Why is hair loss portrayed as a male-only issue?

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Antonia Hoyle

At just 37, Antonia Hoyle has begun losing her hair.

At just 37, Antonia Hoyle has begun losing her hair.

I first noticed it last December: my hairline had receded a couple of millimetres. Two weeks later, I held up the front section of my hair: the roots were surrounded by patches of scalp and a strip of hair the width of a ruler had visibly thinned.

I was so shocked I curled into a ball and cried - terrified at the prospect of losing the long, thick hair I loved, compounded by shame that something so trivial could upset me this much. I was hardly dying, after all, and my hair loss was barely visible.

Yet female hair loss is devastating - and surprisingly common. As many as two thirds of women suffer from it at some stage, but the subject is still so taboo that one survey revealed 46 per cent of women affected keep their condition from even those closest to them.

Starting to lose my hair at the age of 37 has made me feel unattractive, old - and desperate for a solution. So, this January, I scoured the internet for "cures", rubbing castor oil on to my scalp every night because I'd read it could stimulate growth, and stocking up on vitamin supplements promising perfect hair.

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I cut my hair into a bob to make the thinning less obvious and, other than examining my hairline every night to see if it was getting worse, avoided the bathroom mirror as the sight of my reflection in it upset me so much.

My husband, Chris, insisted he couldn't see any difference - but held me supportively as I sobbed. I could cover up the loss with a side parting, but I still felt self-conscious in public and too awkward to tell friends, worrying they would either dismiss my concerns or make me cry with their pity.

I stopped wearing make-up, concluding that there was no longer any point in taking pride in my appearance.

Glenn Lyons, clinical director at the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic in London, has spent his 40-year career dealing with both the causes and crippling effects of hair loss. "I frequently see women in tears," he says.

Lyons said he could tell from examining my scalp that I had minor female pattern hair loss, although I also had blood tests that ruled out other possible causes, from iron deficiency to polycystic ovaries. Also known as androgenetic alopecia, female pattern hair loss is the most common cause of hair loss and affects around a third of women by the age of 50.

It happens when your body becomes overly sensitive to hormones called androgens, which can block hair growth. As a result, follicles gradually get smaller, producing shorter, finer hair until they stop growing hair at all.

If your mother or father lost hair at a young age, you're genetically predisposed to it, and it becomes more prevalent after the menopause, when oestrogen levels fall (making hormones more like androgens dominant in comparison).

My dad started to go bald in his 30s and my mother has also developed female pattern hair loss, but I just wasn't expecting it to happen to me so soon.

But both my hairdresser and Lyons say they are seeing increasing numbers of younger women losing their hair and, according to the latter, stress may be to blame. It's responsible for 90 per cent of other forms of hair loss, such as alopecia areata (when hair comes out in round patches) - and because it prompts our adrenal glands to secrete androgens, it can accelerate female pattern hair loss, too.

Excess weight can also contribute because it limits the production of a hormone called SHGB (sex hormone binding globulin), which helps control 'male' hormones, as can the combined contraceptive pill.

Iron deficiency, which affects 20 per cent of women aged 19 to 34, is another culprit, because iron binds to ferritin, a protein involved in the production of hair cells. While my blood tests showed healthy iron levels, I am deficient in vitamin D, which can also disrupt healthy hair growth.

There is no magic cure, sadly. Minoxidil is the most used treatment, shown in one clinical trial to prompt hair regrowth in 50 per cent of women by improving blood flow to the hair follicle.

"It is helpful to start taking minoxidil as soon as you notice thinning," says Dr Jennifer Jones, a dermatologist at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London.

Of course, there are other purported remedies, including laser therapy to stimulate hair growth and specialist supplements that claim to regenerate hair. But evidence as to their effectiveness is still sketchy.

As for me? I have been trying to switch off in the evenings, as I am convinced stress has played a part, and I'm taking a vitamin D supplement. Although it could be three months before I see any regrowth, I still inspect my scalp first thing every morning, my unrealistic expectations inevitably dashed by disappointment.

I'd like to see female hair loss discussed more openly so it loses its stigma and ability to inflict misery on so many women.

In the meantime, all I can do is wait, and hope that mine grows back.

The Telegraph London