I haven’t got amazing hair, but it’s not a nightmare either. It has always looked halfway decent without me paying too much attention. So I’ve been bemused to see several stylists pull a face at it over the past year, seeing what I failed to notice: my hair has turned increasingly brittle, thin and flyaway.
I look after it fairly well, so that can’t be the issue, but looking at myself at 23, below left, and now at 52, below right, there's a clear difference. I put it down to my menopausal age, relentless stress, and, probably, Covid, which most of us have by now grappled with at some point. “I’ve noticed loads of people suffering from hair shedding and thinning while recovering from the virus,” colourist Shannon Gallagher at John Frieda told me.
As for the ravages of menopausal oestrogen depletion, “oestrogen keeps hair in its growth phase for longer, and protects against the follicle-shrinking, hair-thinning effects of male hormones in those genetically sensitive to this,” says consultant trichologist Anabel Kingsley. “So women can experience both excessive hair shedding and find their hairs much thinner and shorter.” And more prone to breakage, exacerbated, says hairstylist Erroll Douglas, by the fact that sebaceous glands that produce hair’s natural oils slow down with age. “Hair gets drier, duller and less strong, which is especially true of curly and Afro hair. Hairs may also become more unmanageable and wirier.”
So hormonal upheaval, age, illness and stress are all major contributors to hair thinning and shedding, as well as reasons for hair loss. As so often with health-related beauty issues, the solution is a multi-pronged programme of care, styling, supplements and/or treatments.
Here are the hair thickening and strengthening products that work for me, plus some ideas for the right vitamins to take and procedures to try.
How I look after and rebuild my fine and thinning hair
These are the products I use on a regular basis to rebuild my brittle hair from the inside out.
I’ve never seen results from any ‘thickening’ shampoos, but I do know that weighing hair down with conditioning or silicone-rich shampoos is problematic if you want volume. Also, irritating and drying out the scalp is never a good thing for hair health and strength, so I avoid drying detergents (sulphates SLS and SLES) and always choose a sulphate-free shampoo instead.
This one clears out any buildup but does it without harsh detergents, and adds a host of amino acids (tiny protein fragments) to strengthen hair from the inside out. You use it once a week.
On other days, my favourite is Gallinée Prebiotic Soothing Cleansing Cream, £23. Both leave hair light and airy, but not parched.
I look for the deepest-conditioning products with healing plant oils and moisture that nonetheless are weightless, and this one totally fits the bill. Has restorative honey to boot, and smells gorgeous. Another whisper-light favourite is Christophe Robin Hydrating Melting Mask with Aloe Vera, £28.
Bond-building treatments seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but I prefer to stick to the brands that specialise in such technology (rather than adding a ‘plex’-like product to the range as a sort of afterthought). Except in the case of the ever-innovative Living Proof, who just this week is launching a bond builder set to go head to head with the daddy of them all, Olaplex.
What is a hair bond builder? They were created for chemically damaged hair but are just as helpful for ageing strands prone to breakage. Why? “Because they protect and help re-form some of the bonds in the hair’s cortex that are responsible for its strength,” says Shona Bisset, Windle Lab’s development chemist.
This serum’s piece de resistance is that is repairs all three existing bonds, not just the hydrogen ones other ‘bonders’ exclusively work on. You use it once a week as a leave-in, ten minutes before blowdrying; it promises to heat-protect, leave hair smooth and glossy, and no less than eight times stronger. And the visible results are indeed pretty spectacular without making my hair limp. Time will tell whether it indeed makes my hair stronger in the long run.
I also like K18 Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask, £25, for its ease of use; you only have to wait four minutes before styling your hair. Like Living Proof’s serum, it doesn't contain heavy conditioning agents.
“You want these treatments to be free of silicones and the like because they’ll prevent the penetration of bond-building actives,” says Kingsley. She advises alternating between a good hydrating conditioner and a bond-repair treatment, which I do.
Scalp serums are a great idea because like any skin, your scalp needs hydration to thrive and stimulation to bring nutrients and oxygen to the area. Applying a serum gets you to give your scalp a little massage (use your fingertips or a little massager brush like the Tangle Teezer Scalp Exfoliator & Massager, £8) which is always good.
But many scalp serums are oil-based, which makes fine hair like mine look like I dipped my head in a vat of lard. I prefer a watery hydrator such as this one. It has calming agents and antioxidants, which Bisset says will protect the scalp from free radicals that’ll cause ageing and greys.
I’m not a fan of ‘stimulating’ menthol or ‘cooling’ alcohol in these serums, which will only irritate the scalp in the long run. I’m not keen on rough scalp scrubs either for the same reason that I wouldn’t use a very scratchy scrub on my face.
The Ouai Scalp Serum has peptides as well, to help stimulate healthy growth. If you have thick or coily hair in need of intense moisturisation, try T.H.O.M. Scalp Serum, £46, instead. It has many similar ingredients, but its texture is that of a light oil.
Thickening styling tricks for thinning hair
I aim to make my hair look twice as thick as it really is, and for that, I’ve developed my own layering system. I don’t always use all of these products, but I tend to apply at least three of them, in small doses.
There are quite a few genius leave-in serums and sprays out there that will not only help strengthen hair but heat and UV-protect as well, and provide styling benefits to boot. This one has a much-lauded keratin complex that ‘fills in’ damaged areas. It blocks frizz without leaving hair flat; instead, it gives it a bit of texture that makes hair look plumper. I also like Rahua Aloe Vera Hair Gel, £32, for the same reasons.
The best way to double the size of your hair is to layer a thickening spray under a volumising mousse. The Virtue spray mentioned above can function as a thickener, but if I want seriously plumped-up (and delicious-smelling) hair, I start with this spray, misted throughout towel-dried hair.
This is not a traditional volumising mousse, it's more of a light foam, but I find it seriously densifies and lifts hair at the root while acting as a scalp treatment. You apply two pumps of this watery mousse just to the roots, where it deposits strengthening amino-acids, growth-boosting pea protein and exfoliating lactic acid alongside film-forming agents that instantly thicken strands.
My other all-time favourite mousse is Evo MacGyver Multi-Use Mousse, £23, which just gives the biggest hair ever.
Texturising and protein-rich products can leave my wispy ends looking a bit dry and static, so I like to add some hydration after blow-drying to bring out my natural waves. Creams, hair oils and oil mists are all much too heavy for me, so I‘ve found this rare hydrating mist that does have some nourishing oils but is mostly a watery-milky spray that totally revives my hair and protects it from UV to boot.
Another favourite is the weightless and reasonably-priced Lily & Loaf Conditioning Hair Mist, £7.50, which is full of hydrating humectants and strengthening proteins.
Supplementation for thinning hair
I’m not very consistent with supplements specifically for my hair, plus needs are highly individual. So here, it’s best to rely on the experts for advice.
If you suspect your hair thinning is a sign of perimenopause or menopause, Kingsley advises speaking to your GP first. “HRT can play an important role in maintaining hair density,” she says.
If you’re suffering from hair loss, says Kingsley, a dermatologist or trichologist can prescribe "highly effective" scalp drops containing growth-boosting Minoxidil and anti-androgens, which will also help if hair loss and thinning is due to a thyroid imbalance or other diseases. Minoxidil, however, only works for as long as you use it.
If thinning or shedding are caused by a nutritional deficiency, supplementation can help. According to Kingsley, “low vitamin D and B12, zinc and protein are most common after menopause. Aim to get these from your diet and boost their levels with supplements.”
Integrative medicine expert Dr Sohere Roked is a fan of Viviscal Professional, £60 for a one-month supply (it should officially be sold to you by a health professional or hairdresser) or Nourkrin Woman Hair Nutrition, £49.99 for one-month supply.
Dr Roked also says tackling high stress levels with supplements can be beneficial: “Hair can fall out three months after a period of stress. If you think this is the case for you, ashwagandha, B vitamins, and rhodiola, amongst others, can help balance the stress hormones and stop hair loss,” she says.
We like Centred J.D.C.I.M Menopausal Supplement, £32 for a one-month supply. It has B vitamins, ashwagandha and other adaptogens to help your system become more stress-resistant.
Another important hair vitamin is iron. The best way to measure your iron status is actually by the iron storage protein ferritin, as it’s a measure of how healthy your iron stores are.
Your ferritin level will show up on a blood test. “A level above 70 is optimal for healthy hair growth,” says dermatologist and hair loss specialist Dr Mia Jing Gao. Supplementing iron ought to increase ferritin levels, but note that taking iron with coffee and tea, for example, can hinder absorption. Dr Jing Gao recommends taking iron supplements with a glass of orange juice as vitamin C helps iron absorption.
You’d need another blood test after a few weeks to see whether your ferritin levels have been going up. It’s hard to overdose on over-the-counter iron if you stick to the recommended dose, says Dr Jing Gao, but as supplementing it can be a complex issue if you’re trying to solve an issue like hair loss, it’s best done under the supervision of a professional. They may even recommend an iron infusion.
Some hair supplements such as Viviscal contain iron. Dr Jing Gao likes Lambert's Florisene for Women, £20.95 for a three-month supply https://www.lambertshealthcare.co.uk/multiple-formulas/multis-for-women/florisene-for-women/ , which is formulated to absorb well.
More Gloss: Best hair supplements and vitamins
Treatments to help thicken thinning hair
There are plenty of professional treatments to push back the tide of thinning or shedding hair. Here are three innovative ones.
The bespoke growth-boosting drops: Sohere Roked Oestrogen Hair Tonic, about £100, plus a £300 consultation fee
Hormone specialist Dr Roked will create a bespoke hair tonic for you, which can feature ingredients such as tretinoin, latanoprost, melatonin, azelaic acid and caffeine, depending on the individual needs. It also may or may not incorporate the same body-identical oestrogen you would find in HRT gels to boost hair growth. Patients are expected to see the impact after two to three months (one bottle lasts about this time) but many report a difference sooner.
A stem cell serum (it’s animal-derived) that induces hair growth, stimulates follicle development and suppresses cell death is ‘stamped’ into the scalp using a small micro needling device, over the course of six weekly half-hour treatments. A clinical study showed a 24 per cent increase in hair growth after four-to-six months. You can also get an at-home kit (yes, you'll have to stamp the microneedles into your own head) for £365.
Ricardo Vila Nova is known as the 'Hair Whisperer' and for good reason. He is a trichologist and biochemist who’s developed an entirely bespoke way of diagnosing and tackling your hair and scalp issues, by doing a DNA scan of your hair and identifying precisely what it is you need. He’ll provide you with a treatment plan to rebalance the scalp and kickstart growth, and can create bespoke growth factor serums for you and offer treatments such as scalp PRP or micro needling. GTG’s editorial director Victoria has seen growth with six-weekly appointments with Ricardo over six months, where other treatments have failed.