2 Ways To Prevent Combing Damage and Breakage

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

The Natural Haven

The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!


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23 thoughts on “2 Ways To Prevent Combing Damage and Breakage

  1. 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 didn’t I do this sooner!?

    • 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!!!

    • 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.

  2. 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 a finer comb (and I divide into as many sections as time will allow) if I am doing a more complex style or a style that requires neat parts.
    Keeping my hair in stretched styles (two strand twists, braids, cornrows etc) 90% of the time makes it so easy to clean, detangle, and restyle. Then I get some amazing twist-outs and braid-outs which will hold their shape for several days when I maintain them. If I let my hair run wild (which I am apt to do when I get lazy), it takes FOREVER to wash, FOREVER to detangle, FOREVER to style, whenever I come to my senses. I am talking hours, step by step processes which can turn into 1-3 DAYS.
    The “divide and conquer” mentality has been a major hair saver. The more sections you have, the more likely you are to catch tangles early (before they become knots), the more you can evenly distribute strain across your strands. And I’d say that keeping your hair stretched (or “trained”) for a majority of time definitely reduces the time and strain for detangling process.
    Also, some people don’t take note of this, but I think the KIND of comb really makes a difference with breakage and styling. Genuine bone combs are best in my opinion. But any seamless comb is better than the cheap plastic kind that have seams running along each tooth. Those seams can rip even the strongest hair unnecessarily.

      • 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 the bank but are worth the $7-15…

      • I got my bone combs from hairsense.com. 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.

  3. 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)

    • 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.

  4. 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 on is being more gentle when I use my hands (even when styling). I’ve unnecessarily broken off a lot of my hair in past just by pulling too hard and being overall tough with my hands.

    Bad habits can be difficult to break sometimes, but I’m committed to making this change!!!

  5. 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 becoming a losing battle! Too bad that I don’t want locs…I’d have it made! SMH! =)

    • 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

  6. 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 http://www.etsy.com/shop/epstone?section_id=7230446.
    And here is a site with more details on the benefits http://suite101.com/article/horn-combs-for-hair-a131871.
    The only downfall to horn combs is that they need to be maintained to last longer.

  7. 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, but I can’t deny the benefits of a fingers-only approach.

    Also, with regards to “when it’s detangled, stop”: There are a number of YT videos featuring the Tangle Teezer that used to drive me crazy. I would be like, “That’s ENOUGH! STOP!!” lol…my Tangle Teezer is currently gathering dust somewhere next to my Denman…

    • Hi,

      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.

    • 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…

  8. 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

    • 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.

  9. 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 oil squeezed from palm nuts, traditionally used for hair in Ghana by “poor people” my mother sneered)broccoli, soya oil etc.
    After DC for 20 minutes I then finger detangle,comb my hair and plait it, as twists always come out.
    Then I do my final rinse and I’m done.
    That is the last time I’ll use a comb until next wash day. As I don’t manipulate my hair I rarely get knots, since using this regime, since Christmas 2011, I have noticed the ends of my hair are always smooth and no crispy feeling it feels so good to know my hair is thriving and it’s all due to my hard work and the advice of you great gals on websites like these.

  10. 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

  11. 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 do not unravel) and so I apply my conditioner (and on the weeks I do a DC moisture treatment rather than a deep protein treatment, my DC on top of my conditioner – usually my NuNaat Intensive Hair Mask which gives me LOADS of additional slip). I detangle with a seamless wide toothed comb first section by section, then a smaller toothed comb (not too much smaller mind you!!) and then I rebraid the section. I find this is the only way to thoroughly detangle my hair and prevent knots. I would finger detangle but it takes A LOT of time and I find traditional combs much more reliable. I always use the combs very carefully not haphazardly, taking care to start at the ends and making sure a section is thoroughly detangled with my wide toothed comb before moving on. This method really works for me and I don’t have any problems afterwards as my hair is usually in some sort of easily manageable style such as twists or braids. I also don’t get breakage or excessive shed hairs doing this. (For those wondering, I have an array of textures but the main part of my hair is 4b but I also have crazy tight 4c textures at the front of my head and some random loose 3c/4a curls at the back of my head. I’m 17 and have been through way too much with my hair LOL so I know now what I’m talking about ;D). I also used to use the Tangle Teezer but found now that my hair is longer (armpit length) it was snapping my hair and I think thinning it slightly?? and wasn’t working as well for me. I cut it out of my detangling sessions and my hair has vastly improved with the method I use now :) I would be happy to keep using my routine, f o r e v e r.
    Oh and also, when I use combs on dry hair, I only use my wide toothed comb and I make sure that my hair is thoroughly detangled in thick braids and I always ALWAYS start from the ends to comb and never comb through the section again when I’m done. I care about my hair but I am definitely not uptight so combing like this doesn’t bother me especially as I only do it every few months and continually wear protective styles. My hair is tough, I know it can handle a little bit of this n that every now and again ;)

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