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What is Alopecia, and What Causes It?

It's why Jada Pinkett-Smith is sporting a shaved head.
by Pia Regalado
Mar 28, 2022
Photo/s: @jadapinkettsmith/Instagram

Will Smith struck Chris Rock on the Oscars stage for joking about his wife Jada's tightly cropped head, caused by an autoimmune disease called alopecia which she has been struggling with since she announced it in 2018.

The comedian was about to present the award for Best Documentary Feature, when he joked about actor Javier Bardem "praying" Will would win the Best Actor award before turning his attention to Jada and made a "G.I. Jane 2" joke.

Jada was seen rolling her eyes before Will walked on stage and hit Rock, then yelled at him to "keep my wife's name out of your f*ck*ng mouth."

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As early as 2018, Jada opened up about her battle with alopecia, a disorder that causes her hair to fall.

“I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands and I was just like, ‘Oh my god, am I going bald?’" she said during an episode of Red Table Talk.

“It was one of those times in my life where I was literally shaking in fear. That’s why I cut my hair, and why I continue to cut it."

In December 2021, she said on Instagram "Me and this alopecia are going to be friends... period!"

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While it's normal for a person to lose 50 to 100 hairstrands a day, hair loss occurs when new hair doesn't replace the ones that fell out, according to Mayo Clinic.

What is alopecia?

Alopecia or hair loss is a type of autoimmune disease when the body attacks its own hair follicles, causing hair loss in any parts of the body, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Anyone can get alopecia, the U.S. National Institutes of Health said. Individuals who develop it may notice their hair falling out or bald patches on their scalp without warning.

Alopecia has three main types:

  • alopecia areata where baldness is patchy and can develop anywhere in the body including the scalp, beard area, armpits, inside the nose, or ears.
  • alopecia totalis where a person loses all hair on the scalp, making them completely bald
  • alopecia universalis where the entire body becomes hairless
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What causes it?

Factors include:

  • Heredity which can usually be predicted and comes in a form of receding hairline and bald spots for men and thinning hairline for women
  • Hormonal changes which could happen during pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, or caused by thyroid problems also associated with unexplained weight changes
  • Medications as side effects of some drugs used for cancer, arthritis, and depression, among others
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stress
  • Excessive hairstyling and treatment

What are its symptoms?

It depends on what's causing it, but according to Mayo Clinic, some of the signs are:

  • Gradual thinning of the top of head. For women, it could be in a form of receding hairline.
  • Patchy bald spots
  • Itchy or painful skin before the hair falls out
  • Sudden loosening of hair while combing, washing, or even gently tugging the hair
  • Full body hair loss

Is it permanent?

Some types of hair loss could be permanent, like male- or female-pattern baldness which is usually hereditary, according to the U.K. National Health Service.

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Temporary hair loss could be caused by an illness, stress, cancer treatment, weight loss, among others.

How can it be treated?

Temporary hair loss can grow back without treatment but there are some options available, such as steroids that Jada has used to help manage her hair loss.

Wigs, both synthetic and real, are also available in the market.

Those with alopecia can also try immunotherapy, light treatment, tattooing, hair transplant, or surgery, according to the U.K. NHS.

How can it be prevented?

Here are some tips from Mayo Clinic on how to prevent temporary hair loss:

  • Be gentle with your hair especially when combing it while it is still wet.
  • Avoid harsh hair treatments such as hot rollers, curling irons, and hot oil treatments
  • Limit tension on the hair from styles using rubber bands, braids, etc.
  • Protect your hair from sunlight and other sources of UV light
  • For men, avoid smoking which studies associate with baldness.
  • For those undergoing chemotherapy, ask the doctor for a colling cap which can help reduce hair loss.
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