The Difference Between Shedding and Breakage

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By Audrey Sivasothy, author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care

Understanding the difference between hair breakage and shedding is an important part of any healthy hair regimen. Many people use these terms interchangeably to refer to any hair that falls from the head; however, this misinformed language can be a recipe for hair disaster. You must be able to properly differentiate between these two very specific forms of hair “loss” in order to effectively address even the smallest of your hair needs. This article will teach you the difference between hair shedding and hair breakage, and offer strategies to help you combat both hair problems.

What is Shedding

In its truest sense, shed hair is hair that has reached the end of its growing cycle and naturally falls from the scalp along with its tiny, white “root” attached. This is not the actual hair root that is secured deeply within your scalp, but it is the bulb root or base of the hair strand found on the scalp-originating end. It appears white because the hair stops producing melanin (color) at the point in its growth cycle right before it gets ready to fall. If your actual hair root came out along with the hair, you would no longer be able to produce hair from that same place on the scalp ever again! If a hair does not possess this white root bulb, then it is not a naturally shed hair, rather, a broken one. Shed hair tends to be longer in length than broken hairs which are generally short pieces of varying lengths. According to Halal, after a hair is naturally shed, it may take about 130 days for a new hair to fully emerge in its place.

In general, shedding should not be a major concern for you and should be seen as a sign of a healthy, normal, functioning scalp. There is no need to fear shedding unless it is tied to a medical issue. If you notice rapid hair loss from shedding or hair loss accompanied by a host of other problems, please consult a medical professional. Most shedding, however, is simply nature taking its course.

What is Breakage?

Breakage on the other hand is not natural, and is an indication of an imbalance of important forces within the hair strand. Broken hairs do not fall naturally from the head, but are typically a sign of mishandling or abuse. In the stages before a hair ultimately breaks, the hair first becomes discolored and experiences cuticle loss. Eventually, the fibers begin to split and ultimately there is breakage.

So what causes breakage? Hair can be weakened and damaged by anything from rough handing and sun exposure to coloring and straightening chemicals. Breakage is also more common with a hair’s age; older hairs, usually the hairs nearest the ends, have the greatest tendency to break due to normal wear and tear. When breakage isn’t a response to physical manipulation and abuse, it is most often triggered by the lack of moisture in the hair strand. Other types of breakage may be caused by the over- structuring of the hair strand with protein treatments done in excess. A prompt, and proper response to breakage will help you stop breakage in its tracks.

What can I do about shedding?

You must understand that because shedding is a natural, internal process, it may not respond to topical, external treatments. Some have praised garlic shampoos or “garlic scalp rubs” for reducing shedding, but there has been no clear concensus on the effectiveness of garlic as a remedy for shedding. Shedding is also not easily solved by protein or moisture treatments because it has nothing to do with the hair shaft itself, but is a response to hormonal influences on the hair follicle and is dependent on growth cycles. When a hair completes its life cycle, which generally lasts 4-6 years, its final act is the shedding we experience. This cannot be prevented.

Also, our hair naturally cycles in and out of seasonal shedding phases which may last days or weeks at a time in some individuals. Research suggests that peak shedding rates occur during the fall season. A healthy head of hair may shed as many as 50- 100 hairs per day, though I personally believe this amount to be a grand stretch. You should be concerned if your shedding suddenly increases to a rate that was uncommon to you before, or if the shedding seems to be prolonged over the course of several weeks or months.

Do keep in mind that there are special periods in the human life cycle where shedding is naturally increased. For example, women who are undergoing a bout of postpartum shedding after having a baby may have to deal with increased shedding for several months until their normal hormone levels return. Other conditions which may increase your shedding rate are:

*styling methods that place stress on the follicles
*birth control/menstrual cycles/menopause
*pregnancy
*heredity (runs in the family)
*crash dieting/ low protein diets, poor diet
*illnesses with high fever as a prevailing symptom
*anemia, thyroid disorders, and a host of other chronic disorders
*certain medications and major surgeries and treatments like chemotherapy

Please consult with a medical professional to diagnose any prolonged, abnormal shedding or other unusual scalp conditions.

What can I do about breakage?

Obviously, in a perfect world, there would be no breakage. However, we do not live in a perfect world and some breakage is bound to happen. Hair is an extremely delicate fiber, though strong, it isn’t made out of steel! It would be very difficult to prevent every single, solitary strand from ever breaking. One or two broken hairs are nothing to be thoroughly concerned about. However, it is when you start getting hair here, hair there, 7 here, 9 there– over the course of a few days that you want to start getting worried about your moisture/protein balance. If you are getting less than 5-7 broken hairs a day through the normal course of arranging your hair, do not fret.

Your job is simply to minimize the breakage as much as possible. Be as gentle as possible when handling and working with your tresses. Try to think of your hair as the rarest, most expensive fine silk head covering. Only handle it with clean, smooth, well manicured hands. No hang nails, or rough dry callouses! Gently maneuver your way through tough tangles and keep your hair soft and moisturized daily. Tie your hair up at night to protect your strands from your nighttime tossing and turning. Treat your hair with care and you will see less hair where it isn’t supposed to be!

Ladies, what do you deal with more: shedding or breakage? Have you figured out the reason for your shedding/breakage? And can you tell the difference between the two?

Audrey Sivasothy is a Houston-based freelance writer, health scientist and author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care (available on Amazon.com & Barnes&Noble.com).

For more insight from The Science of Black Hair— relaxed, natural or in between, visit us on the web atwww.blackhairscience.com and on facebook & twitter.

References
Halal, J. (2002). Hair Chemistry Simplified. New York: Thomson Publishers.
Johnson, D. (1997) Hair and Hair Care. New York: Marcel Dekker.

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19 thoughts on “The Difference Between Shedding and Breakage

  1. I am definitely suffering with breakage because I don’t see any white bulbs on my strands. A lot because I have more that 7 here and 9 there when I’m handling my hair. So i think i definitely need to use more moisturizer maybe I’m not using enough. And for protien treatment all i used is conditioner rich with protien ingredients.

    I copied the ingredients to look for when purchasing shampoos and conditioners from the list JC provided and I got a really good conditioner rich with protien ingredients but my question is do I still need other types of protein treaments? If yes please anyone feel free to recommend a protein treatment that works I need to reduce my breakage.

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      • Have you tried henna?
        People who use henna monthly, swear that they have less breakage.
        I just started using it myself, and my hair strands were stronger, with by hair sodyer (I deep conditioned after with Shea moisture and some oils). Infact, it was so soft that the hair dresser thought I had blown out my hair (I’m from Nigeria, where relaxed hair is viewed as sophisticated hair), but I only braided it.
        Hope it work for you.

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        • Hi Julia, I am Nigerian as well and I use henna every week now! lol a friend got me hooked! It definitely helps add strength and shine! And yes relaxed hair is favoured more at home, my family hates that I am natural and so do some friends! I live in Canada so I don’t have to face their disdain directly!!

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          • :o every week?
            Wow!
            How do you cope with lack of moisture from henna treatments because last week, I had to DC twice after henna (although I was fighting with dry hair after a betonite clay treatment of about 3 weeks back)?
            Moreso, your weather’s cold (my younger brother’s schooling there so I know) and I believe drying.

            My friend just told me of the challenge she’s facing at the office with regards to her being nappy, but she’s a strong bull (in a small body though) and gives them the palm lol.

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  2. wht can i do about if the breakage is do to part of my transition. its freaking me out a little but i kno tht its the processed hair breakin from the new growth. any advice is welcomed. thxs.

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    • Oh God this describes what I’m going through. I’m frustrated because
      I’m trying to use only natural products, i.e. honey, mayo, egg, coconut
      oil,argon oil not all at once of course. Transitioning is so scary because the hair is so delicate. I want to henna but I am getting ready
      for surgery and wont be able to wash as often I’ll be bed ridden. I don’t want to lose what I’ve accomplished. How can someone transitioning
      keep the hair supple with less water etc. I’m using protective styles
      moisture and seal etc.-Thanks I refuse to put any relaxers or over the
      counter color in my hair again. It caused all of the damage I have.

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  3. I have had more of an issue with breakage. I realized that I was a little too rough with my natural hair. But it continued to grow and flourish in spite of me. I started being more protective of my hair a few months ago and I can definitely see a difference. I try to be very gentle with my hair and keep my hands/utensils out of it as much as possible to protect it.

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  4. I am having some breakage as we speak..and looking for suggestions…I sleep on my back so the middle of my hair grows slow..any who I tried using the jehri curls rods in my hair after twisting and I think it took my hair out..so not happy rite now…

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  5. I am going through breakage right now too. I believe it is partly because I am transitioning and I think in part of how I comb through my hair in between protective styles, etc.

    Any suggestion on how to properly comb natural transitioning hair???

    Thanks all! ;0)

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  6. I wear my 4b hair in an afro style most days, so I don’t know how much I can stay out of it! I usually just moisturize it, comb it, then pick it.

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  7. I normally wear my hair in protective styling with a lace front. I take better care of it that way. Recently, I wanted to wear my own hair because it was lengthy. I had to go back to protective styling because even though my hair is thick and long. . .it started breaking so much that I cried. I don’t know why my hair doesn’t like being out but I put it after one week.

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  9. Pingback: Top 5 Mistakes New Naturals Make | Blog

  10. I am struggling so much with breakage!!! At first I thought that amount of hair wasn’t too bad because I usually keep my hair protected for two weeks then do the whole washing ceremony and detangling process. Just recently though I kept my hair out for a week and a half because I love my curls and fro (makes me feel so fly!, but when detangling time came around I was mortified by the amount of hair that I was losing, and to top that off my hair is thick but the strands fine so I had so many knots that i couldn’t finger or comb out. I was honestly very depressed by how much hair I lost, but I pushed through and continued till I had smooth twists. I plan on keeping my hair protected now because I don’t want to see a whole bathtub full of hair but I’m also very sad to not rock my curly hair out anymore….could I still rock a fro, but at night just do some bog twists to ensure no knots??? HELP

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  11. I have breakage as well. I feel like I’m doing everything I can to stop it, but every wash day I have hair coming out. Even when I do the water & whipped Shea butter sealing. Its softer, but hair still comes out. How do I stop this?

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  12. This is a problem my cliinc and I have put together a 10 step protocol that cures 86% of the women that follow it That is a higher cure rate than anything going. It is an out of control problem right now and it is starting on girls as young as 15 .I will give you the top 2 things you should check and change ..you can go the hair blog I have started for the list of the top 10 HABITS that destroy and Demolish Your hair make sure you are not doing any of those .you may be doing 1 and by stopping that it could be your trigger point. ( everyone’s pont of of the hair loss beginning)I have 5 of the Steps and the 10 No NO’s ( So 15 things you need to check and fix) I have been advising people online to do this now for 3months, and no one has come back and needed the last 5 steps ..so I am thinking the 15 things they have been tuned into .MUST BE WORKING. i Offer to them to come back if they don’t work .and so far I have not had a soul get back to me .So I will offer to you the same thing.# 1 Shampoo ..go get your bottle of shampoo .right now .look on the back in the ingredient list ..do you see SLS ( Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) or Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate ALS? Most likely.its there ..that is a horrendous ingredient and I feel one of the causes of the tremendous hair loss in women ..I have a jug of it in my LAB, when women come to the cliinc for their weekly check up .I have let them get a whiff of it from ACROSS THE ROOM! they never use a shampoo with that in it again I cannot do that over the web .you have to trust me.its an ingredient that is used to clean garage floors and car engines ..There is a list of 20 different brands on the BLOG with various prices# 2) NUTRITION ..how much protein do you eat every day? most people have cut that out .and hair is made of protein and NEEDS protein .do you eat breakfast? BREAKFast is the most important meal; of the day for hair.You must eat a handful of nuts every single day .you must eat one apple every single dayyou must have 2 servings of VEgetablesyou must have a minimum of 50 grams of protein every single day .if you need additional help after you check all the things already on there ..you are more than welcome to email me and we will keep going until we nail down YOUR trigger POINT Was this answer helpful?

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