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by: Better Not Younger
August 24, 2019
Our society has done a pretty stellar service to women in recent years by working to understand the power of our hormones. By now, we're aware that these chemicals are like the air traffic control messengers of our body, giving the green light from one system or organ to another to regulate processes like the menstrual cycle and our metabolism.
Understanding how hormones work has brought validation to the female experience. Topics like hot flashes and postpartum depression probably would have elicited a room of side-eyed judgment at the dinner parties of generations past, but today, gather with your girlfriends or hop on Instagram, and the intel around women's health is fierce: how to manage an irregular period with diet changes; how to respond to those hot flashes that hit at the most excruciatingly embarrassing moments. We know more than ever about mood swings, midlife weight gain, and cravings. Ten years ago, only a niche body of experts knew that eating leafy greens could flush estrogen from the liver to help prevent sugar cravings. Now, we all can discover ways to balance our hormones by tapping a few keywords into our phones.
Certainly, knowing more about our hormones has helped us better embrace the journey our bodies experience as we age. But there's still a lot we've missed by centering the conversation narrowly on our reproductive health. The reality, says board certified dermatologist Lisa Pfingstler, M.D., is that every adjustment we find ourselves making to our beauty routine indicates something our hormones can teach us. Discovering a new section of grays or accepting that our hair doesn't fall quite the way it used to can be a beautiful thing, because it highlights our longevity as humans. "These days, we're living so much longer than we used to," Dr. Pfingstler says, "but our bodies are only meant to last for a period of time." How does that impact what we see in the mirror? It's powerful: "We're actually outliving our regenerating hair."
In general, we're also outliving men by an average of six to eight years, according to the World Health Organization. All this points to the notion that it really may be time for us women to explore how to make our good hair days last longer... and to do so in a much more open way. Jeffrey Miller, M.D., Department of Dermatology chair at Penn State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical center, says that 50% of women are reporting some degree of hair thinning by age 50—and that this may be the time for us to have the conversation about changing hair with greater courage. "Specifically, hair loss and hair thinning are just as common among women as they are in men," Dr. Miller says, "but it's not socially acceptable for women to experience and deal with these." Our culture's hush-hush insistence to hide hair worries under the rug takes its toll on an individual, as Dr. Miller adds: "Hair that's not behaving well can have significant psychological and physical impact on a person's overall wellbeing. The most important question I ask my patients is, 'How are you handling this emotionally?' There are people who are spending all of their energy hiding this."
It's real, notes Mike Bucher, a 30-year research & development engineer in the beauty industry. "The appearance of skin and hair are perhaps the two biggest factors in how we feel about the image we project to others," Bucher says. For some of us, it's been tough to adjust to the way we're perceived over time. Some of the biggest concerns Dr. Miller's patients present are what he calls a "see-through scalp" (which causes greater susceptibility to sunburn and as such can lead to an increased risk for skin cancer), increased shedding, and patients who aren't able to grow their hair as long as they used to, along with "involuted" (degenerating) hair follicles which produce a hair shaft that's thinner in diameter and thus create hairs that are more frail and seemingly less cooperative than they were in the past. Other concerns, says Dr. Pfingstler (who happens to be Dr. Miller's former student), are changes to hair texture, along with loss of moisture. "Our skin gets drier as we get older, especially around menopause time," she says. "Similarly, with hair, the texture also changes as we lose moisture." Bucher adds the graying many of us experience to the list, with hair turning white and feeling more stiff because its follicle is no longer producing melanin.
While each of us might relate to one or more of these symptoms, almost all are brought on by two causes that are universal among all of us. First, says Dr. Miller, "There's a genetic component, meaning your family history." That, we get: if we have a parent or a sibling with thinning hair, we might find we're more prone ourselves. "And second, there are women who are sensitive to the age-related hormonal shifts that go on in the body." As we mature, our hair follicles grow more sensitive to the shift in these hormone levels. "As women age, the estrogen level starts to decrease, and your production of testosterone can stay level," Dr. Miller says. "The theory is that you lose the counterbalance—the protective effect of estrogen on testosterone, and we know that testosterone and its derivatives can cause hair thinning."
The scientific explanations help some... but as we continue to see promotional images of women boasting beautiful, healthy hair, we may still feel pressure to alter our natural hair with color and chemical treatments that do more harm than good. "When you think about the African-American community in particular," says Dr. Miller, "look at every magazine. The most common hairstyling techniques targeted at African-Americans right now are straightening processes using chemicals, which often lead to dryness." And while the growing "gray to gorgeous" movement is inspiring, Bucher says it may also be the far healthier path. "Coloring may make hair look fuller because of the damage and roughing up of the hair shaft, but can also lead to more breakage as it weakens the hair shaft (which is already thinner in many cases)."
Dr. Pfingstler offers that without question, more women than ever are seeking out gentler ways to age gracefully, with the noticeable upward trend in "clean beauty" products, herbal treatments, and diet habits aimed to nourish our bodies better. "You are what you eat," Dr. Pfingstler says. "There's plenty to prove the many benefits of healthy eating. It makes sense that it's an important aspect." That's not to dismiss the many advantages that science and medicine deliver us in 2019, and Bucher adds that a holistic approach to health and beauty "can't hurt, and may help. Talk over your routine with your doctor," he says. "However, better nutrition is always a plus."
Can we break away from our culture's long-held idea of "hair care" in order to truly give aging hair the love it deserves? "We have to consider: what products are we using to keep our hair as healthy as possible?" Dr. Miller asks, and he supports patients who want to explore volumizing products to make hair look and feel thicker and healthier. Dr. Pfingstler concurs. "The products that were great for you twenty years ago aren't going to be the right answer at some point."
Meanwhile, all three of our experts convey their satisfaction that we're finally talking about hormones and hair at all. "Kudos to anyone who is bringing this to the forefront," Dr. Miller says.
Mike Bucher offers three tips we can test out right away:
Check out more hair-positive inspiration on the Better Not Younger blog.
By Kristine Gasbarre
Kristine Gasbarre is a New York Times and internationally bestselling writer and contributor to publications for women. Her work has been featured in media outlets such as People, Glamour, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and more.