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Cowlick vs Balding: What Are the Differences?

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All of us have bad hair days when some sections of our hair just won’t behave. They stick out stubbornly and make it difficult to tame and style our hair for the day. These stubborn sections are usually cowlicks and often look thinner than the rest of our hair.

Since cowlicks grow in patches (and seemingly have a mind of their own) they may also give the appearance of balding. If you’re worried about whether a patch of hair is a cowlick or a sign of baldness, we’ll walk you through their key differences to help you decide. We’ll also provide a few recommendations on what you can do to deal with both.

Let’s dive in.


What Is a Cowlick?

A cowlick is a natural hair growth pattern that differs from the rest of your hair. It causes some of the hair strands to grow in another direction in a “hair whorl.” This causes those strands to stick up straight or lay flat against the head which can be frustrating for people who are trying to style their hair.

The word “cowlick” emerged in the late 1500s. It was named that way because the patch of hair looks like a mother cow licked it upwards, which is what mother cows do to their calves for grooming.

For people with long hair, a cowlick isn’t usually easy to notice. They usually grow along or on top of one’s crown, in the center of the hairline, or near the sides of the head.


What Causes Cowlicks to Form?

Cowlicks appear in men and women. They usually form during the development of a fetus when hair follicles grow at a sloping angle and in a different direction compared to the rest of the hair.

It is important to note that a person’s hair pattern on the scalp doesn’t change over the course of one’s lifetime. Also, a recent study published in the International Journal of Trichology reported that a person’s natural hair growth pattern is decided in the womb. So, cowlicks may have a strong genetic link and form mainly due to a person’s genetic makeup and family history.

A study by the University of Delaware also found that hair whorls may develop in the same spot in fraternal twins in different directions.

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What Is Balding?

Balding is hair loss or a lack of hair growth that may be temporary or permanent. It can happen anywhere on a person’s body. Like cowlicks, balding can happen to men and women. There are many types of balding:

  • Androgenetic alopecia: Also known as pattern hair loss or male pattern baldness, it is caused by the hormone DHT (dihydrotestosterone).

  • Alopecia areata: This is hair loss that results when the immune system damages the hair follicles.

  • Telogen effluvium: It occurs due to mental or physical stress.

  • Traction alopecia: It arises due to continuous pulling or trauma to hair follicles.

  • Tinea capitis: It is also called scalp ringworm or herpes tonsurans infection and is primarily caused by fungi that are known as dermatophytes.

  • Cicatricial alopecia: Also called scarring alopecia, it’s caused by inflammation that damages hair follicles, resulting in scar tissue developing over them.

Other factors of hair loss include certain medical treatments such as chemotherapy, certain antidepressants, thyroid medicine, an unhealthy diet, stress, and tight hairstyles, among


What Are the Differences Between a Cowlick and a Bald Spot?

A major difference between a cowlick and balding is the latter entails hair loss. Meanwhile, a cowlick is a hair growth pattern that only gives the appearance of thinner hair.

Cowlicks on their own are not a sign of balding. However, they can help you identify if you have thinning hair, which is one of the early signs of balding. If you have a cowlick, take a look at the crown of your head, the sides of your hairline or the middle of the scalp to see if you have any hair whorls in those areas.

If you have a cowlick and it seems to be disappearing over time or your hair is suddenly flat all the time, it may be balding.

For people with fine or light-colored hair, it can be easy to confuse a cowlick with a balding spot.

Fortunately, cowlicks and bald spots can be managed in different ways.

You can treat balding with specialized medical treatments, the use of gentle hair products, avoiding heat styling tools and the sun, and not smoking. On the other hand, a cowlick can be managed with good styling products, limited use of heat styling tools, and consulting experienced hairstylists for styling advice.

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Wrapping Up

Hair loss, for the most part, is curable. If you’re unable to resolve the problem by eating a balanced diet and maintaining a stress-free lifestyle, we recommend consulting a doctor or trichologist who will examine and diagnose the root cause of your hair loss and provide a customized treatment plan for it.


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