(NEW YORK) — Lillian White, a dental hygienist from Mendham, Mass., was only 11 when a genetic condition caused her hair to start falling out.
“I was just getting into puberty and that awkward phase and my hair started falling out,” said White, who is now 31. “It was terrible. At slumber parties, we would braid each other’s hair with friends and they would ask, ‘Why are your braids so tiny?'”
As she matured, White refused to go out with boys.
“Who would want date a girl with thin hair?” she said. “It was totally detrimental to my self-esteem. I never had any confidence.”
Later, when she studied vocal performance at college, White abandoned her dream of being a singer and slipped into a deep depression.
“I never felt comfortable going on stage,” she said. “I had done plays and worn a wig, but it was terrible and hot.”
Though often associated with balding men, hair loss affects women, too.
The American Hair Loss Association calls it a “devastating disease of the spirit,” just as serious as any disease and one that can take a toll that has a direct impact on health.
“As a dermatologist, the longest office visit I have is when I have a hair loss patient in the room,” said Dr. Valerie Callender, associate professor of dermatology at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“We think of it as our crown and glory,” she said. “In Western civilization being attractive is having healthy, thick, long hair and when you start losing it, it’s devastating.”
Hair loss can be caused by aging, or heredity, but can also be caused by allergies. Starlet January Jones of AMC’s Mad Men has recently revealed that she, too, was getting thin on the top after using hair dye.
“As a clinical dermatologist, the first thing I think about with allergies and hair loss is the chemicals in hair grooming procedures or treatments,” Callender said. “The number one reason for an allergic reaction to a chemical is hair dyes.”
Other reasons for hair loss can be contact dermatitis on the scalp and allergy to fragrances from skin care products, soaps and lotions.
“That’s why they smell so good,” she said.
Oddly, yeasts and molds that live in the scalp can also cause hair loss, especially when a person doesn’t wash their hair regularly. Irritation and itching, as well as more scratching, can cause a bacterial infection. Hair breakage can also occur.
An autoimmune response unrelated to irritants, alopecia areata, can also cause hair loss, leading to total baldness. It usually starts with one or more small, round, smooth patches on the scalp and can progress, sometimes to complete body hair loss. Hair can grow back or fall out again at any time.
The most common form of hair loss, androgenetic alopecia, is caused by aging.
“Basically, what men have is pretty easy,” said Callender. “In contrast, women are more complicated. We can have so many different causes of hair loss. A work-up in women is really, really important. You need to see a dermatologist to determine the cause.”
Hereditary hair loss, the cause of Lillian White’s condition, is “rare, but not uncommon,” Callender said. But more often, women’s hair begins to thin after menopause when they lose their estrogen and progesterone and the male hormones or androgens become “unmasked.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio