By Jc of The Natural Haven Bloom

There are many challenges with natural hair and often when polled naturals are most concerned with two things – dry hair and finding the perfect hair conditioner/conditioning routine. Combing damage rarely makes the top of the list but yet it is the one factor that causes the greatest amount of breakage and is responsible for stagnant hair length.

Combing is a necessity if you wish to have free natural hair but it certainly needs to be carried out carefully and purposefully. This is the get smart guide to combing and how to avoid the two main damage culprits.

1. How to stop unnecessary fraying of your hair

The Damage: The more times you comb your hair, the more stress you are applying on it physically and therefore the more likely it is to break. Studies on hair also show that combing hair leads to loss of protein which is thought to be small parts of the hair cuticle chipping away.

How to identify it: No change in hair length over a long period (6 months or more) or hair starts becoming shorter when it has not been trimmed, numerous split ends soon after trimming, mid shaft splits, hair snaps easily with very little stress.

The Solutions
– Reducing the overall need to comb your hair is the most effective method. This means that if you can keep a protective style for 2 weeks, you avoid combing in that time and preserve your hair strands. If you can only keep it for a few days, this is still less burdensome than daily styling.

-If you do not already do so, always start with the widest spaced comb before using a finer tool. Finger combing allows more serious tangles to be identified and eases the way for a wide spaced comb to separate the hair strands. Using a brush or finer toothed comb is optional after. Remember that if you can skip a tool, do so, less is more.

-Use hair conditioner or a slippery oil to ease friction between your combing tool and your hair. This will preserve the surface of your hair strand

-Once your hair is combed/detangled, stop combing. Keep the hair detangled by twisting it up or proceeding to your style. If you have straightened your hair, do not unnecessarily comb or brush it just because it is easier. Remember each run with a comb is stress and protein loss.

2. How to avoid forming complex knots

The Damage: Complex knots form as a result of several hair strands intertwining against themselves. These complex knots are unique to kinky curly hair simply because the twists in the hair allow this interaction to happen. Complex knots often have to be cut out so that hair can be combed freely once more.

How to identify it: Complex knots are obvious and difficult to avoid completely. You should be concerned however if you need to cut out several knots (10 or more) on a regular basis (every time you detangle, every time you wash)

The Solutions
-Never pile your hair while washing it and if your hair has many kinks or a tight curl, washing it in loose twisted or braided sections will greatly help reduce the ability of the free hair to interact and form a complex knot.

-Prevent your hair from shrinking fully if you are not intending to wear your hair short (i.e  intentionally keeping a TWA). The more strands can intertwine, the more they can form complex knots and shrunken hair is the perfect way to encourage knots.

-Never comb dry hair aimlessly. If you are in a hurry to style, it would be better to avoid combing all together rather than randomly pick at sections of your hair. Opt instead to finger comb lightly and go for an easy style such as bun or puff which is more forgiving  for hair that has not been thoroughly detangled. Remember that accessories can easily change the look of a hair style.

Ladies, do you experience breakage when you comb your hair? If not, how do you prevent it?

Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, pp 886-888, 2006
Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, pp 21-43, 1984

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25 Comments on "2 Ways To Prevent Combing Damage and Breakage"

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[…] combing can be the equivalent of a hair cut” (J Am Acad Dermatol, 54(5):886-8,2006). While The Natural Haven Bloom explains, “the more times you comb your hair, the more stress you are applying on it physically and […]

I use combs and honestly, I think they get a bad rep! I very rarely use them on my dry hair however, only maybe every 3 months or so if I have some kind of event I want to wear a big curly afro for. I use a wide tooth comb after I have either shampooed or co-washed my hair depending on the week and I do so to detangle my hair. My hair is usually in five braided sections at this point (quick loose braids work better than twists for me I find as they stay in place and… Read more »

What is DC? I started doing a keratin steam treatment. I relax every 6 wks or when it’s time to relax I put weave in and leave for about 4wks. I use to do my hair using organic roots olive oil relaxer but now I go to the hair dresser and she uses design essentials and the process is about half hour. I’ve thought about going back natural but it’s the process I can’t take. I have also started using oils to steam, hopefully this will strengthen my hair back to the way it was.
I’m open to options though

Good tips most of which I follow, however, I don’t wash my hair in sections. I drench my loose hair in the shower then apply my homemade clay cleanser or black soap shampoo straight from Ghana. I then gather my hair into a pony, yeay my hair has finally made it. Then I wash my body and rinse my hair out taking down the ponytail. After I squeeze out all water I apply my deep conditioner with a tablespoon of oil, I have lots of oils from my first year frenzy of product buying, manketti, castor, coconut, adwengo (the last… Read more »

Hi I’m from Trinidad…I have relaxed hair and I comb on a daily basis. After combing I have to literally pick hair up of the floor. I’ve trimmed and continuously steam my hair but it keeps breaking from the roots…HELP

Ayshia Stephenson

stop relaxing your hair….

Ayshia Stephenson

Stop relaxing


kathy, often do you DC and do protein treatments? how far apart are your retouches? How long do you keep the relaxer on? What kind of treatment do you do post relaxer? These are all factors that contribute negatively or positively to healthy hair depending on what you do. I’m natural now but I was relaxed for about 15 years and I regularly picked hair off the floor as well.

It has been just over three months since I last used a comb or brush to detangle my mostly-4b hair. Having once had locs for over 3 years, not using a comb or brush isn’t new to me. 🙂 I noticed a couple of weeks ago when taking down my twists how much thicker my hair appears at the roots. Seeing as I’ve been thinning for a minute (comes with the perimenopausal territory, sadly) I was thrilled to NOT see quite as much scalp as before. I’m still looking for ways to cut down the time it takes to detangle,… Read more »

Spot on with the tangle teezer and denman. Both of mine are also gathering dust. The denman felt like an industrial rake against my hair. I still don’t understand the rave surrounding it…

Natural girl


Have had a terrible time with detangle on my tight curl 4 hair (nice for nappy lol). What helped me was aloe water and veg glycerine and “knot today” with a little evoo. Since I was having a major tangle problem tried healing herbs my Rene Arabian coffee and tea black soap shampoo and moca conditioner miracle worker left hair easy to comb when took twists down soft and no more tangles. Also the leave in with MSM. Hope this helps.

Horn combs are also a good alternative/solution to combing damge because the protein of the horn is similar to the protein in our hair and is far more gentler and distributes oil down our strands. I can’t remember all the details and science behind it but I got 2 horn combs on etsy and I think they’re much better for my hair – especially since I don’t have the patience for finger detangling :-/ I bought my combs from here And here is a site with more details on the benefits The only downfall to horn combs is… Read more »
This is a HUGE problem I’m having with my hair, and I think it must be the detangling and combing that causing the damage, along with wearing my hair in its shrunken state the majority of the time. I’ve got knots for days and splits at the ends and midshaft. I don’t think my skin will allow me to keep my hair braided or twisted up for much more than a week (it’s VERY fussy). But I want to retain the length, so I think I’m gonna have to give it a try. Fighting my super-coily hair every week is… Read more »
lillian mae

Have you tried protective styling? this will keep your hair out of your face (off your skin) and it’s low maintenance so will keep you from manipulating your strands. It’s helped me retain length during my transition.


That’s what I meant, I’ll have to try braiding or twisting my hair so that I don’t have to mess with it for weeks at a time. =) The problem is that my skin starts acting up if I can’t get in there and really wash my scalp. Two weeks is pretty much the max. I suck at braiding and my back issues don’t really allow me to work on my hair for long periods at a time. I guess I’ll have to try and find a stylist. =P

I am currently challenging myself to be more manually gentle with my hair. This applies greatly to when I am combing. I combine VO5 conditioner, olive oil, and honey in a bowl and warm it up a bit. Then I lean over the sink to saturate it and cover it with a plastic cap. About 15-20 minutes after that, I begin to separate, detangle, and braid my hair into sections so that I may wash it. Aside from using the comb in this case to detangle, I haven’t been using it much outside of that. The other challenge I’m working… Read more »

The point about stopping the combing process when the hair is detangles is right on point. We are so accostomed to combing and combing even past the detanglin mabye becasue the detanlged hair feels sooo good between the teats of the comb. I have had to forcibly stop myself form comtiniusly combing. An excellent point because it really helps prevent breakage.

Now if anyone can tell me the secret to having detangled hair AFTER washing I would be most happy 🙂 (yes i detangle before and yes i wash in plaits)

lillian mae

When I pre-poo (oil wash) I finger detangle. This is before I actually cleanse my scalp.
I detangle after I’ve deep conditioned my hair. As I rinse out the deep conditioner, (under warm to cold water, of course) I use a wide tooth shower comb and comb from the bottom of my hair up (tip to root). This is the only time I ever use a comb. It works wonders and I lose very little, if any hair.

While not nearly as comb-free as Bernadette, I have significantly reduced my “comb” time. I think the article had the most important tips as far as reducing com-related breakage. But my experience has been that you can “train” your hair to behave with consistency and routines. I always wash my hair in sections (4 is my magic number), carefully finger detangle only after heavy conditioner saturation, then I apply a light oil (olive is my favorite for this) while my hair is damp to use my wide-toothed bone comb. I usually leave detangling alone after this process. I only use… Read more »

Where did you buy your bone comb?


I got my bone combs from She also has an ebay store I believe. Super nice lady with a wide variety of choices. I have the big one and a smaller toothed one for styling.

I got mine from a flea market. I hear it’s illegal to mass market animal bone combs, so your best bet would be a reputable Etsy or Ebay seller who handmakes them or sells on behalf of people that handmake bone combs. I also have resin, wooden, and horn combs; which are all easier to find than bone combs. Like I said though, any SEAMLESS comb is better than the cheap stuff. Look for hand made ones, Bakelite, NuBone, or Mason Pearson (some of which can be pretty expensive if you don’t utilize sales/coupons/discounts/haggling). IMO, Bakelite and NuBone don’t break… Read more »
I used the comb for the first time this week in almost a year! And, I used it just so I could ultimately trim my hair. It was funny — I actually had to turn my bathroom upside down to find my comb. My hair is usually stretched (in 2 strand twists), which helps prevent tangles (although the ends sometimes curl up on themselves if I don’t keep an eye out). And, I only use my hands to detangle. I’ve changed my wash routine slightly as the author mentioned and now wash my hair in 4 fat twists — why… Read more »

i’m with you, miss Bernadette. I kicked combs to the curb a month or 2 ago, and i haven’t looked back since. It’s amazing how much less hair i lose just using my fingers. so much more gentle, provided i take the time. it requires patience but once you get used to it, it truly becomes second nature.


WOW!!! You had to turn your bathroom upside down to find your comb! That just goes to show how dependent you are upon yourself to detangle and manage your hair! Thank you for your post; it is beyond inspiring to me!!!