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Last updated: Jul 05, 2022
4 min read

Cowlick or balding? How to tell the difference

chimene richaAmelia willson

Medically Reviewed by Chimene Richa, MD

Written by Amelia Willson

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Ah, cowlicks. They’re either bothersome or worrisome. Bothersome when you’re trying to style your hair, and you can’t for the life of you get it to lie the way you want. Worrisome when you’re concerned they could be a sign of balding. Good news: most cowlicks are nothing to worry about. Read on as we explain how to tell if you’re experiencing a cowlick or balding.

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What is a cowlick?

A cowlick is a specific type of hair growth pattern where the hair either grows in a swirl pattern or sticks straight up, like Alfalfa’s in The Little Rascals. This swirl is called a “hair whorl,” and it’s where the cowlick gets its name. Cowlicks look like the swirl on baby cow calves after their mom bathes them. 

Cowlicks typically appear on the crown of the head, but they can also appear closer to your forehead, and you can even have more than one (Sechi, 2020). Sometimes, cowlicks are more noticeable in people with shorter hair. It may be easier to cover up cowlicks with long hair, as the weight of the hair may help cover it. To cover up cowlicks, you can also try different hairstyles, like a buzzcut (Park, 2018).

Cowlick vs. balding: key differences

A cowlick is a pattern of hair growth, while balding describes hair loss, whether temporary or permanent. Since there is a spot of visible skin at the center of a cowlick’s swirl, cowlicks can create the illusion of hair loss or thinning hair. However, looking up close, you may see plenty of follicles (Wolff, 2016). 

Given that they often crop up at the crown of your head, the same place many bald spots start out, cowlicks can be mistaken for balding. Many men have a large cowlick on the back of their head, known as a parietal whorl, that may eventually turn into a bald spot. Similarly, women may experience hair thinning at the crown of their heads, where they may also have a cowlick (Wolff, 2016; Ho, 2021)

To determine whether your cowlick is a sign of balding, take a closer look at the scalp. If the hair follicles look as thick as they always have, it’s just a cowlick. If there are fewer hair follicles in the area, it could be a sign of early balding. You can also track the growth of your cowlick—if it stays the same size, it’s just a cowlick. If it grows, it may be a bald spot (Wolff, 2016).

What causes cowlicks?

Hair grows in one of three directions: forward, backward, or to the side. Sometimes, a handful of hair follicles don’t get the message and grow in the opposite direction from the rest of your hair. When this happens, the hair may grow at a different angle than the follicles around it, causing a cowlick (Sechi, 2020).

Anyone can have cowlicks; you’re either born with or without them. Your hair follicles develop in utero, which dictates the direction of hair growth (Sechi, 2020). 

Whether or not you have cowlicks, and how many, depends on your genes. If other people in your family have cowlicks, you’ll also be more likely to have a cowlick. One study found that most Caucasian people have cowlicks, while they are less common among African Americans and Thai people (Natpracha, 2021; Sechi, 2020).

Early signs of balding to watch out for

Are cowlicks an early sign of hair loss? Not usually. Cowlicks are often nothing to worry about, just something you’re born with (Sechi, 2020). However, you may want to know what signs of balding you should keep an eye out for.

Thinning hair

Thinning or wispy hair—in one spot or all over—can be one of the first signs of balding. What’s happening underneath the surface is called hair miniaturization. With male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, the hair follicles shrink with each new cycle of hair growth, and the hair grows back shorter and thinner. This continues with each growth cycle until the follicle is too small to penetrate the skin of the scalp, resulting in an empty follicle and baldness (Ho, 2021; Cranwell, 2016). 

Receding hairline

If your hairline starts to creep back over your temples, turning into an M-shape, you may be experiencing hair loss. Men may notice thinning hair around the hairline, the top of their scalp, or in the whorl at the back of their head. Women may notice thinning hair on their crowns (Ho, 2021; Wolff, 2016).

Hair shedding

It is normal to lose 50 to 100 strands of hair per day (Ho, 2021). However, if you find clumps of hair on your pillow or notice more hair shedding, it could be an early sign of balding.

Flakes or itching

Flakes and scalp itching can be symptoms of other issues, like dandruff. However, flaking or itching localized to one area may signify scalp ringworm, which can cause bald spots (Phillips, 2017). 

A family history of balding increases your risk of balding. If you have a lot of bald family members, you may be more likely to experience hair loss, but that doesn’t mean you will for sure. Balding typically starts gradually, and several hair loss treatments are available, including topical and oral medications, hair transplants, and more (Ho, 2021; Wolff, 2016). If you have concerns about balding, talk to your healthcare provider.

References

  1. Etymology Online. (n.d.). Cowlick. Retrieved on Jun. 12, 2022 from https://www.etymonline.com/word/cowlick
  2. Cranwell, W. & Sinclair, R. (2016). Male androgenetic alopecia. Endotext. Retrieved on Jun. 12, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278957/
  3. Ho, C. H., Sood, T., & Zito, P. M. (2021). Androgenetic alopecia. StatPearls. Retrieved on Jun. 12, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430924/
  4. Natpracha, W., Sukanjanapong, S., Chanprapaph, K., & Suchonwanit, P. (2021). Characterization and classification of different female hairline patterns in the Thai population. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20(3), 890–896. doi:10.1111/jocd.13642. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32783356/
  5. Park, J. H. (2018). A novel concept for determining the direction of implanted hair in hairline correction surgery in East Asian women. Archives of Plastic Surgery, 45(3), 292–294. doi:10.5999/aps.2017.01767. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29788691/
  6. Phillips, T. G., Slomiany, W. P., & Allison, R. (2017). Hair loss: common causes and treatment. American Family Physician, 96(6), 371–378. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28925637/ 
  7. Sechi, A., Neri, I., Patrizi, A., et al. (2020). Scalp hair whorl patterns in patients affected by Neurofibromatosis Type 1: A case-control study. International Journal of Trichology, 12(2), 56–61. doi:10.4103/ijt.ijt_25_20. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32684676/
  8. Wolff, H., Fischer, T. W., & Blume-Peytavi, U. (2016). The diagnosis and treatment of hair and scalp diseases. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 113(21), 377–386. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0377. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27504707/