Scarring alopecia is a type of permanent, irreversible hair loss that destroys hair follicles and replaces them with scar tissue. It occurs in 7% of hair loss patients, so while it’s not the most common cause of hair loss, it still affects hundreds of thousands of people worldwide [1-3].
Scarring or cicatricial alopecia is often referred to as a single entity. But it actually refers to a group of hair loss conditions that cause scarring on the scalp. These include:
In this article, you’ll discover what causes scarring alopecia in each of these conditions, how to diagnose your symptoms, and how to treat scarring alopecia.
There are 2 overarching types of scarring alopecia: primary and secondary.
Primary alopecia happens when hair follicles are destroyed as a result of a follicular disorder, like those listed above. Secondary alopecia happens when follicular scarring is caused by an external factor, such as trauma, burns, or radiation.
While both types create scar tissue in and around the hair follicles, they should usually be treated differently. This article focuses on the causes of and treatments for primary scarring alopecia.
Almost all hair loss conditions fall into one of two categories: scarring and non-scarring alopecia.
Scarring alopecia damages the hair bulge, leading to permanent hair loss. Stem cells within the hair bulge are central to the hair growth cycle, so when these are destroyed, the hair follicle can no longer survive [4-5].
In contrast, reversible non-scarring hair loss conditions like alopecia areata and telogen effluvium are characterised by damage to the hair bulb.
Damage to the hair bulb forces hair follicles to miniaturise, preventing hair growth temporarily. However, the hair follicle survives and may produce hair again when the hair growth cycle restarts .
Since scarring alopecia consists of a group of hair loss disorders, there’s no single underlying cause. And in some cases, the cause remains unknown.
Here are the causes and symptoms of the most common cicatricial alopecias, and standard treatments for each condition.
Central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA) has been linked with damaging hair styling techniques like tight ponytails, hair extensions, and heat styling. Heat is a known cause of hair loss and breakage, but it can also lead to irreversible, permanent alopecia if you develop CCCA .
Recent studies have shown that certain genetic changes may also lead to CCCA development . As a result, this condition is particularly common in women of African ancestry, and may be hereditary .
Symptoms of central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia include a burning scalp, itching, soreness, scaly skin, and pimples on the scalp.
You may also see hair loss in the centre of the scalp, which can look similar to diffuse hair thinning caused by telogen effluvium or female pattern hair loss. The key difference is the scarring — but this isn’t usually visible above the skin, so you’ll need a specialist to diagnose this.
The most effective treatments for stopping the progression of CCCA are:
Many causes have been linked with Frontal Fibrosing Alopecia (FFA), including an autoimmune disease where white blood cells attack the hair follicles, causing them to stop producing hair, hormones, and triggers like lotions, stress, and environmental toxins . Often, these factors only trigger FFA if you’re genetically susceptible to this type of scarring hair loss.
The most common symptom of FFA is a receding hairline. This is also common in those with male pattern baldness (but not a symptom in female pattern baldness). Therefore, there’s some overlap between these symptoms in men (although pattern baldness is a type of non-scarring alopecia).
If you can see a distinct line between your forehead and scalp when you raise both eyebrows, you may have FFA.
Eyebrow hair loss is common in those with FFA, and approximately half of all FFA patients experience itchiness on the scalp. A quarter find the sensation painful .
There are few widely successful treatments for FFA. The most prescribed treatments include:
Lichen planopilaris is one of the most common scarring alopecias . A variant of lichen planus, lichen planopilaris is an autoimmune condition that affects the scalp, causing hair loss.
Certain triggers that have been known to cause a lichen planopilaris outbreak include:
Unlike other types of scarring hair loss, there’s no distinct pattern to the hair loss caused by lichen planopilaris.
Bald patches are usually scattered around the head, with redness and scaly skin around the edges of each patch. Itchiness, burning, and pain are also common symptoms .
Lichen planopilaris typically affects younger women, though it can affect people of all ages. It’s much less common in men .
The most effective treatments for treating lichen planopilaris are:
Dissecting cellulitis is a rare condition . Unlike CCCA and FFA, it’s not usually hereditary — and is more likely to impact men of African or Caribbean descent than women.
Unfortunately, the conclusive cause of dissecting cellulitis isn’t yet known. Some studies have linked it with joint conditions like arthritis and sternoclavicular hyperostosis, as well as Crohn’s disease .
Dissecting cellulitis is characterised by blocked hair follicles. This often presents as abscesses or cysts that drain pus. Dissecting cellulitis can be very painful. It may cause more hair loss on one side of the head than the other.
There is no cure for dissecting cellulitis, but it can be managed with:
There are many other types of scarring alopecia, though these are rare and impact a smaller proportion of people. The best way to determine the cause of your hair loss is to see a professional trichologist.
While symptoms vary depending on the condition, there are some common symptoms you can look for to establish if your hair loss is scarring or non-scarring. These include:
The placement of these symptoms can also help define the type of scarring alopecia . Frontal balding may suggest FFA, while symptoms across the scalp are more likely to be CCCA or lichen planopilaris.
Despite the name, you’re unlikely to see scar tissue on your scalp. Most of the hair follicle destruction happens beneath your scalp, so it’s not usually visible without a scalp biopsy.
As the causes of each type of scarring alopecia are different, they should be treated differently. However, there is some overlap between treatments for scarring alopecia. The most common treatments include:
Other non-medical treatments may help prevent the progression of scarring alopecia. If you have CCCA, avoiding tight hairstyles can minimise the effects of the condition and reduce the damage due to traction alopecia.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of hair transplants for patients with scarring alopecia. While it’s possible to get a hair transplant into scar tissue, there are other factors to consider — including safety, hair transplant scarring, and hair transplant success rates for these conditions.
In one systematic review of hair transplants in scarring alopecia patients, researchers found a 76% positive outcome rate — meaning more than three-quarters of patients had good results following a hair transplant . It’s shown particular success for patients who have central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia .
Results are mixed for patients with lichen planopilaris and frontal fibrosing alopecia. Most cases of hair transplant in patients with FFA have failed, although at least one was successful [14, 16].
Regardless of the type of scarring alopecia, surgical treatment can only be considered when the condition has been stabilised . Sometimes, this is never achieved — which means hair transplants are out of reach for some patients with scarring alopecia.
However, for others, FUT and FUE hair transplants may be a viable option for restoring permanent hair loss. Discuss your treatment plan with your hair loss consultant to find out if you’re eligible for a hair transplant.
Some types of scarring alopecia have very unique symptoms (such as dissecting cellulitis). Others are much less clear — and they can happen at the same time as other hair loss conditions, making it difficult to know why you’re losing hair.
The only way to really know what’s causing your hair loss is to see a trichologist. They’ll examine your hair and scalp and perform diagnostic tests such as a scalp skin biopsy or a hair pull test to determine the underlying cause of hair loss. Armed with this knowledge, they can prescribe the right treatment to slow your scarring alopecia.
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