Hair Shedding vs Hair Loss – What’s the Difference?

Woman with serious hair loss problem.

Seeing your hair fall out can be very worrying, especially if you’re unsure about where to draw the line between normal and unhealthy. As someone with long, thick hair, I think of it as one of my better features and it’s the focus of many compliments I receive. Because of this, I am always keeping an eye on my hair’s health and how I can improve it.

An important part of hair health is its shedding, but how do you know if you are experiencing shedding or hair loss?

Whilst hair shedding is part of the hair cycle, making it a normal body function, hair loss is mostly caused by external factors which are preventing your hair from growing.

Knowing the difference between hair shedding and hair loss is a simple way to be able to identify the state of your health. Between stress, hormonal imbalances, auto-immune diseases, your diet, age, and scalp health, there are multiple factors that play into hair shedding and loss. But, unlike hair shedding, hair loss is not normal and may need medical attention, which is why it is important to be able to identify hair loss.

The Difference Between Hair Shedding and Hair Loss

Hair shedding is a natural part of the hair cycle. Everyone has roughly 100,000 hair follicles on their head, and, on average, people shed between 50-100 strands of hair a day. But losing more than this could point to excessive hair shedding or hair loss.

Hair loss, for the most part, is not a natural or healthy occurrence. Apart from age, most causes of hair loss indicate issues with your health in a number of different ways. Thus, it is important to know the difference between hair shedding and hair loss and what causes them.

What is Hair Shedding?

Girl with brush full of hair.

The way our hair grows, and sheds seem simple, but there are actually four distinct phases to the hair growth cycle. Understanding how hair grows can help prevent or treat premature hair loss.

The first three phases of the cycle – anagen, catagen, and telogen – cover the growth and maturation of hair. During the final phase, exogen, ‘old’ hair sheds as a new hair is getting ready to take its place. Each phase has its own timeline, which can be affected by age, nutrition, and overall health.

There are many reasons why you may experience hair shedding:

  • Telogen Effluvium: This is the term for stress-related shedding. Too much stress can cause an increase in the amount of hair that sheds. In some cases, the shedding can happen a few months after a stressful event.
  • Acute Illnesses: Some illnesses, like the flu, a fever, infection or just recovering from surgery can cause you to lose hairs.
  • Giving Birth: During pregnancy, an increased number of hairs may go into the resting phase, meaning that once this is over they will begin to fall out.
  • Hormones: Hormonal imbalances or changes (such as in menopause), can make hairdryer and thinner, making it fall out.

What is Hair Loss?

A man checking his hair for hair loss in the mirror.

Unlike hair shedding, hair loss mainly occurs due to external factors. The medical term for hair loss is anagen effluvium; the abrupt loss of hairs that are in their growing phase (anagen) due to an event that impairs the activity of the hair follicle.

There are many reasons why you may experience hair loss:

  • Hereditary Hair Loss: Also known as ‘androgenetic alopecia’,  ‘male-pattern baldness’ or ‘female-pattern baldness’, this is the most common cause of hair loss.
  • Alopecia Areata: This is an auto-immune condition where the body attacks the hair follicles, causing you to lose your hair quickly and in patches. In some cases, alopecia areata clears up on its own and the hair may regrow once the auto-immune condition subsides. Thus, if you have rapid patchy hair loss, you may want to speak to a doctor to find the cause and possible treatments.
  • Hair Styling: Hairstyles which pull the hair tightly or intricately braids the hair can put too much stress on the individual hairs, causing them to fall out. Furthermore, excessive exposure to heat from things like hair straighteners or hair curlers can dehydrate your hair. The heat may also alter the internal protein structure, causing breakages and resulting in your hair falling out.
  • Weight Loss:Sudden and significant weight loss often results in hair loss. However, once your weight evens out, the problem should fix itself without any treatment.
  • A Medical Condition: There are around 30 different diseases which can cause hair loss. But thankfully, treating the underlying disease usually stops and reverses hair loss.
  • Medications or Treatments: Hair loss can be a side effect of certain medications and medical treatments and is often listed as such. Excess hair shedding caused by these factors may be permanent or temporary, depending on the treatment.
  • Diet: Other than stress, telogen effluvium can be caused by dramatically restricting your calorie intake. This change in your diet means you may not be ingesting enough nutrients such as protein, fatty acids, and zinc. Hair loss from this kind of malnutrition is a common experience for people suffering from anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.
  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A can help your hair growth, but too much can make it fall out.
  • Scalp Health: An inflamed, irritated, excessively dry, or flaky scalp are all signs of poor scalp health and can cause hair loss. Scalp irritation can develop from an infection, dandruff, not washing your scalp, or an allergic reaction. Eventually, this can all cause hair loss.

How to Tell if You’re Just Shedding or Losing Hair

A man looking at his receding hairline in the bathroom mirror.

It is often hard to differentiate hair loss and hair shedding, but there are some ways to figure it out. Short of seeing a dermatologist or doctor, you can try to differentiate by seeing how much hair you are losing. If you believe you are losing over the usual 100 strands a day, and are noticing; your hair thinning, hairline receding, or a bald spot forming, there is a chance you are experiencing hair loss.

Knowing the cause and extent of your hair loss starts with how it began. For the most part, long-term hair loss tends to happen gradually. So, if you have started losing your hair suddenly, it is more probable that you are experiencing excess shedding.

Not knowing if the hair you’re losing is a normal amount, or why you’re losing it, can be distressing. However, there are situations where you may experience excessive hair shedding, without suffering from long-term hair loss. You can consult the lists above, and a doctor to determine the cause.

How to Maintain Healthy Hair

The health of your hair largely depends on genetics and hormone levels, which are mostly beyond your control. Nevertheless, learning the hair cycle can help you make the necessary adjustments to your lifestyle in order to ensure proper hair care.

Nutrition

Top view of a woman holding a bowl of healthy food.

Seeing as hair is largely made of protein, you should keep up your protein intake through healthy proteins. Including lean meats, fish, beans, legumes, etc. Furthermore, Vitamins D, C, B12, folic acid, zinc, and iron all have been associated with promoting healthy hair growth.

Reduced Stress

Three different premature hair-loss conditions have been directly related to high stress levels. This includes telogen effluvium, trichotillomania, and alopecia areata. Learning to de-stress through ways such as counseling, meditation, and avoiding daily stressors has many positive health benefits – including healthy hair.

Proper Hair Care

Hairdressers checking their client's highlighted hair in the parlor.

Using the correct products for your type of hair is the first step to promoting healthy growth. Further, treating your hair gently – especially when it is wet and more vulnerable to damage – will make a noticeable difference in your hair’s health.

Conclusion

The difference between hair shedding and hair loss is largely linked to your health and other possible conditions which you may be experiencing. Overall, it is normal to lose 50-100 strands of hair a day, but any more suggests other health problems.

Chances are that most people may at least experience excess shedding for a short period during their lifetime but losing hair can often times be reversed. Taking steps by improving your diet, hair care, and general mental and physical health care are all ways in which you can attempt to prevent any premature hair loss.

References:

Healthline: What Are the Four Stages of Hair Growth?

SHAZ & KIKS: How to tell the difference between hair loss vs hair shedding?

Chester County Hospital: Why Is My Hair Falling Out?

Strut Health: Normal Hair Shedding or Hair Loss? 6 Tips To Tell the Difference

WebMD: 3 Ways Food Can Contribute to Hair Loss

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