One of my domestic chores is cleaning out the shower drain. This involves using tweezers to pick out disgusting clumps of matted hair and soap. None of the hair is mine. I blame the women in my house who seem to moult all year round. What fascinating aspect of follicle physiology am I missing?
Hair growth is a dynamic process. At any one time about 90 percent of your follicles are in an active growth phase (anagen) while 10 percent are resting (telogen). The anagen phase is longer on the scalp than other areas, such as the eyebrows, which explains why scalp hair is much longer. Though in my case, the eyebrows are catching up fast!
After stress or surgery or childbirth as many as 70 percent of the follicles may go on strike, resulting in significant generalised hair loss. This is called telogen effluvium which fortunately is a temporary condition, though the degree of thinning can be alarming. It’s not easy to wait patiently for several months until things start to improve.
More familiar to most people is alopecia, which is an autoimmune condition that suddenly causes bald patches to appear on the scalp or beard area. This may require specialist advice.
Considering we have less hair than most animals, it’s amazing how we fret about it. Too much, too little, wrong colour, wrong place, too straight, too curly, hair today, gone tomorrow. Even eyebrows these days have an almost architectural precision. ‘On fleek’, I think you call it. I try to drop this phrase into conversations with young people to show how cool I am.
However, this is not just about vanity. The psychosocial consequences of hirsutism (male pattern hair growth in females) can be very severe. Women hate it, and become very frustrated with the ongoing need for electrolysis, plucking and in some cases shaving. It is a feature of polycystic ovary syndrome and is also associated with insulin resistance and obesity. Rarely it is caused by a tumour which produces too much testosterone. In any case it is definitely worth a medical consultation to talk about options.
Men conversely are often distressed by premature baldness. I would like to say we have some solid options for this, but the scalp applications and even Propecia have limited efficacy and need to be kept up indefinitely. At least men have a reasonable option of shaving the whole lot off and enhancing their street cred!