It was in the month of April that I woke up to the horror that has been a running theme of several nightmares in the past. OK, I didn't wake up completely bald, but I did see strands, even clumps of it scattered on my white pillowcase. Had it been the dismal quality of sleep I was having thanks to one of those dreams about scrambling for a mask in a crowded marketplace? Or had the end really arrived? A round of cleaning dismissed all my earlier theories: the clumps of hair were everywhere, from the bathroom floors to the cushions and rugs.
Exasperated, I called my mother to relay my fate in the hope of hearing a diagnosis, and a trusted home remedy or two. I got neither. She had been having a similar experience and had dismissed it as being age-related.
Weeks later, a friend recounted a similar story. And then, I did what most reluctant millennials do: I typed out the words 'pandemic hair fall' on social media. My guess was confirmed. I wasn't alone, and women the world over were reporting a similar pattern of hair-loss. It was sudden, excessive and had lasted through the months of the pandemic.
On May 21, comedian Sumukhi Suresh tweeted, "How do I have any hair left if that’s how much is on the dustpan after jhaadoo pocha," validating the thoughts of many others (mostly women) on the platform. Another recent post by journalist Cherry Agarwal highlighted the extent of it with an example. “I am losing as much hair as India its democratic character. We both need help,” it read.
Bad hair days
Dr Deepali Bharadwaj, Delhi-based dermatologist and visiting faculty at AIIMS Rishikesh insists that the condition isn't limited to women. “While most patients that come to me are women, men have been reporting hair fall too. There are also cases where hair growth has become slower, which shows stunted growth of the hair follicles,” she explains.
In technical terms, losing over a 100 strands of hair in a day is what constitutes hair-loss, trichologists and dermatologists confirm. “And the signs are often seen on your pillow cases or in the shower,” Bharadwaj explains, admitting that there has been a whopping 90% increase in patients consulting her for hair-loss during the pandemic.
Mumbai-based trichologist Apoorva Shah also confirms that eight in 10 of his patients right now come to him for concerns about hair-loss. "The pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Social distancing can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety," he says. It could be a case of 'Telogen effluvium', he says, a temporary condition where stress pushes hair follicles into a shedding phase, causing them to fall out when combing or washing. However, he is careful to assert that 'hair is the body's barometer', and hairfall can often have underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
On the face of it, Bharadwaj believes, a lot should have changed for the better during the pandemic. "We are eating at home. We are exposed to less dirt and grime from the outdoors," she says. However, this can result in changing the pH of the scalp, leading to aggravtaed hair-loss. She also cautions against the excessive intake of vitamins, a common concern when the pandemic began. “That can also result in hair loss,” she says.
Hair now, gone tomorrow
Varsha Suresh, a 33-year-old Bengaluru-based advertising professional, first noticed that her hair was losing its original sheen. “This was three months into the lockdown, despite not being exposed to pollution. Then, it started falling out in chunks. I have lost at least half the volume of my hair. Every time I comb, I lose hair," she says. She considered medical help but the risk of stepping out during a raging pandemic was not an option.
For 52-year-old Gujarat-based Mangai Krishnan, the revelation came through the marble flooring that covered her home, early in April. "I noticed clumps of hair lying around while I swept the place. Slowly, the clip I used to tie it with was falling off on its own," she says explaining that this is the first time she has experienced unnatural hair loss. Homemade hair packs with mehendi and fresh aloe vera were her first resort as was keeping a tab on her water intake. "And yet, I dread my hair wash days for the fear of shedding more," she says.
For Suresh, a combination of a hydrating hair packs and exposure to the sun seems to have resulted in noticeable change.
Nowhere to go A temporary affair
To add to the misery, a trip to the salon takes the kind of courage, we can no longer muster. Shahnaz Husain, founder, chairperson and MD, The Shahnaz Husain Group, cautions about visits to the salon. "It's not worth the risk," she says, even though she admits that 80% of her clients are reporting increased hair-fall.
"Telogen effluvium wasn't very common and is caused by stress. However, stress relief is easier said than done," she says while also pointing out the importance of hot oil treatments and dishes out easy-to-use home remedies. "Stick to herbal shampoos and natural conditioners. Both yoghurt and a beer rinse can help. Trim your hair a quarter of an inch if the ends have turned stiff," she says.
Both Bharadwaj and Shah also highlight the importance of meditation, a protein and nutrient-rich diet and adequate sleep.
However, for those staring at the deep end of this spiral, Hussain instills some hope. "The good part is that it is temporary. It will go away when the pandemic does", she says.