Hair Looks Thin When Wet: Balding Alert or False Alarm?

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So you’ve just jumped out of the shower and caught your reflection in the mirror, and noticed your wet hair looks worryingly thin.

Suddenly your mind is racing. Has it always been like that? Does this mean I’m going bald?

Hair loss is a worry for all men, and when it starts to look like it could become a reality, it’s natural to have questions.

You know what else is natural? Being able to see your scalp when your hair is wet.

But that doesn’t mean you’re definitely not losing your hair. I was that guy staring at my scalp in the mirror once.

But just because I’m now a fully-fledged baldie, that doesn’t mean you will be.

Read on, and I’ll explain:

  • Why hair looks thin when wet
  • Why it’s natural to notice this more as you get older
  • How to tell if you’re really going bald
  • What you need to do next

Why hair looks thin when wet

There are two main reasons why hair looks thin when wet, which are the clumping of wet hair and the unique structure of hair itself.

Firstly, wet hair clumping is when individual hair strands stick together when wet, forming clumps. 

This is where it gets sciency. Due to the surface tension of the water, those pesky water molecules like to stay close to each other. That means when hair is wet, they pull the hair strands together, causing them to clump.

Hair also contains natural oils that can contribute to clumping. Combined with the water molecules being so friendly with each other, this creates space between the clumps, giving the illusion of thinner hair.

Why does my hair feel thin when wet but thick when dry?

Water’s surface tension pulls hair closer together, revealing gaps in between that show the scalp. When the hair dries, the water evaporates, reducing the surface tension, and the hair strands separate again. This makes the hair appear fuller when in reality the strands are just more spread out.

So is it normal to see the scalp when the hair is wet? To understand this better, we need to talk about the structure of hair and the concept of hair density.

Hair is made up of a protein called keratin and has three layers: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla (more information from the National Library of Medicine here).

The outermost layer, the cuticle, consists of several layers of flat, thin cells that overlap like roof shingles. When the cuticle gets wet, it swells and raises, which causes friction between the hair strands and leads to potential damage and breakage.

human hair diagram
Image source:

This structural vulnerability when wet can contribute to the appearance of thinning.

Hair density refers to the number of individual hair strands per square inch on your scalp, not the thickness of the actual hair strands. Thickness refers to the diameter of individual strands and is also known as hair texture.

People with high hair density have more hair strands packed tightly together, which gives a fuller appearance to their hair.

However, when the hair is wet and the strands clump together, it can make even high-density hair look less dense and as a result, hair looks thinner and the scalp becomes more visible when hair is wet.

Why does my hair look thin when I use gel?

Much like when your hair gets wet, using hair products like gel or wax can also make your hair look thinner. The effect is similar to what happens when hair is wet.

Remember those pesky hair clumps we talked about earlier? Yep, they’re back! But this time, it’s not water causing the mischief; it’s hair gel or wax.

When you apply these products, they cause the individual hair strands to stick together, creating clumps just like when your hair is wet. As a result, you end up with fewer but thicker clumps of hair, making your scalp more visible between these clumps.

It’s like your hair strands are in a club, but they’re dancing so close together that it leaves open spaces on the dancefloor.

The same rules apply here as with wet hair. The hair hasn’t actually become thinner; it just appears that way because the strands are more clustered together.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many people use these products specifically for this effect, as it can help style the hair in certain ways and can add a bit of texture and shape.

What if I have curly hair that looks thin when wet?

When it comes to getting wet, curly hair doesn’t exactly play by the same rules as straight hair.

man with curly hair

Earlier we looked at how water causes hair strands to clump together. For curly hair, things get more interesting.

Instead of just clumping together randomly, the curls tend to coil around each other, forming a kind of hair party spiral. These spirals are tighter and more compact, creating chunkier clumps than you’d see with straight hair.

This results in larger spaces visible between the clumps, giving the illusion of less hair and thinner-looking curls.

But that’s not all. Curly hair comes with its own unique structure. It’s generally drier and more porous than straight hair. If you’re wondering why this matters, it’s because when curly hair gets wet, it can absorb a lot of water. That water makes the hair heavier, pulling down the curls and stretching them out.

So not only do you get the clumping effect, but you also get these longer, weighed-down curls, which can make your hair look less voluminous and thinner than it usually does.

So, while the wet hair effect applies to both straight and curly hair, curly hair throws its own little twist into the mix. Overall, people with curly hair are no more likely to go bald than those with straight hair, but it can make you look like you’re balding quicker than you actually are.

If my hair looks thin when wet, does it mean I’m going bald?

If you find your hair looking thin when it’s wet, you might start to panic and wonder, “Am I going bald?” But before you start stressing out, let’s unpack what’s going on.

Firstly, when hair is wet, it becomes a great tool for spotting signs of hair loss.

Why? Because water acts like a sneak peek into your scalp, revealing what your fluffy, dry hair might be hiding. It can be easier to spot changes in the hairline, crown, or general hair thickness and growth.

So yes, if you’re noticing more scalp than usual when your hair is wet, it might be a sign of thinning or balding.

But don’t panic just yet. Changes in hair are a normal part of aging. As we get older, our hair can become physically thinner, less pigmented, and slower to grow. This is usually most noticeable at the front, where a slight recession can cause panic but is often just the natural appearance of a mature hairline.

It’s like your hair is gracefully aging along with you. This can make your hair look thinner, even if you aren’t showing signs of actual male pattern baldness.

Invisible hair loss

Next up, we have something called ‘invisible hair loss.’ While this isn’t a widely-used term, it’s what I call the type of hair loss that sneaks up on you, like a stealthy ninja.

This is a decrease in hair density that isn’t immediately noticeable, especially if it’s happening on the top part of your scalp, from the crown to the hairline and temples.

This could be a hint of androgenetic alopecia, the fancy name for male pattern baldness. Whether that’s the case or not, it will certainly be more noticeable when your hair is wet, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.

Now, thinning hair and balding are two different things, like apples and oranges. Thinning can happen due to a host of reasons like stress, diet, or certain hairstyles, while balding is often down to genetics. So, if your hair is thinning, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the path to balding.

External factors

It’s also worth noting that factors like your diet, lifestyle, hair care routine, and even your genes play a role in how thick and voluminous your hair is. Kind of like how the ingredients in a recipe determine how the dish turns out.

A balanced diet, packed with proteins, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, provides the necessary nutrients for healthy hair growth.

healthy foods

Lifestyle factors, including stress levels, sleep quality, and exercise routines, also significantly affect your hair’s health.

Your hair care routine is equally important. Regular trims, gentle handling, and using hair products suited to your hair type can maintain hair health, while heat styling and dyeing can lead to damage over time.

Finally, genetics is a major factor. Some people naturally have thicker, more voluminous hair, while others may be prone to hair thinning or balding due to inherited traits. It’s also not as simple as saying that baldness skips a generation, as some people think.

In summary, a combination of a balanced diet, healthy lifestyle, proper hair care, and genetics influences the thickness and volume of your hair, and hair loss caused by any of these factors will be most noticeable when your hair is wet.

Telogen Effluvium

There’s also a temporary hair loss condition known as Telogen Effluvium. You can read up on it here. It’s generally associated with women following childbirth, but can also affect men and cause them to falsely think they’re suffering from male pattern baldness.

Telogen Effluvium can be triggered by various factors like severe stress, sudden weight loss, or serious illness. It forces more hair than usual into the resting phase (telogen phase) of the hair growth cycle. This leads to a period of hair fall which you’ll often notice first when your hair is wet.

But don’t panic – it’s usually reversible.

So I’m not going bald?

Maybe, maybe not.

While wet hair may give the appearance of thinning, and conditions like Telogen Effluvium might cause temporary hair loss, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going bald.

Remember, hair is complex and affected by various factors, so an individual assessment is crucial for understanding what’s really going on with your hair.

How to check if you’re going bald

Given that we’ve established that it’s fairly normal for your hair to look thinner when wet, you’re probably wondering how to get peace of mind that you’re not going bald (or confirmation that you are).

First, it’s about observation. Take a good, hard look at your hair in the mirror. Does it seem thinner or less full than usual? Are there any noticeable changes in your hairline or crown? If it’s a resounding yes, then it might be a sign. 

To be sure, photos can be a great tool to notice changes. Grab some old snaps or start to take photos once a month, and do a little before-and-after comparison. Look for changes over time in your hair’s volume, coverage, and thickness.

Lastly, there’s the pull test. Gently tug on a small clump of hair (about 50-60 strands) from different areas of your scalp. If more than a few hairs come out, this could indicate increased hair shedding.

There are lots more unscientific ways to test for hair loss, including:

  • The comb test (brushing and seeing how many hairs are left behind)
  • The patch test (looking for patches of scalp with less hair)
  • The mirror test (checking your scalp in the mirror)
  • The part test (observing the width of your parting)
  • The sunshine test (looking at your scalp in direct sunlight)
  • The wet hair test (as we discussed)

But remember, these tests are just guides. If you’re seriously worried about hair loss, the best next step is to consult with a professional. Only a qualified healthcare provider can accurately diagnose the causes of hair loss.

Doctors can give your hair a microscopic evaluation to see whether you’re genuinely balding or just experiencing the natural thinning that comes with age. Most people’s hair reduces in thickness over time, although the extent and pattern can vary widely among individuals, and not everyone will experience noticeable thinning as they age

Under a microscope, it’s possible to see significant miniaturization of hair follicles. This is an indication of active hair loss, but if it’s just the natural thinning, such as happens during the appearance of a mature hairline, a microscope won’t show any thinning or miniaturization.

If I’m losing my hair, should I shave my head?

The advice you’ll get when you talk to most people is to simply shave it off.

However, for a lot of people, this is a big decision. Nothing will make you regret shaving your head like being pressured into it before you’re ready.

regretting shaving head

The important thing is that you take some kind of action. Own it, before it starts to own you.

There are lots of options available to men who are balding, including medication, SMP, hair systems, and transplants. And if you don’t want to shave your head just yet, then you don’t have to.

If you need help making the decision, use this helpful flowchart which is free to download:


Hopefully, this helps explain why your scalp is more visible when your hair is wet. There’s more information here about why you might be able to see your scalp through your hair at other times, too.

If it turns out that you are balding, don’t panic. Make the right decision for you, and if that means shaving your head and joining the bald brethren, then welcome to the club.

I have a whole email series dedicated to helping you live your best bald life, so sign up here and let me guide you through everything you need to know, based on almost 20 years of shaving my head.

Hopefully, I can help you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way!

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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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