Why is my hair breaking? Erm.......because you broke it!

Hair breakage is a hot topic. Most of us now understand that our hair does grow at a reasonable rate and the reason why it does not gain length is because it breaks. A very common question is 'why does my hair break'

My very scientific answer is......because you broke it.

Why is breakage your fault?

With the exception of medical conditions, hair is NOT inherently fragile. It can take quite a lot of force (see this post). In truth the things that you do to your hair affect its ability to withstand the force and cause it to break.

1. Force During Combing
Combing is the top reason for hair breakage as using a comb can cause hair to tangle (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 21-43, 1984). Tangling causes more force to be applied to the comb which causes the hair to snap. The solution that many of us employ is combing when hair is wet and has conditioner on it. However this is a double edged sword as although the hair is easier to comb it is also weaker than when dry. Hair must be treated much more gently whenever it is wet.

2. Not taking Care of  Your Hair Cuticle
Your hair cuticle is the first line of defence. It is NOT responsible for the strength of your hair but it is a shield for the cortex which is responsible for strength (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 59 -67, 1991).It can be damaged by several processes including combing, flat ironing and stretching. The less cuticle you have the more likely you are to get split ends(J Soc Cosmet Chem, pg 155-75, 1978.)

3. Stretching Hair
I recently made an observation that hair when stretched appeared to straighten up and revert back to curly when water was applied. I therefore went on a hunt to understand what happens when we stretch hair. Stretching is actually quite similar to straightening. Cracks can form in the hair and the surface of the hair (cuticle) is affected (J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 21-43, 1984)

Stuff that isn't your fault
If your hair has a large number of kinks (mine does), the kink represents an area of weakness. This is as opposed to hair that is curly but not kinky. This does not mean you get a pass though. If your goal is to gain length then you must be even more gentle to preserve the hair.

Update 16-10-2010 : As reader LBell pointed out some breakage is normal even if you are supremely gentle with your hair. The aim is not to totally eliminate breakage but rather to keep it to an absolute minimum. 

What to do and look out for
1. Pain when combing.
2. Tiny little curls (usually less than quarter of an inch).
3. Snapping noise.
4. Don't comb through tangles.
5. Minimise handling of hair (i.e comb it only to detangle, stop playing with it after styling). 
6. When stretching hair, watch out for it actually becoming straight. Keep some curl in it.

The correct question to ask is 'What did I do to break my hair?'


  1. I read the title of today's post and nearly spit out my coffee laughing! Great post, perfectly stated. Your list of thing to look out for is excellent!

  2. Hey Jc!
    Thank you for this information but I dont really agree on 1 point, the stretching one... In my opinion, kinky hair is more likely to break when shunken because of the knots. Also, each point of the z or the s is a potential breakage point. When streched, hair is less likely to break. This is the reason why in Africa, ( and I am saying that because I'm African, not because I saw pictures on the tele), women are always having their hair stretched (3 strands braids, cornrows, threaded braids). It's a no-no for any african woman to leave their hair shrink, because it leads to knots and breakage... But maybe my understanding of stretching was not the right meaning. What did you mean exactly by stretching?

  3. very interesting, specially the stretching part. You said ''Stretching is actually quite similar to straightening'' . The only problem with straightening that I had heard of is the application of heat. I did not know at all that '' Cracks can form in the hair and the surface of the hair ''. Is it the result of pulling on the hair or is the change of texture harmful by itself ? Does that happen even when the hair is stretched while wet and more pliable ?

  4. Great post as usual. It is especially interesting to hear that it's good to leave some texture/kink in there when stretching. I'll definitely take this into consideration as I continue on my hair growth journey!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post JC. After I read the previous post, you know I had to test one of my strands and am happy to report that it passed the test and didn't snap. That aside, I really put forth every effort to take care of my hair to keep from breaking it. I only comb my hair soaking wet in the shower to remove tangles, keep it balanced with moisture and protein and give it all the TLC it wants.

  6. Thanks for all the comments!

    Katie - lol sorry for the near coffee spill. I like eyecatching titles :)

    Bellebene - lol I am African too, so welcome to the club. Stretching is any action which uses force to pull the hair into a different conformation. This does include braids and twisting as well as roller setting. The only issue I have with stretching is when the hair starts to become straight. At this point a lot of force has been applied to it. Stretching it but maintaining some curl or kink is preferable. I am not saying stretching is bad, I am saying do it in moderation.

    Kadiane- The paper I cited did both wet and dry testing. Cracks were present in some of the hair before testing. The authors therefore do not attribute all the cracking to stretching but do state that cracks were present in post stretching hair (most likely that stretching causes some hair cracks or elongates existing cracks). The hair when wet can stretch for longer before breaking but requires less force to break.

    Mo and Mikimu - Thanks for the comments. You both have beautiful manes already!

  7. Can you explain what you mean by this paragraph and how you're defining the difference between a coil and a kink?

    "If your hair has a large number of kinks (mine does), the kink represents an area of weakness. This is as opposed to hair that is curly but not kinky. This does not mean you get a pass though. If your goal is to gain length then you must be even more gentle to preserve the hair."

  8. Sure csb - The best definition I found is actually a copyrighted picture. I previously mentioned it in a comment on happy girl hair.

    Kinky is a description where the hair has an actual kink in the hair. Therefore when the strand is pulled straight, you can feel small bumps on it where the hair twists. Curly hair can be kinky but curly hair can also be smooth (i.e no bumps when you run your fingers across the hair)

    You can see this in this thesis that I found online. It is figure 5 on page 31 of the pdf (or pg 10 if you look at the actual page numbers)


  9. THANK YOU for this. If more black women realized just how much of their hair's length is within their control we just might see longer/bigger heads of hair out here. Instead we keep hearing about "no growth" and "how do I get faster growth" and "I don't have Indian in my family so that's why my hair is short" etc. Maybe in another generation the connection will be made...

    Is it worth adding that no matter how careful you are you may still encounter breakage? I have actually seen posts on hair boards asking if breakage can be avoided completely...I don't think that's possible if you're handling your hair in any way.

  10. Great comment LBell and definitely I agree that some breakage is normal - will add :)

  11. hi! love your blog. question - isn't a big factor in hair breakage how fine or coarse your hair is? in my experience, my fine hair is much more prone to breakage than my sister's very coarse hair. she naturally has more cuticle layers so she has more protection. manipulation is a big one but i have found that it is even secondary to fineness/thickness. my sister could light her hair on fire and it would still be fine, lol.

  12. I had no idea that some of my favorite styles, twists, twistsouts, buns, puffs, could cause breakage through stretching. I'm definitely gonna rethink some of my "safe" styles. thanks!

    - savvy

  13. You overlooking the most important factor..
    It's that dammed sulphate in almost all
    shampoos and condiditoners.. sure it gets your
    hair clean but it also dries it out and cracks
    it..I use L'Oreal Everstrong Sulphate Free Fortify system, and the condiditoner
    With just one use my hair
    is soft, silky, thicker, and
    beautiful.. I am through with sulphates

  14. Actually I use an SLS/SLES combination shampoo because it is not irritating and cleans well (i.e removes oil- which is what I want). I still have hair

  15. I don't colour or treat my hair - never have. I don't straighten it often, I never curl it. I wash it every other day - I use Nioxin. I barely ever brush it (seriously - it can be days). I don't use conditioner anymore. I don't use gel or hairspray. This has been my approach for a year.

    My hair is breaking and has been for a year. Ive taken serious B complex supplements and silica daily. Any thoughts of what's happening to my hair if I am not breaking it :(

    1. I cannot diagnose your hair and I would advise you to see a dermatologist if you are very concerned. If you are otherwise healthy, I would suggest you ask yourself these questions

      1. Is your hair relaxed and did you overlap relaxers
      2. Is your hair natural and would it benefit from protective styling so that it can go longer without handling?
      3. Would you benefit from finger detangling exclusively?
      4. Why do you not use conditioner.......are you allergic to ingredients? If not, it is the best thing for helping to stop breakage while handling your hair.

  16. It may be worth mentioning that you can also lose a lot of hair after surgery. It took me ages to make the connection between the operation I had three months ago and the amount of hair I am losing with the slightest manipulation.

  17. Nice post. Love the article. Very interesting, informative and helpful. Enjoy your day! :)


Post a Comment

I love comments! All comments are moderated so they will only appear on the blog once I approve them.

Popular Posts