What Is Alopecia? (Because It Is Not a Punchline)

Many unexpected events transpired during Sunday's Oscar awards, though none may have been as talked about as the uncomfortable altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock after the latter made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's shaved head. Jada, who has been public about her struggles with alopecia over the past few years, decided to shave her head last summer with her daughter Willow's encouragement.

But we're not here to talk about the Oscars or the slap. We want to focus on alopecia, a hair loss condition that affects as many as 50 million men and 30 million women in the United States alone. In fact, it has been estimated that by the age of 50, over half of all men and 45 percent of women will have experienced some form of hair loss due to genetics, hormonal changes, medical issues or simply aging.

What is alopecia?

"Alopecia is an overarching term for hair loss. The words you put before or after alopecia describe the specific type of alopecia," explains Lars Skjoth, the founder and lead researcher of Harklinikken, a hair clinic that specializes in hair loss and thinning. "For example, alopecia totalis describes complete hair loss, whereas alopecia areata describes partial hair loss that's more patchy. Other types include traction alopecia, which is caused by repeated stress or tension on the hair follicles from too-tight hairstyles like braids or ponytails, and alopecia androgenetica (aka female- or male-pattern hair loss), which is usually genetic in nature."

What Causes Alopecia?

Again, just as there are many different types of alopecia, there are many potential causes. For some, it could be genetics. Do you have a family history of hair loss? For others, it can be brought on by a hormonal change—be it from pregnancy, menopause or a change in birth control. Sudden hair thinning and loss can also signal an underlying medical condition like PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, which require a blood test to properly identify. Other potential causes include nutritional deficiencies, periods of intense stress and styling habits that put tension on your hair follicles.

Is there a cure for alopecia?

As of writing, there is no single cure for alopecia. However, there are many treatment options that could help, but you will likely require some professional intervention. First and foremost, it's important that you identify the underlying cause for your hair loss before throwing the kitchen sink at the issue, which is what many of us are tempted to do when faced with clumps of fallen strands.

That was the biggest takeaway actress Ricki Lake—who has also been open about having alopecia—shared with us as we researched the condition: "If I had to do it all over again, I would start by getting a consultation. I think that's the first step—to get informed about what your options are before committing to something. Everyone's experience with hair loss is so different. There isn't just one thing that's going to work for all."

Depending on your needs, some people might opt for topical or injectable steroids in the scalp—or PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections. There's also minoxidil (aka Rogaine), which is the first topical brand approved by the FDA to help regrow hair in both men and women, as well as laser treatments and transplants.

Bottom line: We know it can be overwhelming to see all of this information laid bare, but on the flip side, we want you to know that you have options should you decide you want them.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know About Alopecia?

Yes, it's important to note the psychological toll alopecia can have on people. "Alopecia can have serious psychosocial consequences, causing intense emotional suffering, and personal, social and work-related problems," says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York.

"Hair plays a big role in self-esteem and self-expression. After someone experiences hair loss, it can make them think they are unattractive, resulting in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts. These feelings of unattractiveness, depression and social anxiety build up over time, and while alopecia itself is not life-threatening, it can result in the development of serious mental and social issues," says Hafeez.

All of this to say that alopecia is no laughing matter. Anyone who has experienced hair loss knows how emotionally vulnerable it can make you feel, and for public-facing figures like Jada and Ricki to be so open about their personal journeys takes immense courage. Their openness can help others find insights, treatment options and comfort in knowing they're not alone.

Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...