It starts as a perfect morning. You wake up, make breakfast and sip on a cup of coffee while you get ready for your day. That is, it’s a perfect morning until you run a brush through your hair. At first, it’s just a few extra strands of hair in your brush.
But then you start to notice that a few strands one day is repeated by a few more strands the next, and a few more a week later. Your hairline is starting to look a little thin, and you wonder how long you have until you’re better off shaving your hair clean than keeping the thin wispy remainders.
Supplements, diet changes, even an extra trip to the gym or another glass of water every day might help protect and preserve your hair.
You aren’t alone. It’s natural, in that first moment you notice hair loss to panic and immediately reach for any solutions presented to you. But, as anyone whose typed ‘hair loss’ into google can tell you, the list of proposed treatments for hair loss is miles long and it can be difficult to tell what, if anything, will work for you.
That’s where this article comes in. Rather than going through a long list of possible causes and solutions for hair loss, we’re focusing on the role of zinc, both in hair loss and hair recovery.
We’ll talk about the science behind the supplement, the role zinc has to play in your body, and how zinc can potentially benefit your hair. We’ll also talk about different sources of zinc and give you more of a road map for getting more zinc and using better sources of zinc.
Let’s get started.
- Zinc and Hair
- The Science
- What Zinc Does
- Signs of Zinc Deficiency
- How Zinc Can Benefit Your Hair
- Types of Hair Loss Zinc Can Impact
- Sources of Zinc
- Dietary Sources of Zinc
Zinc and Hair
Zinc is an essential nutrient, meaning it’s critical for proper cellular function, but is one of the nutrients that your body can’t produce on its own.
It’s also a water-soluble nutrient. Some vitamins, even essential vitamins, are stored in your body, usually in fat cells.
Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, are filtered out by your body and eliminated through urine. That means you need a constant source of zinc, since your body always needs it, but is also always getting rid of excess.
Unlike your phone, which can tell you when its batteries are low and it needs a charge, your body can’t tell you when it’s running low on specific nutrients. Instead, your body prioritizes those nutrients, making sure your organs and other critical body process have what they need before allowing less critical parts of your body to receive them.
Your hair, I’m sorry to say, is not a critical part of your body.
That means that your hair is one of the last places your body sends its most critical nutrients, despite hair cells being the second-fastest dividing cells in the body (the fastest dividing cells are intestinal).
So, hair loss can be one of the first symptoms of many vitamin deficiencies, including zinc.
That said, the connection between zinc and hair loss has been studied, and results are rather mixed. Let’s dive in.
Before we go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that the scientific basis for zinc deficiency as a primary cause of hair loss is incredibly low. Very few people have a severe enough zinc deficiency to cause hair loss on its own, and among those who do have a deficiency that severe, there are more important health consequences than hair loss.
We’ll talk about the symptoms of zinc deficiency in a moment. But chances are, you don’t have a severe zinc deficiency. If you’re concerned that you do, you should consult with a doctor and get tested.
That said, there does seem to be some connection between zinc and one of the more distressing forms of hair loss, alopecia areata.
Alopecia areata is characterized by sudden, patchy, severe hair loss. You may have only one or two patches, but alopecia areata can also affect all the hair on your body. Don’t worry, unless you’ve been losing significant hair suddenly in the last few days, you probably don’t have this auto-immune condition.
If you have had sudden hair loss, you should go to a doctor right away.
But, in patients with alopecia areata, zinc serum levels are lower. Zinc has also been shown as an effective treatment for hair loss associated with this condition in several case studies.
For androgenic alopecia, the most common form of genetic hair loss, studies on zinc are mixed.
One study has shown no correlation between rates of androgenic alopecia and zinc deficiency. Another study, this one looking at a larger population by aggregating other study samples, did find a statistically significant connection between androgenic alopecia and slightly reduced levels of serum zinc.
So, we don’t know whether mild zinc deficiency causes hair loss. What do we know about zinc and restoring your hair?
Unfortunately, there have been fewer studies done on this than have looked to see if a connection between zinc deficiency and hair loss exists. Zinc does appear to be an effective treatment option, combined with other treatments, for alopecia areata, but not necessarily for androgenic alopecia.
However, it also seems to be a good treatment for telogen effluvium, which is a type of hair loss often brought on by intense stress or trauma and is often reversible, but which can also lead to more permanent varieties of hair loss.
Zinc has also been shown effective restoring hair for people with hypothyroidism and women with PCOS related hair loss. However, the exact mechanism (and we’ll talk more about how zinc works in a moment) isn’t well understood.
What Zinc Does
Just like any nutrient, knowing the role zinc serves in your body is one of the first steps to understanding how dietary zinc, or supplements, can affect your health.
We’ve already mentioned that zinc is an essential vitamin, one your body can’t produce on its own.
It’s also a critical nutrient that every cell in your body uses. Zinc has a role to play in cell division, the basic process by which your cells create more of themselves. It’s also critical for DNA coding and formation.
Without enough zinc, your cells start to have serious problems, which is why hair loss is one of the least concerning symptoms of severe zinc deficiency.
That said since your hair is the second most rapidly dividing cell type in your body but not a cell type your body prioritizes, it also makes sense that your hair would be affected by low zinc levels really quickly.
However, just like all vitamins, zinc is a nutrient you need in minuscule amounts. For all that it does, it takes very little zinc to see to your body’s needs. And while your body does constantly eliminate extra zinc, it’s still possible to get too much.
Zinc toxicity, the opposite of a deficiency, causes problems too, and will also affect your hair. So, instead of taking a ton of zinc supplements without considering dosage or need, it’s better to try and incorporate a moderate amount of zinc into your diet and supplement as needed from there.
Signs of Zinc Deficiency
While it’s highly unlikely that you have a zinc deficiency, there are some signs and symptoms to look out for. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, most of these symptoms are general but concerning enough to go to a doctor.
Chances are since zinc deficiency is rare, your doctor will check for other possible causes before running a test for zinc levels. However, if you are vegetarian, diabetic, or have a digestive disorder, they will likely test for zinc sooner since those things all increase your risk of zinc deficiency.
Here are some of the most common symptoms:
Notice that these symptoms are fairly general? It’s a little like going on to WebMD to see if you have the flu, and realizing you have cancer. Zinc deficiency is one of those things a doctor really needs to diagnose before you should think you have it.
Rather than focusing here, since severe zinc deficiencies are rare, let’s talk about zinc and your hair.
How Zinc Can Benefit Your Hair
The biggest thing zinc does for your hair is to support healthy cell division. One of the signs that your hair cells aren’t doing well in regard to cell division is ‘corpse hairs’ or hair that is already detached from the hair follicle when it emerges from your scalp.
Corpse hairs are usually very short, may cause symptoms like ingrown hairs, and usually need to be diagnosed by either a doctor or a dermatologist.
But, with enough zinc and other key nutrients, cell division proceeds normally and results in hair consistent in width, color, strength, and growth rate.
Because zinc can act as storage for histamines, the chemical behind allergic reactions, getting enough zinc can also reduce scalp irritation and inflammation from hair products and the bacteria that naturally live on your scalp.
Types of Hair Loss Zinc Can Impact
We’re already touched on this a little, but it’s worth repeating.
There are a few forms of hair loss, or alopecia, that studies have shown are more responsive to zinc.
Alopecia areata is a common auto-immune condition characterized in part by periods of sudden, severe, hair loss. Zinc can help reduce the severity of symptoms, re-grow hair, and potentially extend the period between flares. There isn’t a cure, and treatment is usually focused on minimizing hair loss and dealing with the emotional and psychological toll sudden and severe hair loss can take.
Telogen is the resting phase of your hair follicles. At the end of telogen, just before your hair follicle begins growing hair again, your existing hair is shed to make room for a new strand.
Effluvium are hair loss events more severe than typical hair fall. It’s normal for 50-100 hairs to fall every day, but effluvium usually causes enough hair loss to noticeably thin your hair. The symptoms can go away after 3-6 months, or they can persist and turn into more permanent hair loss.
Telogen effluvium can be brought on by chronic stress, sudden severe stress like a car crash or divorce, and extreme body stress like surgery, broken bones, and childbirth.
Telogen effluvium, thanks to the nature of hair growth, doesn’t appear right away. Instead, you’ll notice hair loss starting a few weeks, up to a couple of months, after the initial cause of the effluvium.
Zinc supplements, or a high-zinc diet, can help reduce the severity of telogen effluvium, prevent it from developing, and increase the odds and rate of full hair recovery.
Hypothyroidism Related Hair Loss
Hypothyroidism is a hormonal condition where your thyroid isn’t functioning at the level it should. This condition is one of the first things your doctor will check if you come to them concerned about hair loss. It’s a common cause of hair loss, especially in women.
While we don’t entirely know how zinc acts to restore and preserve your hair in cases of hypothyroidism, several studies show it does.
PCOS Related Hair Loss
Another common cause of hair loss in women and trans-men is PCOS or poly-cystic ovarian syndrome. Like Hypothyroidism, PCOS alters hormone concentrations in the body and usually causes an excess of androgens.
In this case, the zinc likely works by preventing the formation of DHT, or dihydrotestosterone. Men and women both have some level of testosterone and DHT. Men usually have higher concentrations of both hormones than women, but women with PCOS may have a higher concentration than women without the condition.
DHT is one of the main factors in androgenic alopecia, or genetic pattern hair loss, in both men and women. It causes hair follicles to shrink. Reducing DHT concentrations gives your hair a chance to heal and reverse the shrinking process, allowing more follicles to grow larger, healthier, strands of hair.
As a subset of this category, we want to repeat that zinc may or may not be effective at reducing the symptoms of androgenic alopecia, the most common genetic hair loss.
Other, less common forms of hair loss, usually don’t have significant research concerning the effectiveness of zinc.
Sources of Zinc
Whether you choose to take zinc as part of your hair loss treatment routine, or just for general health reasons, it’s important to remember that, while essential, the name of the game is getting enough zinc. Both too little, and too much, can cause problems.
The source you use, be it a supplement or increasing dietary sources of zinc, matters. The amount of zinc, and its bioavailability, both have major impacts on whether and how much you’ll benefit from zinc.
Let’s take a look at some of your options.
Supplements are one of the first things most people think of when they want to get more of any particular nutrient. It makes sense. After all, in theory, supplements let you control what nutrients you’re getting, and exactly how much. They are thought of as a reliable way to control your dosage of vitamins and nutrients.
Before we get into the different types of zinc supplements available, it’s important that you know that the supplement industry isn’t well regulated and has virtually no FDA oversight.
The quality, amount, content of supplements isn’t certain. While many supplement companies operate with the best of intentions and do work to make sure that the nutrients and ingredients are the labels reflect the contents of the bottle, there are other companies that either don’t care, or don’t have the means, of ensuring those qualities.
So, taking supplements does involve some uncertainty. It’s hard to know which companies are good, and you can’t be certain that the label reflects the content of the pill.
That said, cases where the supplement caused problems due to impurities or inaccuracies on the label, are fairly rare.
Arguably one of the better ways to make sure you’re getting all the essential vitamins and minerals you need, most good multivitamins will meet your zinc requirements. It’s important, when it comes to zinc, to take a multi designed for men or a multi designed for women.
That’s because men and women have, on average, different zinc needs. Women need slightly less than men, so taking a multi designed for men may lead to getting too much zinc consistently over time.
However, taking a multivitamin will generally improve the bioavailability, and thus your absorption, of zinc overtaking a zinc supplement alone.
That’s because your body not only relies on getting enough of specific nutrients in a day, it also relies on having access to several different vitamins at the same time, taking a multi increases the odds that your body will have all the nutrients it needs optimize absorption.
Another option are zinc-specific supplements. These mostly contain zinc by itself, usually in some kind of carrier. They may also list herbs or a small number of other vitamins that aid in absorption.
These can be traditional gelatin pills or solid tablets, and there are several different types of zinc available. There aren’t any studies showing that one type of zinc is more effective than another, but the different formulations do impact how you digest the supplement and can make a difference if you get queasy taking supplements.
These have the advantage of being a specialty pill and are usually more potent than multivitamins. But, the zinc may not be as readily bio-available. Alternatively, individual zinc supplements also make it easier to get too much zinc.
Zinc lozenges are usually advertised as treatments for viral infections and as a treatment for colds and sore throats.
Zinc is important for immune function, but these lozenges aren’t well supported as a treatment for illness and are generally considered a less-reliable source of zinc than other supplement types.
However, if you can’t take pill supplements and are concerned that you aren’t getting enough zinc in your diet, lozenges are one option for increasing your zinc intake slightly.
Consult with the package, and your doctor, for directions on the right dosage with this supplement style.
Dietary Sources of Zinc
In general, it’s better to get your vitamins and nutrients from your diet and minimize the number of supplements you need.
There are a couple of reasons for that, dietary sources of nutrients tend to be more bioavailable, so you need less of each nutrient to get the full benefit from it. That means your liver and kidneys don’t need to work as hard filtering unnecessary compounds out of your blood.
However, we will note that while there are plant-based sources of zinc, they are not very bioavailable, and vegans and vegetarians are at greater risk of zinc deficiency and likely need to supplement with a multivitamin or other source of zinc.
Most of the bioavailable zinc in our diets comes from meat. In the United States, the main sources of zinc are beef, eggs, and dairy products.
Some dietary sources of zinc:
Of these, meat and dairy products, particularly red meats and seafood, are the most bioavailable.
Some great sources for vegetarians and vegans and everyone else are nuts and beans. However, both nuts and beans contain high levels of compounds that interfere with zinc absorption, so if you want to use those foods are sources you should soak them before eating.
Soaking beans and nuts, and dumping the water, reduces the concentration of the compounds that interfere with zinc absorption, making it more bio-available.
Now, you don’t need to include one of these foods at every meal to get enough zinc. For one thing, you need very little zinc in general to meet your body’s requirements. For another, while these are good source foods, meaning they have slightly higher concentrations of zinc, many other foods also contain low levels of bio-available zinc.
This also isn’t a complete list, just some of the more common foods that you’re likely to find in a grocery store or on offer at a restaurant.
Try to make sure you’re eating at least one food item that is a good source of zinc every day. It could be your morning eggs, some yogurt as a snack, or a dark chocolate treat before bed. Including at least one good source of zinc, every day, goes a long way toward making sure you get enough.
While the science doesn’t point to zinc deficiency as a common cause of hair loss, getting enough zinc can still be a good way to intervene in your hair loss and start reversing it.
Like any hair loss treatment, it will take 3-4 months before you’ll know that your new zinc routine is working, whether you choose dietary zinc, supplements, or both.
Try to incorporate zinc in with several other interventions or treatments, like Rogaine, general diet and exercise improvements, and other supplements or herbal treatments. Since hair loss is a complex issue, it usually takes several different approaches to find an effective treatment for you.
Hopefully, this article gave you some ideas and helped set good expectations for how zinc can help.
- Zinc and Hair
- The Science
- What Zinc Does
- Signs of Zinc Deficiency
- How Zinc Can Benefit Your Hair
- Types of Hair Loss Zinc Can Impact
- Sources of Zinc
- Dietary Sources of Zinc