Overview

You experience many physical changes during your pregnancy. Higher levels of hormones, like estrogen, can even change the texture, color, or amount of hair you have. Many expecting mothers enjoy fuller, thicker hair during pregnancy then experience some hair loss postpartum. Learn about how your hair can change during pregnancy and after having a baby and what you can do to keep your hair healthy. If you dye your hair, this article also explores the evidence on the safety of chemical treatments, like coloring your hair during pregnancy.

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Hair Thickness, Color, and Texture

The size and number of follicles on your scalp determine the thickness of your hair. Larger follicles produce thicker strands of hair. The more follicles you have, the more hair you have. The average person has about 100,000 follicles on their head.

The shape of your hair follicles creates the texture of your hair. If your follicles are round, your hair is straight. Oval-shaped follicles produce curly hair. Variations in between those two can create different size curls or waves.

Melanin is what creates different colors in your skin and your hair. You have cells called melanocytes at each strand of hair that makes melanin. If they produce a lot of melanin, you will have darker hair, and if they produce little melanin, your hair will be lighter. As you get older, your melanocytes wear out and don’t make enough melanin. Grey hair is the result of very little melanin. If the hair follicle is not producing any melanin, the strand of hair from that follicle will be white.

DNA dictates your hair color and texture. Your genes have instructions of how much melanin to produce and what size and shape your hair follicles are. While our understanding of genetics is still improving, we know that genes can turn on and off. Many people experience a difference in hair texture or color throughout their lifetime. Hormones are some of the factors that can cause genes to turn on and off. During pregnancy, you have drastic hormone changes that can ultimately create changes in your hair.

Hair Growth Cycles

Your hair growth happens in three phases. The first is the anagen, and this is the growth phase. The second is transitional catagen. The third is the resting phase, telogen. The resting phase is where you shed. Typically, you lose up to 100 hairs a day. That may sound like a lot, but remember, you have around 100,000 hairs on your head. Your hair is in a constant cycle of growing and shedding.

How Hormones Affect Hair Growth

This study is one example showing that hormones can affect your hair’s growth cycle during pregnancy. The increase in estrogen makes the growth phase longer, so less of your hair enters the resting phase or shedding. The less you shed, the fuller and thicker your hair seems. After your birth, as the estrogen levels drop and return to normal levels, the growth phase isn’t prolonged, and more of your hair than usual enters the resting or shedding phase. This usually happens between 3-6 months postpartum.

Postpartum Hair Loss

Many mothers shed more hair than usual around 3-6 months after having a baby. The technical term for this excessive shedding is postpartum alopecia. It may seem like your hair is falling out, but the chances are that you are just shedding the hair you should have shed during your pregnancy. As you shed excess hair and new hair grows in, it may seem like you have a lot of short hair. This can be particularly noticeable around your face. These newer hairs will grow out, and by 9-12 months postpartum, your hair growth cycles should be back to normal.

The Mom Cut

After your baby is born, it can be challenging to spend a lot of time styling your hair. Your baby may pull your hair if it is within reach. Some mothers choose to go for a shorter haircut after having a baby. This SNL skit about the “mom cut” is hilarious. If you want to go for a lower maintenance length, by all means, do it. You can also talk to your hairstylist for some ideas or suggestions for a lower maintenance cut or style. Having a baby does not mean you have to have short hair or keep your locks in a bun 24/7.

Hair Dye

Coloring hair dates back to ancient times with plant-based dyes. In 1907 the first synthetic hair dye was created by the founder of L’Oréal. In 1947 the first at-home color product was launched. In 1950 about 7% of women dyed their hair; today, it is over 75%.

Each strand of your hair has a cuticle on the outer layer that surrounds the cortex, where the color is. In thicker hair types, there is an additional inner layer called the medulla. Semi-permanent hair dye coats the outer layer of hair strands. This eventually washes out over time. Permanent hair dye penetrates the cuticle, enters the cortex, and bonds with your hair. It may fade, but the color is permanent and will not wash out.

Ingredients in Hair Dye

There are over 5,000 different chemicals used in hair dyes. Most commonly, dyes include some form of ammonia, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and pigment. Ammonia is used in permanent dyes to open the cuticle and allow the color to penetrate the cortex. Alcohol can increase the amount of color your hair absorbs. Hydrogen peroxide is often used to remove your existing color or to lighten the hair. The pigment is included to give your hair the desired color. There are some dyes labeled as organic, all-natural, and chemical-free. No dye is ever truly chemical-free, but you can find some products that do not include some of the more harmful ingredients.

The American Cancer Society states that researchers have been studying a possible link between hair dye use and cancer for many years. Studies have looked most closely at the risks of blood cancers (leukemias and lymphomas) and bladder cancer. While some studies have suggested possible links, others have not.

Dying Your Hair During Pregnancy

During your pregnancy, ideally, you want to limit your exposure to harmful chemicals. There is not solid research linking coloring your hair to adverse effects on your baby. This study investigated coloring hair during pregnancy and neonatal outcomes and found an association of exposure to hair dye with low birth weight. Like any study, there are limitations, and it is difficult to rule out other causes.

If hair dye is applied on your scalp, which would be the case if you have roots touched up or dying your whole head, you will absorb some of those chemicals. This paper is a good summary of research concluding that human studies show that exposure to these chemicals from hair dyes or hair products results in minimal systemic absorption unless there are burns or abscesses on the scalp. Therefore, these chemicals are unlikely to reach the placenta in substantial amounts to cause harm to the unborn fetus.

Tips for Dying Your Hair

The first twelve weeks of your pregnancy are often considered the most critical for development. Some mothers choose to avoid dying or chemically treating their hair during the first trimester. If you do color your hair, there are some things you can do to limit your exposure to harmful chemicals. If you do it yourself, you want to keep it off your skin as much as possible. Wear gloves, and if it gets on your skin, remove it right away. Don’t leave the dye on your hair longer than needed. Whether you are DIYing your hair color or going to a salon, make sure you are in a well-ventilated area. You can always ask for a fan to blow the fumes away from you. You may also want to consider highlights or balayage rather than an all-over color. This reduces the amount of dye coming into contact with your scalp. That may also be lower maintenance and let you go longer in between appointments.

Chemical Hair Treatments

In addition to dyes, other hair treatments could expose you to potentially toxic chemicals. Treatments such as straighteners, relaxers, or perms may also use chemical ingredients to change the texture of your hair. I did not locate any research relating specifically to these products. All of the evidence applicable to hair dye discussed above is also relevant for these treatments.

The Psychological Effects of Getting Your Hair Done

It feels good to go to a salon and have a professional cut, color, or style your hair. For some people, this may be a luxury; for others, this may be part of their routine maintenance. When you weigh the risks and benefits of hair treatments that involve chemicals, one of the benefits is how you feel afterward. Treating yourself to the salon and walking out with your hair looking amazing is always good. Especially during pregnancy when you are going through so many changes to your body and appearance. For more information on body image during pregnancy, see this episode.

Taking Care of Your Hair

You can’t do anything about hormone fluctuations during pregnancy. You can do a few things to take care of your hair and minimize shedding, or at least not contribute more to it.

Diet and Supplements

Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, iron, selenium, and zinc all play a role in hair growth. Ideally, you are eating a diet of healthy whole foods that supply all of these nutrients. Aside from wanting to support healthy hair growth, deficiencies in some vitamins can cause hair loss. You should also be taking a prenatal vitamin during pregnancy that includes these nutrients. Even after birth, you should continue taking a prenatal vitamin, especially if you are breastfeeding. If you think you may want additional children in the future, you may choose to continue taking a prenatal rather than switch to a multivitamin.

Be Gentle

Your hair is more vulnerable to damage when it is wet. It may help to brush it before you take a shower. After your shower, use a detangler and a wide-tooth comb, rather than a hairbrush, which may pull out more hair. Heat damages your hair, but there are some things you can do to minimize damage. Cut back on how often you blow-dry your hair or use heat styling tools like a flat iron or curling iron. When you use these tools, you should be using a heat protectant and turn down the temperature. Coloring or perming your hair also causes damage. You could opt for highlights rather than a full head of color or stretch out your color appointments to dye your hair less often.

Ask Your Hair Stylist

If you are experiencing changes in your hair, bring it up at your next appointment with your hairstylist. They are the hair experts and may have suggestions for a different cut, style, or product. Please disclose that you are pregnant because that can explain many changes your hair may be going through or prompt your stylist to take additional precautions.

If You are a Hair Stylist

If you are a hairstylist, you have a higher level of exposure to chemicals in hair dyes. There is some research showing increased risks for hairstylists during pregnancy. This study compared hairstylists and cosmetologists to a control group of teachers. They concluded that work as a hairdresser might reduce fetal growth and may increase the risk of preterm delivery and perinatal death. When you look at the numbers, the increased risk is very small. Of the 10,662 hairdressers in the study, 3.3% had a baby with low birth weight, compared to 2.4% in the group of 18,594 teachers. The percentage of preterm delivery was 4.8% in hairdressers and 4.2% in teachers. Perinatal death was 0.5% in hairdressers and 0.4% in teachers. There is other research (summarized here) that found no increased risks. Please discuss your profession with your doctor or midwife. Have a conversation with the salon to make sure you are in a well-ventilated area, are limiting your exposure to chemicals, and making sure you are comfortable working during pregnancy.

Talk to Your Doctor or Midwife

You should ask your doctor or midwife what their opinion is on dying or chemically treating your hair during pregnancy. The answer I most often hear is that it is fine. Use your common sense. If you usually get your hair dyed every six weeks and you are comfortable with that, then okay, if you want to stretch it out to more extended periods or avoid it in the first trimester, you can do that too.

If you feel like you are losing more hair than you should be, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your care provider. Significant hair loss could be a sign of a thyroid issue. If you have a history or family history of thyroid issues, you may want to bring this up with your doctor or midwife and ask about testing it.

Thank you to the amazing companies that have supported this episode.

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