Dr. Sophia Kogan, MD, is co-founder and chief medical advisor at Nutrafol. As part of an ongoing effort to raise the conversation around women’s hair loss, Dr. Kogan is sharing her perspective on societal taboos that prevent women from taking control of their hair health.
Forty percent of American women experience hair loss — but it’s still a “taboo” topic. Why do you think that is?
DR. SOPHIA KOGAN, MD: For the last however many years of this patriarchal society, we’ve had most of our research done on men. Not long ago, most physicians were all men. And we have this pressure to ‘be a lady’ and not talk about certain things, like our hair falling out. Being a lady means we have to look a certain way to the public. As women, we are conditioned to such a degree that when we look in the mirror, we might not even want to acknowledge our hair changes to ourselves, let alone bring it up with a physician or friend. It’s too painful.
It’s that thing of, What does hair mean to us? Does it make us a woman? Of course not, because there are plenty of women who are bald and beautiful. But to society, yes, hair is a sign of femininity. So when you start to lose it, you may feel a loss of your femininity.
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How do we break that conditioning to ‘be a lady’ so we can have a more open conversation about women’s hair loss?
DR. KOGAN: Awareness. We aren’t told that we might lose our hair at some point because it’s just not something that women talk about. I’ve experienced it myself where I was too ashamed to even bring it up. I would rather have covered it up so it’s not visible even to myself.
Having gone through it, I know the emotions that hair thinning brings up in women. There is this barrier of hearing unwanted or undesired news. You don’t always want to be told you’re losing your hair or be shown the truth. But I think once you do see it, it’s much more empowering to take control of it than to live in denial and shame.
Did you feel a loss of femininity or struggle with shame and denial when your hair was thinning?
DR. KOGAN: I put my femininity to the side. That’s actually something that happens a lot to women in that state. I remember looking at my hair and thinking, This sucks. But I always downplayed it because I didn’t want to acknowledge it to myself. Then it got so bad that I even thought about getting hair transplants. My hair thinning was due to chronic stress. I was a medical resident living off canned tuna and working 100 hours a week, sleeping poorly… the training was very rigorous and my body was just depleted. I put my hair on the back burner.
Does the societal stigma affect how women’s hair loss is researched, studied, and diagnosed within the medical community?
DR. KOGAN: The research on women’s hair loss has been lagging, but it’s definitely on the rise now. For instance, the statistics on hair loss among men are higher than in women, but I actually think that they’re probably closer to equal because women are less likely to report their hair loss — because of the stigma. I also think women’s hair loss might not be taken as seriously because it can be very subtle. Just because you don’t have a bald spot doesn’t mean you aren’t thinning.
Why is it important to you, as a woman and a woman in science, to be a part of this conversation?
DR. KOGAN: I personally like to speak about hair loss more boldly and shout it from the rooftops, because a part of me is just really feminist and I want to be able to say things as they are. You know, like, why can men talk about it and we can’t? I want it to become a non-taboo conversation, because the more that people know, the more that they can take control.
How do we make women’s hair loss a non-taboo topic?
DR. KOGAN: As a society, we’re finally seeing a shift in power dynamics. And I think at this cusp point, you’re going to find those conversation leaders who are saying, ‘F*ck this. This is my body. I’m going to talk about whatever I want.’ For example, period underwear ads. You would never see those ads in the subway even 10 years ago; it was taboo. Back then all I saw on the subway were ads for enlarging your boobs. So we’re at the brink. For us at Nutrafol, it’s important that we are one of those conversation leaders who make it OK for women to talk about hair thinning.
Nutrafol has two hair wellness supplements for women: Nutrafol Women and Nutrafol Women’s Balance. Who is Women’s Balance for?
DR. KOGAN: We specifically formulated Women’s Balance for women going through menopause — before, during, and after. What happens is estrogen and progesterone levels decline very suddenly while androgen hormones (testosterone) decrease, but also linger. So we have more saw palmetto in the product, specifically to target those androgen hormones, as well as a beautiful adaptogen called maca to naturally balance sex hormones as they decrease. We also added astaxanthin, because as we age, our antioxidant capacity to fight oxidative stress from the environment, cells, DNA, and things like that really decreases. So we want to boost that capacity.
What does hair wellness mean to you?
DR. KOGAN: You know, I come from Russia, Soviet Russia, and there’s nothing in our culture that is indulgent or self-care-related. But hair wellness is a simple act of self-care. It’s something you do to improve. At Nutrafol, we’re all about how you can support yourself from overall wellness to hair wellness. This is not just hair. We are in the business of building a community that welcomes you in and connects you with support. No one has to suffer in silence.