Cowlick or Balding: How to Tell the Difference

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 7/27/2021

It happens to a lot of us -- you're styling your hair and there's one section that just won't go the way you want it to. 

This could be a cowlick, and while they're pretty common, you may begin to worry that you're balding. 

It isn't time to panic yet - it’s perfectly normal for people to have these sections of hair that don't want to cooperate, leaving you with a portion of hair that is thinner than the rest, or the appearance of a receding hairline. In fact, most people with a full head of hair shed anywhere between 50 to 100 hairs a day. 

It’s when your hair falls out at a faster rate and stops growing back that you have a problem.

While a cowlick on its own isn’t indicative of male pattern baldness or hair loss in general, it can often be mistaken for a bald spot. 

Since the difference between cowlick vs balding can be pretty easy to spot and take care of, you'll want to keep reading to find out how.

What is a Cowlick?  

A cowlick is a natural hair growth pattern that is different from the pattern of the rest of your hair. 

Oftentimes, it appears as one section of hair on the top of the head that sticks straight up or is growing in the opposite direction as the rest in a "hair whorl". 

While cowlicks are less noticeable on longer hair, they can be located on the crown of the head, near the sides of the hairline, or in the middle of the hairline.  

What Causes a Cowlick?

Cowlicks form before birth and affect both men and women. While a fetus is developing, cowlicks are caused when hair follicles grow in a slant that is opposite to the direction of the rest of the hair. 

Many researchers agree that cowlicks develop largely due to your genetic makeup and family history. 

In fact, one study published by the University of Delaware notes that fraternal twins can have hair whorls in the same location but in opposite directions.

What is Balding? 

Balding is temporary or permanent hair loss or lack of hair growth.It can affect hair anywhere from head to toe andoth men and women can suffer from hair loss. The different types of balding are: 

Additionally, certain medicines such as chemotherapy, thyroid medicine, certain antidepressants, and more can cause hair loss. 

An unbalanced diet, stress, and even tight hairstyles can also cause your hair to fall out. 

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What Are Early Signs of Hair Loss?

While a cowlick isn’t a direct sign of hair loss, the sudden disappearance of one is. Whether or not you have a cowlick, it is important to know the signs of going bald

Other early signs of balding include: 

  • Slow hair growth 

  • The appearance of thinner hair all over 

  • Thinning hair on the crown of your head (regardless of a cowlick) 

  • Receding hairline not caused by a cowlick

Is a Cowlick a Sign of Balding? 

The main difference between a cowlick and balding is that balding is hair loss, while a cowlick is simply the illusion of thinner hair. 

While cowlicks on their lonesome are not a sign of hair loss, they can be used to determine one of the early common signs of balding: thinning hair. 

Determining this factor is easy. If you know you have a cowlick, you can check the crown of your head, your hairline, or the middle of the forehead for the hair whorls. 

If you notice that over time your cowlick is seemingly vanishing into thin air, or that your hair wants to suddenly fall flat all the time, this is one of the first signs that you could be balding.  

Whatever the case may be, you know how your hair should be styled, and that’s something that’s not going to abruptly change except for the following reasons: you’ve tried a new styling product, you’ve relaxed your hair, or your hair is thinning out.

How to Fix a Cowlick

Even if you’re sure you aren’t balding, a cowlick can be just as frustrating. While you can’t make a cowlick go away forever, you can definitely learn how to style your hair around it. 

Here are some of the easiest ways to get rid of your cowlick or make your cowlick less noticeable. 

Grow Your Hair Out 

One easy, albeit slow, way to cover up your cowlick is to grow out your hair a bit. Longer hair is heavier, which can help hold your cowlick in place. 

Use Hair Products 

While the use of conditioner can have a similar effect on making your hair heavier to hold it in place, thick hair products such as gel, hair wax or pomade can help lock your style into place. 

Blow Dry Your Hair

Even though you can’t force your hair to grow in a different way, you certainly can work with your hair to fall differently. 

Blow drying your hair while combing it in the opposite direction of the cowlick can be helpful, especially if you use gel or conditioner. 

Change up Your Hairstyle

If all else fails, you can try changing your hairstyle to work around the cowlick. From fauxhawks to buzzcuts, and even shaggy hair, talk to your barber or hairdresser about the best style to cover up your cowlick.

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How to Treat Balding

The key to preventing baldness is to take a proactive approach. If you wait until you’ve lost the bulk of your hair, you’re probably not going to get the results that you want. 

Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons why men let their hair loss go unchecked is denial.

Hair loss is something that can happen to men of any age. Whether you’re in your 40s and 50s, or you’re in your late teens to early 20s, hair loss can strike. 

So, when you start noticing more than the usual amount of hair at the bottom of your drain, or your hair isn’t quite as thick as it used to be, it’s important that you take action. 

There are a number of hair loss treatment programs that are scientifically proven to slow down hair loss in the majority of men. 

Some can even help you regrow some of the hair you’ve already lost! Hair loss is normal for some men, not using the tools to treat it is not.

Consider Hair Regrowth Products. 

Hair products such as finasteride or minoxidil can help slow hair loss and stimulate hair regrowth. 

Finasteride is a prescription oral medication that treats male pattern hair loss on the crown of the head.  

Minoxidil is a topical hair care product that is applied two times per day to promote hair regrowth. 

Get medical advice from a healthcare provider to see if finasteride is right for you. 

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Learn How to Style Your Hair While Balding

Read our guide on how to look good while balding to figure out the best hairstyle for your thin hair. 

The right hairstyle can leave you feeling more confident and looking like you still have a full head of hair.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.