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Dry, brittle hair and the menopause

Just as your skin can become dry during the perimenopause and menopause, so too can your hair

You may have noticed your hair looking a little frizzy or feeling dry recently. It might be brittle and break more easily than it used to. While changes to hair texture are quite common during the perimenopause and menopause, they can be frustrating, and you may need to rethink how you treat your hair and the products you use.

How do hormones impact my hair?

Glenn Lyons, clinical director at Philip Kingsley, says: ‘Due to the decline in both oestrogen and testosterone levels in the perimenopause and menopause stages, it is common for scalp hair texture to become drier.’

As oestrogen levels drop, hair follicles can constrict or shrink – some women may experience hair loss or thinning, and the hair shaft can become more fragile. Hormones even can even affect the shape of hair follicles, so for instance you may find your straight hair (from circle-shaped follicles) becomes curly (as the follicles change to an oval shape).

Your hair can feel wiry and coarse as hormones affect the oils that keep your hair smooth. A drop in oestrogen can lead to a reduction in sebum production – sebum lubricates the scalp and maintains your hair’s acidic pH level. The acidity usually keeps your hair cuticle cells close together, and your hair smooth, but when the pH balance is upset, the cuticle cells can lift and pull away from each other, which makes your hair look rough.

Equally, with less sebum, your scalp can become dry and flaky and your hair receives less hydration. The less oil your hair receives, the more frizzy it can become.

‘Naturally coarse hair, such as tightly coiled curls, is much more prone to natural dryness and brittleness, mostly due to its reduced ability to retain adequate moisture levels. It is also worth noting that grey hair can have a more coarse feel,’ explains Glenn.

How can I treat my hair?

The first thing to consider is that for your hair to be in good condition, you need a healthy scalp. Glenn recommends:

Regular shampooing

‘Contrary to popular opinion, frequent shampooing, if possible at least twice weekly, is of major importance in helping to attain a healthy hair and scalp,’ says Glenn. ‘At scalp level, in normal circumstances, frequent shampooing will help to keep the normal skin cell turnover (approximately every 28 days) from accumulating. Also, frequent shampooing will help rid your hair of environmental pollutants, sweat and excess oil.’

Wash your hair with warm water rather than hot water, which can dry your hair. Massage in your shampoo to stimulate blood circulation.

Get clever with conditioners

‘The scalp’s natural oil secretion (by sebaceous oil glands) does not travel far along the hair shaft, so a conditioner should be applied to the hair (not the scalp),’ says Glenn. ‘Moisturising ingredients found in conditioners are far more effective in penetrating into the hair shaft, and therefore more beneficial to hair health than applying natural oils, for example, olive and argan oil.  

‘An intensive pre-shampoo conditioner should be applied weekly, particularly on long hair, and twice weekly if your hair is very dry and brittle, for approximately 6-8 weeks, after which time the application can be gradually extended to monthly.’  

Dry with care

‘Wrapping your hair in a cotton towel after washing is usually sufficient to absorb excess moisture, but it’s important to blot your hair and not to rub aggressively,’ says Glenn. ‘Microfibre towels can be useful, as they tend to absorb more water, reducing drying time, and therefore the likelihood of heat damage from blow drying.

Styling solutions

‘Using a wide-spaced prong brush will enable your hair to gently move through the prongs, whereas with full bristles or metal barrel brushes, hair is pulled over the bristles, potentially stretching it and ultimately causing hair breakage,’ says Glenn. 

Heated hair styling tools can cause dehydration and damage to already brittle hair. Try to reduce the frequency of use and lower the temperature.

Ingredient know-how

It can be confusing determining which ingredients can dry your scalp. Consider alcohol, for instance. Some of these – known as short-chain alcohols – have quick drying properties and may be found in the likes of hairspray or dry shampoo. Look out for ethanol, propanol, propyl alcohol. isopropyl alcohol and SD alcohols. However, some alcohol – known as long-chain alcohols or fatty acid alcohols – are hydrating and can help your hair look shiny. These are lauryl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and behenyl alcohol.

Similarly, use silicones with care. ‘Silicones can be useful to add slip to the hair, aiding manageability, but can build up on the hair if present at high percentages or used too frequently,’ says Glenn. ‘With appropriate use, silicones can also help to smooth strands, tame frizz and add shine.’

If your scalp is irritated, look for soothing ingredients such as aloe vera, witch hazel and allantoin (from the comfrey plant).

To slough away dead skin cells, choose a scrub that’s either sugar-based or contains salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid or BHA) that removes excess product build up.

Choose hydrating shampoos and conditioners that contain natural oils such as coconut, avocado, argan, jojoba, or butters such as shea, mango or cacao. Humectants such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin and panethenol (vitamin B) will help to retain your hair’s natural moisture.

Lifestyle factors to consider

‘Good nutrition is essential in attaining healthy hair. It’s important to consume all the food groups daily, including protein (meat, fish, eggs, pulses and lentils) and in moderation, complex carbohydrates (such as rice, sweet potato and pasta),’ says Glenn.

Your body will allocate essential nutrients to the more important parts of your body that are needed to function first – your hair gets what’s left.

If you are experiencing hot flushes or night sweats, consider if you are drinking enough fluids as if you are dehydrated, that can impact your hair.

There is limited evidence that hair supplements work, although multivitamin/mineral supplements can be beneficial, especially for vegetarians and vegans.

There is also limited data on the effect of HRT on hair. Hair symptoms alone aren’t indicated for HRT, although some women who take it for menopausal symptoms have anecdotally noticed improvements in hair health, particularly in regard to hair loss.

Glenn Lyons is clinical director at Philip Kinglsey, see

Dry, brittle hair and the menopause

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