Toronto might be causing your hair loss

A hairbrush beside a sink.
Running tap water with hair brush in the background in Toronto. (Zeid Kayyal/Toronto Observer) 

The Aegean sunlight intertwined with my thick hair as I walked along a famed beach in Greece. The breeze felt like a cozy, playful nudge, carrying the scent of distant shores. Far away, Canada offered a fresh start, but the city’s embrace ultimately felt colder than I expected.

It wasn’t just the unfamiliar, freezing chill that I noticed in the air after I arrived in Toronto. It was also the sight that greeted me in the shower every morning. Clumps of my once-thick hair clung to the drain like a departed friend waving a final, heartbreaking goodbye.

For many newcomers to Toronto like me, the dream of a new fresh start comes with an unwelcome side effect: hair loss. Some newcomers wonder whether Toronto is literally sucking the life out of their once-luscious hair. Is it the stress of moving to a new city? The harsh and mineral-filled hard water? The unhealthy Torontonian diet?

Numerous factors contribute to hair loss. Within the medical community, it’s well known that stress, diet, genetics and medication are the main culprits all contribute to shedding and thinning hair. However, another sinner might also be at play in Toronto: hard water.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, unlike soft water, hard water contains large amounts of dissolved minerals, mostly calcium carbonate and magnesium. In 2023, a City of Toronto analysis said the average hardness for Toronto water is 120 milligrams of calcium carbonate concentrate per litre (mg/L). This is equivalent to a hardness rating of “hard,” according to the Government of Canada.

“There are impacts of hard water on, kind of, hair health,” said Dr. Ashlin Alexander, a facial cosmetic surgeon and owner of Ashlin Alexander Facial Cosmetic Surgery in Toronto.

“It can block moisture absorption as you get buildup of calcium and magnesium on the scalp, and that can affect the health of the hair.”

The No. 1 cause of hair loss?

There are also different ways people lose hair. You might experiencing hair shedding, which is temporary, and not hair loss, which is permanent. Shedding can be triggered by stress or even changes in water quality.

“The No. 1 cause of hair loss in men and women is actually genetic and we call that casually male or female pattern baldness,” said Dr. Cory Torgerson, a head and neck surgeon and founder of The Toronto Hair Transplant Clinic.

Read more from the Toronto Observer:

Androgenetic alopecia, known as male and female pattern baldness, affects mostly men and is characterized by “progressive loss of terminal hair of the scalp any time after puberty,” according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

For women, according to Alexander, hair loss is more nuanced. 

“In almost 50 per cent of women there can be some other cause, other than what’s called female pattern hair loss, whether that’s hormonal or a life stressor or something like that; a non-genetic or hereditary cause of hair loss,” he said.

WATCH | Hair transplant surgeon explains diet’s impact on hair loss:

Other hair loss causes?

Dr. Mark Unger, a hair transplantation specialist, says another culprit in hair loss is telogen effluvium. According to the NLM, the condition is another common type of hair loss that occurs after a person experiences emotional or physiological stress.

Unger explains the science behind the condition, “basically what happens is your hair normally cycles through three different parts of the [hair] cycle. So there’s a growing phase, there’s a phase where the hair starts to basically regress, and then there’s a resting phase which is called telogen.” In telogen effluvium, stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, shortens the growing phase of the hair follicles and extends the resting phase, leading to increased shedding.

“So it might be you have a vitamin deficiency, it might be you just underwent an operation, it might be you just moved to a new country and you’re under a little bit more psychological stress,” said Unger.

However, even though telogen effluvium often resolves itself six months after the stressor subsides, it can sometimes “unmask” underlying genetic hair loss, according to Unger. This means that stress can accelerate pre-existing hair loss tendencies.

WATCH | Rules to know before getting hair loss treatment:

Hard water: Another culprit, or a convenient excuse?

Awareness of a possible link between hard water and hair loss is gaining traction. Both Unger and Torgerson report a rise in the frequency of this question, particularly from newcomers to Toronto.

“I’m part of a group of hair loss specialists and this topic actually came up,” said Unger. “Consensus from the group is there’s no impact(from) water quality (on) hair loss.” According to a study published the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, and others, hard water does not cause permanent hair loss, but there is a link between hard water and hair quality.

Torgerson clarifies the situation from his perspective.

“Hard water can affect the hair, the actual hair,” he says. That can make hair more prone to breakage, damage, and fall out, but cannot affect the hair follicle or result in permanent hair loss.

WATCH | A hair transplant surgeon discusses hair loss solutions:

“More importantly, is the follicle healthy, not is the hair healthy, because hair is just the product of the factory, the follicle,” said Torgerson. “So hair damage is related to hard water, not hair loss, per se.”

However, like Unger, Torgerson also emphasized that stress is a major factor, potentially accelerating underlying genetic hair loss.

Unger also offered a more nuanced perspective and explained that hard water does not affect the true density of the hair, which is the number of alive and healthy hair follicles measured by counting hair follicles over an area; however, it might affect how the hair looks – thinner, drier, or more breakage.

In other words, it will not decrease the number of individual hairs you have, but might affect your hair quality.

Read more from the Toronto Observer:

So, what else could it be? Unger also explained the process of miniaturization, or hair thinning, which might be the cause of visible hair loss.

“Most people, when they look at somebody who is bald, they think they don’t have any hair there,” he said.

“Whereas the truth, what’s happening is the hairs are growing shorter and shorter, becoming finer and finer to the point that, effectively, they look like they don’t have any hair, even though they have all of the original hair follicles.”

So, the message from all three doctors is clear. Hard water might not be the villain I cracked it up to be after hearing the story, even though it probably affected my hair quality and caused some temporary shedding. Only time, and a few more showers, will tell.

But for now, I have a sliver of optimism that has replaced the initial panic. Toronto, with its bustling streets and endless possibilities, might not be actively trying to steal my hair after all.

It might just take some time to adjust, for both of us.

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Posted: Apr 25 2024 12:00 am
Filed under: Features Lifestyle News Science & Health