I grew up with immense follicular privilege. Thick, lustrous, bouncy curls sprouted from my head in childhood and grew into a mane of carefree spirals in my mid-teens. So effortlessly did this head hedge grow, and so little maintenance did I have to perform on it, that I recklessly took its existence for granted, thinking I’d be top-heavy forever.
Until I wasn’t. Over the past few years, my curls have been dying a slow death, dwindling into lanky, lifeless strands. I’ve tried every curl product ever made, but wearing my hair naturally is a thing of the past, and regular blowouts are now a weekly chore. Besides the added burden of maintenance, I feel a stripping of identity. Curly hair was my signature look. Is my Memoji even me without curls? Of all the varieties of existential crises I imagined being struck by, a lack of hair was never on the list.
In an effort to figure out what was happening, I diligently made my way down a list of known hair stressors: Hereditary hair loss, impaired thyroid function, hormonal imbalances, fad diets, trauma, or severe stress. None of those really applied, but in ruling them out I uncovered a very vital truth: My hair was — no other word for it — aging. I had spent so much time and effort keeping my eyes peeled for the signs of skin aging that I had completely missed the fact that hair was prone to decline, too.
And in a strange twist, my gestational status complicates matters. I’m eight months pregnant, but instead of experiencing typically pregnancy-related lush hair, I’ve noticed a deterioration instead, which could be a function of hormones at work.
“Hair aging is most definitely a thing,” says New York dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco. She says the four most common symptoms are texture changes, characterized by strands not being as full, shiny, or manageable as they were; thinning or “miniaturizing” in which individual hairs become thinner; overall thinning, where the total number of hair reduces; and lastly, greying. I check off all those symptoms, but strangely, the first three bother me more than the last.
“When hair is thick and lustrous, it can look amazing even if gray. If you’re not thinning and still growing hairs that are gray, but healthy and full, then many women would accept that over time,” says Lars Skjoth, the founder and head scientist of Harklinikken, a chain of Danish hair clinics that opened an outpost in New York earlier last year.
Skjoth has been studying hair miniaturizing for over a decade. “When hair miniaturizes, the hair follicle shrinks more and more, yielding finer and finer hair.” That’s when the blush of youth fades and all the signs of healthy hair disappears — hair is drier and more brittle, with less luster and shine, it doesn’t grow long as easily, and curly hair becomes frizzy. “It’s a very gradual process for men and women called andro-genetic alopecia,” says Skjoth.
Trichologist Anabel Kingsley (a “hair doctor”) at the Philip Kingsley Trichology Clinic explains the mechanics of that alarming-sounding phrase in more detail. “Men and women both have male hormones and in some people, the hair follicles are overly sensitive to the circulating levels of male hormones, very slowly getting smaller and producing hairs that are slightly finer and slightly shorter.” Men, in a rare display of universal justice, suffer the consequences more acutely, losing hair at the top until they’re left with that horseshoe shaped swatch at the back of the head. Women experience more of an overall reduction on the top, sides and crown, which doesn’t often manifest as balding. You might notice your hairline slowly moving back, your part widening, or your ponytail shrinking — that’s when the pros say you should seek help.
Kinglsey and I had an hour-long chat where we discussed my grandfather’s hair (he had a full head into his 70s), my red meat-eating frequency (grim, but I’m willing to increase it for vanity) and the state of my body hair (lasered, so no clues there). She went full mad scientist on me for a second when I showed her the truly bleak bloodwork results for my ferritin levels, a protein which relates to how much iron your body stores. “Ooh it’s so low, that makes me SO happy,” she trilled, as she peered at my scalp with a magnifying device, determining low stored iron reserves as the reason for the thinning hair around my temples.
Similarly, with Skjoth, there was sharing of family history and some more scrutinizing of my hair bulbs under a lighted, magnifying apparatus. Here, however, the pronouncement was more dire: He determined that I have probably been slowly thinning since my early or mid-20s, which, ironically, is the time I look fondly back on as my hair heyday. Just the sheer volume of my hair had stopped me from noticing earlier.
Andro-genetic alopecia has two causes: hormones or/and genes. While you can’t wage much of a war against your DNA, you can, at least, turn off the hormones from causing greater havoc. Both Skjoth and Kingsley’s clinics have proprietary products that help with that. “The future looks good for people with this problem, but early intervention is key,” says Dr Fusco. There’s a world of treatments out there that can be experimented with: low level light therapy, platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections, supplements like Nutrafol, and prescription drugs such as spironolactone. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment; approaches have to be tailored depending on the cause of thinning, and it could take a bit of trial and error to land on a winning, follicle-stimulating formula.
However, experts agree that good supportive care is also vital: eating a healthy diet and taking vitamins to supplement nutritional deficiencies is key. And if you’re the type to regularly miss breakfast or have a skimpy lunch, Kingsley would have you know those meals are the most important for hair. “If you skip breakfast, by the time you have lunch your body is super hungry from fasting all those hours and has a billion things it needs to take care of. Since hair is a non-essential tissue it’s not going to get any vitamins, minerals and energy and will never have what it needs to be healthy.”
Dr. Fusco suggests recruiting your hair stylist as a lookout. “Ask your hairdresser, ‘Is my part getting a little wider? Do you see more scalp?’” Your family tree could also provide some early hints: if you mother or father had hair density changes, it’s likely that you can inherit that predisposition, but it can be traced back to grandparents or even great-grandparents, says Kingsley. I always knew there was a scientific reason to blame family for all kinds of dysfunction, even the follicular sort.
I’m strategizing a careful plan of attack post-baby, but until then, I’ll just fake a full head of hair with volumnizing, anti-thinning, and thickening shampoos; conditioners; and styling aids, hoping to regain some curl and fake some more hair. Here are the best eight ones that I tried.
The Volumizing Shampoo That Smells Like Fanta
This shampoo smelled like orange soda and gave me cravings I hadn’t had since I was 7. It’s not a scent I’d normally gravitate toward, but I was enchanted by the nostalgic experience — it made me LOL in the shower. The conditioner felt a bit heavy after rinsing, and I felt the need to shampoo the crown of my head again after conditioning. But the result: I got nice bounce and height. The best part was my hair looked swole and puffy (good adjectives for curly hair, in my opinion), fearlessly occupying the space around my head.
The Shampoo-Conditioner Duo That Made My Hair Huge
First off, brace yourself for a sensory body slam — the shampoo smells like a Mediterranean fever dream in which overripe peaches, watery accents, and musks are having a substance-enriched, adults-only party. I can’t tell you more about the shampoo experience because I was literally high and not paying attention. The conditioner felt richer than others I tried but did leave my ends feeling a little thirsty.
But the magic happened after air drying: my hair looked like it belonged to an Upper East Side poodle with an expensive grooming routine. It seemed like I had three times the amount of hair. It bounced. It spiraled madly. Sure, the ends were not as well-defined and a bit dry, but I like a bit of fluff. I just need to add a pre-shampoo mask or finishing product to the ends to attain perfection. This shampoo-conditioner made me feel 20 again, which is a tough ask for any product out there.
The Shampoo-Conditioner Duo That Perfected My Curls
This sulfate-free set provided a sensorially superior shampooing experience with scents of smoky woods, eucalyptus, rosemary, lavender, and lemongrass. The conditioner is light enough to co-wash with (if you’re into that, I’m not), and yet had enough heft to satisfy my thirsty ends. I’m crediting that to the Omega 9-rich Amazonian Rahua oil that it’s enriched with. Post air-drying, there was tons of volume, but most noticeably, my curls were beautifully formed, spiral upon spiral in a perfect Fibonacci sequence.
A Custom 3-Step Routine
I completed a hair quiz on the Prose website about the current condition of my hair and was sent this easy three-step routine. I slathered on the mask a half-hour before I was planning to shower; it felt lighter when compared to some other pre-treatments I had used before, and I wondered if my coarser ends needed a bit more rehabilitation. I needn’t have worried: there was none of the in-shower tangling and breakage after shampooing (which happens no matter how gentle I am). Again, while conditioning, I felt I could have used some more heft in the product, and that prediction came true. After air drying, my hair felt fluffy and there was definitely a pouf in the crown, all good signs. However, the ends were frizzy — a heavier conditioner would have done the trick.
An Ayurvedic Spa Experience With Long-Term Promise
This system is a long-term commitment and not meant as a temporary Band-Aid for thinning hair; users typically see results after 12 weeks. I didn’t have anywhere close to that time, but wanted to test if the cosmetic effects were impressive enough to allow me to use it longer term.
In a word: Yes. The shampoo and conditioner duo transformed my Manhattan shower into an incredibly authentic-smelling Ayurvedic spa; it’s enriched with ingredients like turmeric and amla (a Vitamin C-rich Indian gooseberry that promotes hair growth). I found it difficult to stir up a lather in the shampoo and felt it left behind a residue that was difficult to rinse. The conditioner was lighter and easier to manage. My hair didn’t expand dramatically, but was very wearable, with well-defined ringlets and I felt no need for a leave-in product to hydrate the ends.
A Vegan Volumizing Duo
This California-born vegan brand aims to coddle color-treated hair. This shampoo and conditioner tag team is another long-term therapy that uses natural scalp fortifiers to stop absorption of DHT (that’s the androgen responsible for miniaturization).
I can’t say the scent was my jam, but give me function over form any day. And here, the function was pretty amazing. My crown had a flirty pouf; the lengths were spiraling madly with perfect separation and tons of heft. The ends could use some hydration — they looked a bit frazzled — but nothing a bit of balm or leave-in conditioner couldn’t fix. The cosmetic effects were encouraging enough that I’d stick around to see the long-term benefits. Expensive Upper East Side poodle hair, here I come!
A Hair Mask for Hydration
Volumizing conditioners tend to be less dense so as to not weigh the hair down, enabling it to have lightness, lift, and hence, volume. But as much as I need my hair to pouf, I also need the highlighted strands to get sufficient hydration. My fix has been to use a pre-shampoo mask to help fill in nutritional gaps, much like vitamins do. I pop on gobs of this mask for nearly an hour before washing with a volumizing shampoo and conditioner and emerge on the other side with the best of both worlds: A cumulus cloud of hair, and curls that have great definition and spiralization.
The Spray That Gives the Mother of All Zhuzhes
I deployed this spray in an emergency — I had a last-minute party invitation and my very flat Day 4 hair needed a zhuzh like you won’t believe. I hit my roots with this spray liberally, making sure to lift sections of hair at the crown and spray underneath, then flipped my head over and blasted it with some heat. The result were voluminous, wavy bangs that started out like a Something About Mary–esque pouf, but settled into a nice bouncy S-curve. It felt a little gritty to the touch, but held great for several hours, even when the party extended way past my bedtime.
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