Cowlick or Balding? How To ‘Spot’ The Difference

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As we age, our bodies are less able to replenish the hair we lose. This is different for everyone – some go completely bald in their 20s, and some people past 100 with a relatively full head of hair.

For most of us, there comes a day when we catch our reflection in a mirror at just the right angle and wonder if that lighter patch at the back of our head is just cowlick, or if we’ve started balding.

Here’s how to tell the difference, and what you can do about it.

How do you tell if you’re balding at the crown?

Hold up a handheld mirror so you can see the back of your head in a wall-mounted mirror. If the hair around the crown looks visibly thinner and is generally more brittle, you may well be balding at the crown.

On the other hand, it may just be that you have a visible cowlick at your crown, and that the situation never gets any worse. A cowlick is an area of the hair that stubbornly stands on end, or grows in a different direction to the rest of the hair.

This can make the scalp more visible and give the illusion of a balding crown. If you’re worried about whether you just have a cowlick or whether you’re actually balding, keep an eye on your crown over time, and maybe take a picture every couple of months for comparison.

Brushing could also give you a clue if you’re losing your hair. If you start to notice more hairs on the brush afterward, this is another heads-up.

You should also pay close attention to photographs taken at social events – is the flash catching more scalp than usual?

Read more: I Can See My Scalp Through My Hair – Am I Going Bald?

Many people who do go bald in this area also experience a receding hairline, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go completely bald.

However, for some, this is the first sign of Male Pattern Baldness (MPB), which often leads to a bald spot connecting with a receding hairline to give the classic ‘bald crown with hair on the sides’ look.

And while there are ways to cover a bald spot, you hair loss is not likely to stop there.

Why is my crown balding?

Male pattern baldness is caused by dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a hormone that is created in men when the testes process testosterone. Hair follicles around the crown are especially sensitive to DHT, and those at the back and sides of the head less so. Hence, balding occurs.

According to the hair loss experts at Manual, hair follicles can ‘shrink, weaken, and stop producing new hair altogether’ when DHT is present.

This supports the old idea that bald men have more testosterone, which is one thing you use in your defense if you’re being teased about MPB!

Note: There are a number of DHT blockers on the market, including vitamins and shampoos. Before you try them, make sure you’re aware of all potential DHT blocking side effects.

Your sensitivity to DHT, and whether it will cause you to go bald, is decided by genetics. Your parents pass on the balding gene, which allows DHT to affect your follicles.

Hair loss isn’t just passed down from your mother’s side, and balding doesn’t skip a generation. Both of these are no more than old waves’ tales.

Can a crown look like a bald spot?

Depending on how thin your hair is naturally, and whether you have a cowlick at the crown, it’s very possible for your crown to look like a bald spot without ever getting any more prominent. If it worsens over time this is a sign of Male Pattern Baldness.

Realistically, if you’ve noticed your crown looking thinner over a number of months, it won’t stop thinning and it’s a question of how quickly you’ll lose your hair. For some, MPB happens quickly, but others see a more gradual loss.

If you regularly visit the same barber, they’ll be able to tell you if they’ve noticed your crown becoming thinner over time. Explain that they don’t need to spare your feelings, and ask for their advice on the best hairstyle for you.

If they think your crown is thinning, consider shaving your head. The earlier you take the plunge, the more ownership you’re taking of what happens to your appearance.

Read more: Why is my hairline receding at 20?

Of course, this isn’t a simple decision for everyone and many people agonize over what they’ll look like without hair, and what other people might think. Usually, people are happy with the results, especially if they’ve left it a little too long and aren’t happy with how they look anyway.

Reddit is a great place to see this in action. On r/bald there are thousands of examples of people who have braved the shave and are loving their new look, as well as a community of nearly 50,000 supportive Redditors who are in the same boat.

Reddit user u/jaxyditch

Can a cowlick turn into a bald spot?

Of course, both things can be true. Someone who has a cowlick can experience Male Pattern Baldness and develop a thin hair at the crown and other areas, and eventually a bald spot. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone who has a cowlick will develop MPB.

According to Hairguard, hair follicles shrink and eventually die during a process called ‘hair miniaturization’, but a cowlick does not cause this process.

Can crown balding be reversed?

While there are a number of causes of temporary hair loss, there is no cure for Male Pattern Baldness. However, thinning at the crown due to MPB can be partly reversed with prescription and over-the-counter treatments like Finasteride and Minoxidil which block the offending hormone.

These hair loss treatments combat the effects of DHT and can slow, stop, or in some cases reverse the signs of MPB, including a thinning crown. The National Library of Medicine concluded that ‘Some patients see a vast improvement, while others notice minimal changes’ when treated with Minoxidil.

Also, some hair loss is a result of stress, lack of vitamins like B7 and iron, or illnesses such as anemia. This can be temporary and hair loss can be stopped and reversed once the conditions that cause it improve or go away.

Why do I suddenly have a cowlick?

If you’ve recently changed your hairstyle, it’s easy to think you’ve developed a cowlick when actually, it had just been weighed down by your hair and you hadn’t noticed it. You can also ‘train’ the hair to grow in a different direction, either deliberately or accidentally.

This means that by styling your hair differently, wearing a hat, or even sleeping a certain way, it’s possible to develop a cowlick that genuinely wasn’t there before. Some people also report that temporary hair loss caused by medical factors has led to a cowlick appearing during regrowth.

Is hair always thinner at the crown?

Hair at the crown isn’t always thinner, but due to the hair whorl (the twisting pattern that this part of the hair naturally has), it can be easier to see the scalp. This is because here, hair naturally grows in different directions, giving an easier view of the scalp.

As MPB develops, the scalp is one of the first places to show signs of thinning. However, this is because the follicles are less resistant to the effects of DHT than in other areas, rather than the hair at the scalp being thinner to start with.

When it’s quite pronounced, it’s difficult to tell if you have a natural hair whorl or if you’re balding without monitoring the hair over time.


There comes a time for most men to wonder whether they have a bald spot or cowlick, and it’s easy to confuse the two. Monitor your hair over time, and take pictures if possible.

If nothing changes, you can relax. However, if you notice the hair around the crown becoming visibly thinner you can start to make a plan whether to ride it out with hats or a flattering hairstyle, or simply to accept the inevitable and shave it off.

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This post was written by Matt:

I've been shaving my head for nearly 20 years. I'm here to share that experience, good and bad, help you embrace your hair loss, and live your best bald life.

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