate it into my routine by adding a few drops of essential rosemary oil to my shampoo and to my pre-wash conditioner recipe below.
Pre-wash conditioner with rosemary oil
1 tbsp liquified coconut oil
1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 drops rosemary oil
1 drop lavender oil
How-to: Mix ingredients together. Rub into the scalp and gently run fingers through hair. Wrap the hair in a warm towel and let it sink in a few hours before showering. Wash off in the shower using your usual shampoo.
By far the most important post-partum habit to adopt; patience. First, hair growth is slow. Second, identifying with your new post-partum self can take some time. Be patient with yourself. With so much change in your life and new responsibilities on your plate, you can’t afford to waste on things you can’t control nor do you need the unnecessary pressure of trying to make your hair grow overnight. Instead, focus on what you can control. Positive self-talk and compassion. Two things that lead to self-care. Self-care leads to prioritizing nourishment over fad dieting, which in time, will lead to healthier, stronger hair.
Finally, surrender to the process and if you need to talk, find a girlfriend who’s been there, because you’re not in it alone.
- Piérard-Franchimont C, Piérard GE. (2013, December) Alterations in hair follicle dynamics in women.
- Maria Fernanda Reis Gavazzoni Dias. (2015, January) Hair cosmetics: an overview.
- Rele AS, Mohile RB. (2003, March) Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage.
- Guo EL, Katta R.(2017, January) Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use.
- Monselise A, Cohen DE, Wanser R, Shapiro J.(2017, February) What Ages Hair?