Can you tell the dif­fer­ence between shed hair and bro­ken hair? On the sur­face, it appears to be an irra­tional­ly sim­ple ques­tion.

Shed hair will have a vis­i­ble bulb and tends to be longer (clos­er to the full length of your hair) while break­age is typ­i­cal­ly a short­er seg­ment of hair with­out a vis­i­ble bulb, just like the images below, right?

Typ­i­cal break­age — Inset mag­ni­fied micro­scop­ic view of bro­ken hair with dam­age to strand high­light­ed in white (full length of bro­ken hair — just over 0.25 inch­es)
Typ­i­cal shed hair — Inset mag­ni­fied micro­scop­ic view show­ing hair bulb with sheath (full length of shed hair — 11 inch­es)

Well if you thought that was the long and short of it (pun intend­ed), you may well be very wrong. Some­times break­age can appear as long seg­ments and if you only look for longer lengths to indi­cate shed hair and not the bulb of hair you may well be under­es­ti­mat­ing the amount of break­age you are hav­ing.

Why does hair break in short seg­ments?

Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, there are quite a few the­o­ries and exper­i­ments as to why this hap­pens but the two that I find quite cred­i­ble are

1. Dry comb­ing of hair (e.g dur­ing styling) pro­duces short hair seg­ments which increase with increas­ing num­ber of comb strokes — sim­ply put, the more you comb dry hair, the more dam­age it sus­tains, the eas­i­er it breaks. (J Cos­met Sci, pp 477–484, 2007)

2. Hair ends that are dam­aged and inter­twined have a ten­den­cy to break, pro­duc­ing the typ­i­cal short bro­ken hair. (J Cos­met Sci, pp 245–257, 2006)

Why does hair break in long seg­ments?

Break­age is not all about short pieces of hair. You can find lengths of an inch and longer as break­age. The exper­i­ments in the lab say that this hap­pens because:

1. Wet/Conditioner comb­ing of hair tends to pro­duce longer seg­ment breaks how­ev­er hair break­age does not increase the longer you con­di­tion­er comb. (J Cos­met Sci, pp 477–484, 2007)

2. Longer seg­ments of break­age tend to occur where hair is less resis­tant to impact e.g at a kink where here is nat­u­ral­ly weak­er and can­not with­stand the same comb­ing force as anoth­er part of the hair with­out a kink. (J Cos­met Sci, pp 245–257, 2006)

Can you stop break­age com­plete­ly?

No, it is not a prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion to say that you will nev­er have break­age. In truth, it is pos­si­ble if you just nev­er style, wash or touch your hair. Some break­age is going to hap­pen nat­u­ral­ly. You can min­i­mize it by select­ing the comb­ing method that pro­duces the least amount of break­age for you. For some that will be dry comb­ing, for oth­ers it will be con­di­tion­er comb­ing and for some it will be some­thing in between.  Addi­tion­al­ly, trim­ming hair before it sus­tains suf­fi­cient dam­age to break eas­i­ly is also an option.

The key mes­sage is that do not look at all long seg­ments of hair and think that they are just shed hair, some­times they are not. This is very impor­tant in the event you find your­self at a stag­nant stage or even going back­ward with progress in the length of your hair or vol­ume at the ends of your hair.


Based on the info above, do you expe­ri­ence pri­mar­i­ly shed­ding on break­age?

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2 Comments on "The Science Behind Hair Breakage and Shedding"

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I would love to know more about post par­tum shed­ding. I have a 10 month old and while I was preg­nant with him my twa grew enor­mous­ly! It’s now shed­ding like crazy and I was hop­ing it would have stopped by now but the doc­tor says it could take up until my son’s 1st birth­day before it ful­ly recov­ers. I want to know is it shed­ding until it goes back to the orig­i­nal twa? Because I am so con­fused and stressed watch­ing it all fall out :(


Break­age pre­ven­tion is prob­a­bly my num­ber one goal in retain­ing length. I had big prob­lems in the past because I was aggres­sive­ly comb detan­gling and although my hair is grow­ing nice­ly, it’s still hard to pre­vent break­age at my front sec­tion. I always moist­en my hair before comb­ing but have recent­ly been using a comb less in favor of fin­ger detan­gling. It’s much more gen­tle and does the job just the same. In addi­tion, detan­gling under water has been a false com­fort for me. I’m now doing some fin­ger detan­gling for that as well.