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COVID and pandemic stress is causing widespread hair loss

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you've noticed your hair is getting thinner during this pandemic or even falling out, you're not alone. For many people, the general upending of life as we knew it has shown up in visible hair loss - bald spots, receding hairlines, clogged shower drains. Hair loss can also be a side effect of COVID-19 itself. This has been "The Year America's Hair Fell Out." That is the title of an article in The Atlantic written by Amanda Mull, who joins us now. Welcome.

AMANDA MULL: So glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: I understand this reporting all started with your own personal experience with hair loss. Can you just talk about what happened to you?

MULL: Yes. I experienced two distinct waves of hair loss. And when I experienced the second one, it was one of those sort of, like, come to Jesus moments where it's like, OK, I can no longer pretend that this is not a thing that is happening to me, and it's time to figure out why.

CHANG: And just to be clear, you did not contract COVID-19, but COVID can result in hair loss, right?

MULL: Right. The type of hair loss I was experiencing in the past year and a half is something called telogen effluvium, which is an acute temporary, in almost all cases, situation in which some sort of physical or emotional shock to your system creates a severe sudden bout of hair loss. The types of things that can cause telogen effluvium on an emotional level are the types of things that have been really common in the pandemic - grief, sudden job loss, anything that sort of shocks your system and sends it into emergency mode, really.

CHANG: Right.

MULL: And your body shuts down some of the processes that just aren't as essential to your survival. You know, one of the hardest things about telogen effluvium and about figuring out what is causing your hair loss is the sort of quirks of the hair growth cycle. It sheds two to four months after it has already been disconnected from the blood supply.

CHANG: Wow, that's confusing. Yeah.

MULL: Right. Right. There's no, like, real logical reason that you would look at your hair loss in June and go, this is because of an illness I had in March.

CHANG: Right. You kind of set out on this quest to look at different treatments that might possibly address hair loss, and you found a lot of things that look suspicious or pretty much did not work. Can you tell us about what you found?

MULL: One of the most jarring things about trying to figure out my hair loss was typing in female hair loss into Google. I was sort of bombarded with this enormous array of products - dietary supplements, serum treatments, non-pharmaceutical things that were just really widely available and sort of everywhere. And figuring out what the scientific basis for any of these things is is really, really difficult. So the best thing that you can do is find a hair loss specialist - dermatologist. They are the people best qualified to tell you what kind of hair loss you have and what can be done to address it.

CHANG: I want to ask you, why did you feel it was important to write this story? Like, what is it about hair that makes hair loss so devastating to so many people?

MULL: You know, for a lot of people, it goes back to the Bible. For women especially, long hair is a sign of righteousness before God. And the phrase, your hair is your glory, comes from that...

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

MULL: ...And I think for a lot of men is an outward signal that they are aging, that people will think they're not as virile as they used to be.

CHANG: Oh.

MULL: So it can sort of, like, undermine people's understanding of themselves as healthy, worthy, attractive members of society.

CHANG: Yeah.

MULL: And, you know, American culture does not like aging people. We don't treat older people very well, and we don't treat sick people very well.

CHANG: Right.

MULL: Because we use it as a cultural shorthand for that, it can be really, really difficult for people to go outside and have other people see them losing hair.

CHANG: That is Amanda Mull with The Atlantic. Her article, "The Year America's Hair Fell Out," is out now. Thank you so much for being with us today.

MULL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.