Birth control pills are heralded as one of the best innovations in women’s health. While the earliest contraceptives were said to be used in as early as 1850 BC, they were often barbaric and ineffective.
While the early 1900s saw the development of the first intrauterine devices and other birth control methods, the modern pill was only created in the 1950s. Although this is the case, many contentions led to this landmark invention of John Rock and Gregory Pincus only being available in the 1960s.
With the help of many historical court cases including that of Griswold vs. Connecticut, the frowned-upon pill has eventually become more accessible to women of all ages and creeds.
How Birth Control Pills Work
Of the many options out there, the contraceptive pill proves to be one of the most popular, offering an effectiveness rate of as much as 99%. It can prevent pregnancy by:
• Inhibiting fertilization, which is the process of the sperm joining the egg
• Stopping ovulation, which prevents the possibility of a sperm fertilizing an egg
• Thickening cervical mucus, which stops sperm cells from swimming up to the egg cell
Types of Oral Contraceptives
Pills are categorized according to several factors. In terms of the hormones they contain, there are two types. One is the combination birth control, which includes progestin and synthetic estrogen. Another type is the minipill, which only contains synthetic progesterone.
Pills are also categorized according to hormone dose. One is the monophasic pill, which contains a uniform hormone dose. Pills that have varying amounts of hormones, on the other hand, are called biphasic.
Since pills are made from hormones, they can lead to a variety of side effects. They include sore breasts, nausea, headaches, moodiness, weight gain/loss, spotting, period changes, among many other things.
Birth Control Pills and Hair Loss
While highly effective, it cannot be denied that the pill use comes with some inconveniences. One of these is hair loss, which is more pronounced in women with hormone sensitivities or family histories of hormone-related hair conditions.
• Telogen Effluvium
With its hormone content, birth control pills can cause hair in the growing phase (anagen) to move to the resting phase (catagen), a stage where hair doesn't grow. While this normally lasts for 100 days, it could go longer due to the hormonal effects of the pill. This condition, called Telogen Effluvium, could eventually lead to large clumps of hair fall.
• Female pattern hair loss
If baldness runs in your family, some pills may end up speeding the hair loss process. For one, some pills are high in androgens or male hormones. One type, testosterone, can be easily converted to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) by the enzyme 5-alpha reductase.
DHT is the culprit behind androgenetic alopecia or female-pattern loss. It hastens hair shedding through the following actions:
◦ Miniaturization of the follicles
With every hair cycle, hair shafts end up becoming shorter and thinner. Your once thick locks are eventually transformed into vellus hairs, which are soft light strands that are prone to shedding.
◦ Shortening of the growth phase (anagen)
With a limited growth phase, the hair’s ability to lengthen is markedly reduced. Strands end up so short that they are no longer able to break through the skin surface.
◦ Lengthening of the resting phase (telogen)
Telogen is a phase where hair takes a timeout from growing. While some hairs can grow during this phase, they are not that well-anchored to the head. As a result, these strands end up shedding and falling easily.
Other Contraceptive Methods That May Worsen Hair Loss
Apart from birth control pills, other contraceptive forms may also lead to some hair problems. They include:
• Hormone injections
• Vaginal rings
• Progestin implants
• Skin patches
Not All Birth Control Pills are Bad
While some users may lose hair due to birth control, it could actually be useful for some women, especially those suffering from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. This metabolic disorder is characterized by increased androgen levels, which lead to menstrual changes, weight gain, acne, and oily skin. It could also trigger scalp hair loss – and an ironic overgrowth of hair on the face, chest, and back.
As such, women with PCOS are advised to take birth control pills as these could help restore hormonal balance. With more estrogen in the body, androgen levels are offset, leading to the resolution of PCOS symptoms – hair loss included.
What You Can Do
If you are at risk of hair loss, it doesn't mean that you can take birth control pills. Your doctor can recommend a variant that contains more estrogen than progestin. These pills usually contain low levels of androgen, and as such could help your strands remain in the growth phase (anagen) for a longer period.
Such examples include:
• Desogestrel-ethinyl estradiol
• Norgestimate-Ethinyl estradiol
• Norethindrone-Ethinyl estradiol
While making the switch is recommended, you should be prepared for a minor setback. Abruptly stopping your pill or shifting to another brand could actually trigger more hair loss. That’s because any of these acts eventually lead to a reduction in estrogen. This triggers an increase in testosterone that could lead to the conversion of more DHT.
While it may be alarming to see more hair loss during such a transition, this is usually short-lived. Once your new pills manage to 'balance' the hormones in the body, shedding would eventually be reduced.
Should you wish to continue with pills, you can ask your physician for hair treatments such as Minoxidil.
However, if you find pill-related hair loss troublesome, you always have the option to discontinue your contraception. While this could lead to eventual hair growth, you stand to get pregnant. As such, you may need to consider barrier forms of contraception (condom, cervical cap, or sponge).
To foster better hair recovery, you could try supplements such as:
• Vitamin A
• B-Vitamins (Biotin, Vitamin B12)
• Vitamin C
• Vitamin D
• Vitamin E
More importantly, always remember to observe good hair practices. These include regular washing with a mild shampoo, gentle styling, and avoiding chemical treatments. Good meditative activities (yoga, deep breathing) are also useful, as they can help reduce stress – another factor that can lead to more hair loss.