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Cowlick or Balding: How to Tell the Difference

Knox Beasley, MD

Reviewed by Knox Beasley, MD

Written by Geoffrey C. Whittaker

Published 09/18/2017

Updated 12/12/2023

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. Or, in some cases, it could be a sign that you’re starting to go bald.

You should know that dealing with the occasional unruly area of hair isn’t necessarily a sign of impending doom. 

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. 

Below, we’ve talked about what a cowlick is, as well as how a cowlick can differ from a receding hairline, bald patch or other signs of long-term hair loss.

We’ve also discussed what you can do if you’re starting to develop a receding hairline, a balding crown or other signs of hair loss, from styling techniques to hair loss treatments.

A cowlick is a natural hair growth pattern that’s different from the pattern of the rest of your hair on your scalp. Often, a cowlick appears as one section of hair on the top of the head that sticks straight up or grows in the opposite direction from the rest in a "hair whorl."

If you have longer hair you may not notice your cowlick, but they can be located almost anywhere on your head — near the crown (or vertex) of your scalp, near the sides or even in the middle of your hairline

Most people have one cowlick, or hair whorl, that’s located around the midline of their scalp and close to the crown. A small number of people — about five percent of the population — have two hair whorls, or a “double crown.”

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

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

However, it’s possible that factors other than your genes also play some role in the development of cowlicks, even if their influence is relatively small.

For example, research has found that identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genetic material, almost always have matching hair whorls. However, a small percentage of identical twins show opposite whorls, suggesting that this trait isn’t entirely genetic.

“Crown balding” is a term that’s used to describe hair loss around your vertex scalp — the area near the top of your head. Losing some or all of the hair around this part of your scalp is one of the most common signs of pattern hair loss in men. 

Balding near your crown is most commonly caused by male pattern baldness, a type of hair loss that’s due to a combination of genetic factors and the effects of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT.

Over time, DHT can attach to hormone receptors located throughout your scalp and cause your hair follicles to miniaturize. As the follicles become smaller, they eventually stop producing hairs that are capable of penetrating the outermost layer of your skin.

This process typically begins at your hairline and crown, resulting in the classic receding hairline and bald patch that many men with male pattern baldness eventually notice in the mirror.

Other types of hair loss that can affect hair growth around your crown include:

  • Alopecia areata, a form of immune system-related hair loss that involves damage to your hair follicles.

  • Telogen effluvium, a form of hair shedding that’s triggered by stress, illnesses that cause fever, nutritional deficiencies and other issues, and is usually temporary.

  • Traction alopecia, a form of hair loss that’s caused by hairstyles and products that pull on your hair follicles.

  • Tinea capitis, a form of hair loss that can develop as a result of a fungal infection in your scalp.

  • Cicatricial alopecia (scarring alopecia), a form of hair loss that happens when scar tissue develops over your hair follicles.

Hair loss can also occur as a result of certain medications, such as chemotherapy drugs, thyroid medications and anticoagulants.

For more, read our guide on the things that can cause your hair to fall out.

A cowlick differs from a bald spot in a couple key ways. 

First, a cowlick is a natural, normal feature of your scalp that occurs as a result of your genes. Most people are born with a specific hair whorl, meaning this feature rarely changes over time. 

Because a cowlick can disrupt your hair’s flow and make it harder to style, it can often result in the appearance of hair loss — but it’s not. We promise. 

In certain ways, dealing with a persistent cowlick can be like going through a never-ending bad hair day, as no style seems to “stick” or look quite like it should. 

In contrast, most forms of hair loss, such as androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness), tend to develop as you grow older. A range of factors can play a role in balding, from your genetics to your production of certain hormones, such as dihydrotestosterone (DHT).

Second, because cowlicks are genetic and formed prior to birth, they’re generally not something that you can treat. While you can conceal a cowlick by styling your hair carefully, there isn’t a pill that you can take to relocate a hair whorl or make it less visible. 

In contrast, there are several treatments available for both male pattern baldness and temporary hair shedding, from over-the-counter treatments to prescription medications. 

Similarly to having a cowlick, having a visible hair part is a normal aesthetic feature and isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re losing hair.

However, if you have a cowlick and have noticed that it’s starting to change, or that your hair is starting to thin and make your cowlick less visible or your hair part wider, it may be a sign that you’re starting to develop hair loss.

Other common signs of male pattern baldness include:

  • A receding hairline that’s unrelated to your cowlick

  • Slow or no hair growth in certain areas of your scalp

  • A hair part that’s gradually getting larger and wider

  • Diffuse hair thinning that occurs across your whole scalp

  • Thinning and lower hair density at the crown of your head

Our guide on how to tell if you’re going bald goes into more detail about these signs, as well as how you can catch male pattern baldness early. 

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Even if you’re sure you aren’t balding, a cowlick can be frustrating to deal with. Although you can’t make a cowlick go away forever, there are several ways to make styling the hair around a cowlick easier, including:

  • Switching to a short haircut

  • Growing your hair out

  • Using styling products

  • Blow drying

Let’s look at each of these in more detail, so you can get rid of your cowlick — at least aesthetically — and make your hair look more even and consistent. 

Switch to a Short Haircut

Because a cowlick is a section of hair that sticks out from the crowd, one of the easiest ways to make this feature less visible is to stick with a short haircut.

The shorter your hair is, the less visible your cowlick will typically be. If you’re tired of having to style your hair to conceal a cowlick, consider a buzz cut or other short hairstyle to stop it from affecting your hair’s overall appearance. 

Grow Your Hair Out 

Another easy, albeit slower, way to cover up your cowlick is to grow out your hair. Longer hair is heavier, which means that your cowlick will eventually be pulled down so that it sits in line with the rest of your hair. 

For even better results, try applying conditioner to your hair regularly. This ensures that your hair stays moisturized, which can increase its weight and help it sit naturally against your scalp. 

Use Hair Styling Products 

If your hair isn’t long enough to sit down naturally on its own or short enough to conceal your cowlick completely, consider using styling products to bring it under control.

From a little bit of gel to some wax or pomade, many styling products can help tame even the most stubborn cowlick. 

When you’re choosing styling products, be aware that some hair styling products, such as those that give a wet look, can make thinning hair more obvious. Try experimenting with different gels, pomades and other products to find one that matches your hair texture and styling needs.

Blow Dry Your Hair

Even though you can’t force your hair to grow in a different direction, you can work with your hair to help it sit the way you’d like it to.

In addition to using hair styling products (or as an alternative to styling products), you can tame a cowlick by using a blow dryer to bring it under control. 

To control a cowlick using heat, blow dry it in the direction you’d like it to point, then use a comb to style it more effectively. After you’ve used warm air to control the cowlick, switch to cooler air to help hold it in place. 

One thing to keep in mind when using a blow dryer is that excessive heat can damage your hair, which may make thinning worse. To limit damage, use the lower heat setting and hold the blow dryer so that it’s as far from your scalp as possible while still providing adequate airflow.

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The key to preventing baldness is to take a proactive approach. If you wait until you’ve lost most of your hair or developed a severely receding hairline to take action, you’re unlikely to get the type of results you’d like.

On the other hand, taking action as soon as you notice a pattern of hair loss can put you in a position to keep most or all of your hair. 

Start Using Hair Regrowth Products

Currently, the most effective way to treat hair loss is by using medication.

One medication, finasteride, works by stopping the conversion of testosterone to DHT, the hormone that causes male pattern baldness. Specifically,  it prevents dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, from damaging your hair follicles, which allows new hair to grow. Finasteride is available both as an FDA-approved oral medication and a topical formulation that is not yet approved by the FDA.

The exact mechanism of action for the other big hair loss medication, minoxidil, isn’t entirely understood yet. But it is believed to work by increasing blood flow to your scalp and moving your hair into the anagen phase of the hair growth cycle.

Minoxidil is available as an FDA-approved topical liquid or foam, as well as an oral medication not approved by the FDA. It’s usually applied two times per day to areas of your scalp with noticeable hair thinning.

We offer minoxidil solution, topical finasteride spray and oral finasteride online.

Consider Hair Transplant Surgery

Hair transplant surgery is a cosmetic procedure that involves moving healthy hair follicles from the back and sides of your scalp to areas with active hair loss. 

The hair follicles that are used in this procedure are resistant to DHT, allowing them to be used to restore your hairline or fill in bald patches.

Hair transplant surgery can vary significantly in price based on the number of follicles required to fill in bald patches and the type of technique used. Our guide to hair transplant surgery goes into more detail about this type of procedure, as well as its advantages and disadvantages.

Learn How to Style Your Hair While Balding

Finally, if you have visible hair loss that you’d like to conceal, switching to a different hairstyle can often make it more difficult for other people to notice.

While the classic combover is rarely a good choice for hiding balding, haircuts that keep your sides short can often create the appearance of a thicker head of hair

Our guide to looking good while you’re balding shares tips and techniques that you can use to find the right hairstyle for your hairline and hair thickness. 

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At first glance, it can often be tough to tell if you have a cowlick or if you’re balding. This can result in confusion and panic when that old cowlick you’ve had for your entire life looks the same as a bald patch in the mirror. But remember:

  • While a cowlick can look similar to a bald patch, the two are very different. 

  • Cowlicks develop naturally as part of the pattern of hair follicles on your scalp, while male pattern baldness is a hormonal and genetic condition that tends to become more severe as you get older.

  • If you have a cowlick that makes styling your hair a challenge, try using the tips above to gain control over your hair. 

  • If you’re starting to notice the early signs of male pattern baldness, you may want to look into our range of evidence-based hair loss treatments.

Hair loss is treatable, and starting early is often the key to success. You can learn more about your options by taking part in a hair loss consultation, or by reading our full guide to preventing hair loss in men.

11 Sources

  1. Do You Have Hair Loss or Hair Shedding? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/hair-loss/insider/shedding
  2. Hair Whorl, Abnormal Position. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://elementsofmorphology.nih.gov/index.cgi?tid=f3795f87c4abb99d
  3. Ho, C.H., Sood, T. & Zito, P.M. (2022, August 25). Androgenetic Alopecia. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430924/
  4. Sechi, 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. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7362971/
  5. Hair whorl: The myth. (2011). Retrieved from https://udel.edu/~mcdonald/mythhairwhorl.html
  6. Hughes, E.C. & Saleh, D. (2022, June 26). Telogen Effluvium. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430848/
  7. Saleh, D., Nassereddin, A. & Cook, C. (2022, August 8). Anagen Effluvium. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482293/
  8. 10 Hair Care Habits That Can Damage Your Hair. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/hair-scalp-care/hair/habits-that-damage-hair
  9. Zito, P.M., Bistas, K.G. & Syed, K. (2022, August 25). Finasteride. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513329/
  10. Badri, T., Nessel, T.A. & Kumar, D.D. (2021, December 19). Minoxidil. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482378/
  11. Hair Transplantation and Restoration. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.plasticsurgery.org/cosmetic-procedures/hair-transplantation-and-restoration/procedure
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

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.

Knox Beasley, MD

Dr. Knox Beasley is a board certified dermatologist specializing in hair loss. He completed his undergraduate studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, and subsequently attended medical school at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, LA. 

Dr. Beasley first began doing telemedicine during his dermatology residency in 2013 with the military, helping to diagnose dermatologic conditions in soldiers all over the world. 

Dr. Beasley is board certified by the American Board of Dermatology, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Originally from Nashville, TN, Dr. Beasley currently lives in North Carolina and enjoys spending time outdoors (with sunscreen of course) with his wife and two children in his spare time. 

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