Botox. Faux tans. Eyelash extensions. In an era in which formerly taboo cosmetic topics have become mainstream, another is finally coming out of the beauty closet—and it’s about time. “Hair loss used to be whispered about because many women believed they were alone,” says Stephen Pullan, a hair expert at the Philip Kingsley Clinic in New York City. “But as more people start to discuss it, others are encouraged to do the same and, ultimately, seek treatment. At the clinic, I see more women than men dealing with hair loss.” Stats back him up: 40 percent of Americans who have thinning hair are women, according to the American Hair Loss Association. Clearly, it’s no longer a problem only for middle-aged dudes.
Genetics, hormonal changes, and even how often you blow-dry can cause your hair to peace out. But no matter what’s making you lose it (in more ways than one!), these tests will help you get to the root of your skinny-hair issue. Then follow our advice to fatten up fast.
1. Your Hair Is So Fine (and not in a good way)
Maybe she’s born with it…or maybe it’s aging? Some women have had baby-fine hair since pre-K; others watch their strands wither over time. (FYI: That’s considered normal. As we age, our hair follicles shrink and produce thinner strands.)
The Tress Test
Pull your hair into a ponytail, and look at the size. “If its base diameter is the width of a penny or less, your hair is probably fine,” says Tresemme hairstylist Tyler Laswell. If your tail has shrunk so much that it could be a contestant on The Biggest Loser, you might have age-related thinning. “If you can wrap a hair tie around your ponytail base three or more times and it used to go around once or twice, your hair’s probably growing in thinner than it used to,” says Jill Crosby, a Los Angeles hairstylist.
- Have a cocktail party. Nope, not the boozy kind. “My all-time favorite products for boosting fine, thin hair are mousses and salt sprays because when used together, they give hair a light, airy volume that lasts,” says Laswell. Before blow-drying, mist a few spritzes of salt spray onto damp hair, then rake a golf ball–sized blob of mousse into roots and massage down to ends (halve that mousse amount if your hair is shorter than shoulder-length). Try R+Co Rockaway Salt Spray ($25, randco.com) and Tresemme 24 Hour Body Foaming Mousse ($5, at drugstores).
- Be a tease. Teasing isn’t just for rat’s-nest runway looks; it’s a trick Laswell uses often to make scrawny hair look big. His top tip: “Don’t just tease the roots, as many women do. Gently backcomb the entire head with a fine-tooth comb, starting at the top and working to the ends. Then use a boar-bristle brush to smooth the outermost layer.” Voilà—fullness sans flyaways.
- Curl small. If hair is straight, add insta-oomph with a curling iron. “The secret here is to wrap small, one-inch sections of dry hair around a 1 1/2-inch curling iron and alternate directions—wrap some around the barrel away from your face and some toward it. You’ll get a higher number of waves for a fuller look, and the random directions prevent a flat, clumped-together uni-curl,” says Laswell.
2. Your Hair Is Thin at the Tips
From the ears up, your hair is commercial-caliber. Your ends, sadly, look as if they belong on a scarecrow.
The Tress Test
Toss your hair over one shoulder, and tilt your head to the side. See some weird spacing and sparseness at the bottom few inches? Oh, hey, damage. “Hair grows around six inches per year, so if it’s shoulder-length, it’s seen winter, summer, cold air, dry air, sun, lots of blow-drying, hot tools, and lots of brushing,” says Pullan. “This combination may cause dryness and split ends that can snap off, making ends look scraggly.” A thinner-at-the-ends ponytail may be another marker that you’ve reached the breaking point.
- Get a trim. Hanging onto hair that’s hanging by a thread? Not the best idea. “Cutting off the dry split ends to even out the density at the bottom and top can make hair appear thicker,” says Nioxin hairstylist Danielle Caputo-Estorino.
- Condition and rebuild. Adding moisture back into hair that is both thin and damaged is a catch-22 because many ultra-moisturizing conditioners contain oils and waxes that can make hair limp, causing it to look even wispier, says Pullan. Once a week before shampooing, use a treatment like Philip Kingsley Elasticizer ($50, philipkingsley.com), which contains castor and olive oils, silicone, and elastin that strengthen and hydrate inside the cuticle, rather than sit on top. And before blow-drying, work a mixture of equal (dime-size) parts heat-protective cream and body-enhancing gel or mousse through lengths and ends. (If you air-dry, skip the cream.) Try Bumble and Bumble Repair Blow Dry ($30, bumbleandbumble.com) and L’Oreal Paris Advanced Haircare Volume Filler Densifying Gelee ($7, at drugstores).
- Beat the heat. Good news for flatiron-philes: It’s not the tool that’s to blame; it’s how you use it. “Most women set the iron to 400°F or 410°F, which can dry out and eventually break the ends of the hair. You aren’t trying to fry eggs here,” says Caputo-Estorino. Start at 200°F to 250°F, and go a bit hotter only if that temperature doesn’t work. When styling, spray on a heat protector, then pass the iron over each section slowly, and no more than twice. If a curling iron is your weapon of choice, hold the hair for five to 10 seconds, max.
3. Your Hair Is Falling Out
Stop envisioning yourself as Homer Simpson. “Around 30 percent of my patients are women experiencing hair loss, or androgenic alopecia, and it terrifies them. They think they’re eventually going to go bald—but that’s usually not the case,” says Doris Day, M.D., a New York City dermatologist. Excess shedding can be related to a slew of lifestyle factors, such as stress, hormonal imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies. While many of these can be reversed (say, with meditation or dietary changes), a few products can also regrow your strands.
The Tress Test
Hair loss on you looks different than it does on your dad, so rather than check for a receding hairline, scope out your part. “If it’s widening in an evergreen tree-like pattern, that’s a marker of female pattern hair loss,” explains Day.
- Look for minoxidil. It’s the magical ingredient that has helped grow millions of hairs since the ’80s. And as the only FDA-approved topical treatment to stimulate hair follicles to reverse hair loss, why the heck wouldn’t you use it? “We’re starting to talk about minoxidil for the scalp the way we talk about retinol for the face,” says Day. One to try: Women’s Rogaine 5% Minoxidil Topical Aerosol ($50 for a four-month supply, at drugstores). Massage the product into a clean scalp once daily, at least four hours prior to shampooing. “Hair may fall out for two more weeks, a signal that new hair is right behind it. It’s like teeth—you have to lose your baby ones so the adult ones can grow in,” says Day. (Another promising sign that hair loss isn’t the silent issue it once was? Rogaine now has some minoxidil-containing friends on the shelves, from brands like Pantene and Redken.)
- Try combo therapy. Dealing with the trifecta of fallout, thinness, and damage? Supplement minoxidil with Redken Cerafill Defy Instant Thickening Kit ($70, redken.com for salons), which comes with a shampoo, conditioner, and daily toner to prevent breakage, thicken strands, and inhibit DHT—the hormone-related chemical that leads to hair loss.
- Choose to diffuse. When blow-drying, lose the brush and add a diffuser head, which won’t put tension on your hair’s cuticle and make it flat, says Crosby. Then fill in sparse spots with a product that deposits fibers onto your scalp temporarily, making hair seem more dense. Try Viviscal Hair Filler Fibers ($25, viviscal.com).
More from Women’s Health:
6 Reasons Your Hair Is Thinning
8 Ways You’re Making Your Hair Look Thinner
11 Tips for Voluminous, Healthy Hair