Hair Breakage, Damage, and Treatment
THE ANATOMY OF DAMAGE
The hair shaft is composed of an inner cortex and an outer cuticle. It’s easy to remember if you think of the cortex as the trunk of a tree, and the cuticle as a thin layer of bark composed of overlapping shingles. If the protective cuticle cells become damaged, moisture and chemicals can gain entry to the inner cortex; if the cortex is damaged, the hair will break. Damage begins when the smooth, semi-waterproof cells of the cuticle become lifted. Chemicals gain entry to the cortex.
Surface of a healthy hair shaft
Surface of a damaged hair shaft
Lifted cuticle cells will make the hair look dull. Their rough surface reflects light poorly. Flat, smooth, naturally oiled cuticle cells reflect light nicely, and give hair its healthy shiny appearance. Once raised, the surface cuticle cells act like small barbs, snagging one hair with another to cause tangles. As the damage advances, the lifted cuticle cells can be broken off and lost. This allows the natural moisture in the cortex to escape and allows external moisture and chemicals to easily enter.
Chemicals used to style hair can be somewhat harmful. Perms, dyes, and relaxers raise the cuticle and can pass into the cortex causing protein changes. Heat can penetrate directly to the cortex without even affecting the cuticle layer. In fact, curling and straightening irons are probably the most damaging of all the influences that reach the hair. The frequency, intensity, and duration of these insults determine the magnitude of their damage.
PREDISPOSING FACTORS THAT CAUSE DAMAGE
When hair is permed or straightened it becomes weakened and repeated chemical treatments may contribute to fragility and surface dullness. A chemically damaged hair can absorb up to 50% of its weight in water. That’s why processed hair will frizz in humid weather. Abnormalities like irregular length, breakage, split ends are due to chemical and physical damage and can dramatically influence the way your hair performs, the way it looks, and its ability to resist breakage and further chemical assault.
Fine hair (60 micron diameter) is weaker than coarse hair (80 micron diameter), and because of its small diameter alone, it is much more likely to break. Curly and long hair is more likely to tangle and more likely to pull out. Combine curly, long, and fine with chemicals and heat, and the odds of breakage are exponentially increased.
Another potential hazard is the shower, pool, or cloudburst. When hair is wet, it stretches easily and becomes temporarily weakened. Even if the hair is healthy, it is more likely to break in its wet phase than in its dry. It should be very gently combed when wet.
Damage is almost always worst at the tip of the hair. If the hair is growing at the normal rate of .5 inches per month, and its repeatedly processed, the tip will have had more damaging insults than the root. Hence hair breaks at the end of the shaft first… fractures in the cortex occur at the tips (split ends).
Backcombing and brushing (teasing) will lift the cuticle and promote tangles. Too frequent combing and brushing, even in the right direction, will wear out the cuticle cells and predispose them to breakage and loss.
SPECIFIC CAUSES OF DAMAGE
Small diameter = it’s genetic, but as much of a problem as items listed below.
Chemicals = Perms, relaxers, straighteners, bleaches, colorants, highlights
Heat = Curling irons, straightening irons, hot rollers, salon and hand held dryers
Handling = Teasing, back combing, pony tails, braiding, vigorous towel drying
Appliances = Curlers, clips and barrettes which are too tight
Environmental = Sun exposure, pollution, chlorinated pools
Hair fixative products = Alcoholic gels, hair spray
EVIDENCE THAT DAMAGE IS PRESENT
Appearance = Dull, unmanageable, hairs of varied length, fly-aways, split ends, tangles, knots, difficult combing, limp in humid weather.
Performance = If your hair looks and performs better after you’ve applied a conditioner… you’ve got damage.
MEASURING THE SEVERITY OF DAMAGE
Measurement of breaking force – Hair scientists can measure the ounces of force required to break a hair. A healthy hair will pull out of the scalp before it breaks. But damaged hairs will break with minimal force. But healthy hair of naturally small diameter will break with a minimal force as well.
Measurement of the Hair Breakage Index –With cross section trichometry, we can detect shortened hairs in a small bundle of longer hairs, and calculate the percentage of broken hairs in your uncut hair… while you wait. It takes about one minute. With this knowledge you’ll have a very good idea of how severe your breakage/damage problem is.
Following treatment, when the breaking force and Hair Breakage Index are measured again at a later date, both values should improve.
TREATMENT OF DAMAGE AND BREAKAGE
- Shampoo with the shampoo recommended by the doctor.
- You may use a simple shampoo or one that is a combination shampoo-conditioner.
- When shampooing, handle your hair gently. Do not rub vigorously.
- When hair is wet it is very vulnerable to stretching and breakage.
RINSE & CONDITION
- Rinse out the shampoo well.
- Apply a generous amount of the recommended conditioner.
- After rinsing, apply a small amount to the tips if your hair is long.
- Blot dry your hair with a towel.
- Do not rub your hair with the towel.
- Rubbing stresses the fibers and promotes tangles and breakage.
COMBING & BRUSHING
- Combing separates and aligns the hair bundles and minimizes tangles.
- The best comb to use is the one with widely spaced teeth.
- If you prefer a brush, use one with widely space bristles.
- If the comb or brush snags or gets caught in a tangle, add a bit more of the conditioner to your palm and apply it to the problem area.
- The problem might also be that the teeth of your comb/brush are not widely spaced enough.
- Pass the comb multiple times through your hair, ensuring that no snags or tangles are encountered.
- If you have trouble combing or brushing in spite of the above – you have rinsed out too much conditioner.
- Dry with a blower that has a cool cycle.
- Air-drying is best and least traumatic, but most women don’t have that luxury of time.
- Begin with hot or warm setting, but always finish with cool.
- Finishing with the hot setting will thermally damage the hair.
- Better yet do not dry your hair completely… let it air dry to finish.
- Use the widely spaced comb or brush when using the dryer.
- This keeps the hairs aligned when they are blasted with the air, and makes them less likely to tangle.
- Below is an example of what NOT to do.
Style with your favorite setting gel or mousse; either before or after the drying procedure.
NO HAIR SPRAY
Do not use hair spray. Use setting gel or mousse. If you do use a hair spray, do not pass a comb or brush through your hair unless the hair spray has been washed out. The hair spray bonds the hairs tightly together, and when combed, they will catch on the teeth and pull out, or break if they are damaged.
SMALL DIAMETER HAIR – Unfortunately if your hair is very fine, the risk of breakage is very high. You will need to follow the above instructions more carefully, and use the conditioning product more generously. If you perm, backcomb, wear your hair long, rub and not blot with towel, use hair spray, comb through tangles, use hot irons and blowers, etc. – chances are good you will not improve.
LONG HAIR – The longer your hair, the greater its chance of tangling. The more tangles you have, the more difficult it is to comb or brush. If you try to comb or brush your hair, it will get caught in the comb/brush and break.
CURLY HAIR – Same deal. If you hair is long and curly you should use more conditioner so that the comb/brush does not snag when you use them. Wide toothed combs and brushes are preferred.
BLOT DRY – Hair is most vulnerable to breakage when it’s wet. The best and least damaging way to dry your hair is to blot it with a towel or let it air dry. Rubbing your hair with a towel must be avoided. It causes tangles and disrupts the surface cells. Hot blowers are faster, and they can add volume by separating hairs via static electricity… but the heat can be quite damaging.
BLOWERS – Get a blower with a warm and/or cool cycle. You may start with a hot setting, but quickly switch to warm and always finish with cool. Allowing your hair to remain a little damp with a final air dry is a good safety precaution. Don’t let the blower violently blow your hair in all directions – as in the photo below. Use a blower with a diffuser if possible, the blast is less violent so the tendency toward tangles is less.
FIXATIVES – If you must use fixatives… use gels or mousses do not use hair spray. If you must use spray for a special event, do not comb or brush your hair until after you have washed out the spray. Hair spray creates a very firm bond between the hairs, so that a comb or brush cannot be passed through easily. Strong healthy hair will be pulled out. Fine, weak, or damaged hair will be broken.
TANGLES – Wavy, curly, and long hair present the biggest problems with tangling. If your hair is healthy, tangles will cause pullouts. If your hair is fine or damaged, tangles will cause breakage.
PULL OUTS – Studies show that if you pull on a healthy hair, it will pull out of the scalp before it breaks. A damaged hair (heat or chemically altered) will usually break before it pulls out.
DULLàDAMAGEàBROKEN The hair is covered with a layer of cells, called the cuticle, that resemble shingles on a roof. These “shingles” keep the hair protected and water-resistant. They can become raised if the hair is chemically or physically damaged. Once raised, the hairs no longer reflect light properly and the hair looks dull. Hair dullness can also be the result of built up hair spray, soaps, or the deposit of materials from the environment – like dust, dirt, and sea salt from ocean bathing.
Also, because the raised cells are like little barbs, they have a tendency to snag with one another, resulting in tangles. If the surface damage is repeated or severe, the cells may actually be lost and the inner cortex becomes exposed. At this stage the hair shaft will become weakened and start to break at the tips, when combed or brushed.
It usually starts at the tip… split ends, which are broken shafts resulting from damaged cortex. Tight braids and hot irons can cause damage to the cortex, in areas other than the tip.
SPLIT ENDS – Raised cuticle cells promote tangles, but split ends are an even more common cause of tangles. Repeated processing with perms, straighteners, colorants, and razor hair cuts causes split ends. That’s why it’s important to apply the conditioner to the tips after rinsing, so that they get the most generous application.
HAIR CUTS Do not have your hair cut with a razor. It bevels the tips and makes it easier for the tips to split. Split ends should be cut off with a scissors. The more often your tips are cut off, the less tangling you will encounter, and the less breakage and pullouts you will have.
COMBING AND BRUSHING Do not back brush or tease your hair. This is a common practice of women with fine hair and hair loss because it adds volume. But teasing raises the surface cuticles and the raised rough surfaces cause even more tangling. Tangling results in breakage and pullouts.
STYLING IRONS Do not use hot straightening irons or curling irons. Even thought some conditioners have ingredients to protect your hair from heat, these irons, regardless of their promises, top the list of hair damaging habits. Hot irons are uniquely dangerous because they can damage in inner cortex of the hair without damaging or raising the cuticle.
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