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