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6 Hair Stressors that Lead to Breakage

• Mar 2, 2012

By Joe Parker of Cush Cosmetics

Hair breakage is the ultimate, frightening result that occurs because of hair damage.  And, it appears that every proverbial road of broken hair strands leads to only one word-stress.  As you can see below, you have six stressors that you should avoid as much as possible to prevent damaged hair and ultimately hair breakage.

The Root Cause Analysis for Hair Breakage

Here’s how I, the scientist, think about hair breakage.  Hair breakage is the defect.  The root cause of the defect (hair breakage) is damaged hair.  Hair becomes damaged because of excessive stress on the hair system.  There are six types of stressors (also called failure modes) that lead to hair damage:

  • Mechanical Stress
  • Thermal Stress
  • Chemical Stress
  • UV Stress
  • Hydral Stress
  • Environmental Stress

Fortunately, hair breakage can be measured because it is something that you can readily see. However, on the other hand, hair damage might be a little more difficult to discern because you simply might not know the definition.   So what is hair damage exactly?

The Definition of Acutely Damaged Hair

Your hair is damaged when it is missing cuticles, has cracked cuticles, has a misalignment of cuticles, or has raised cuticles.  Again, in order to avoid damage to the hair, and ultimately, hair breakage, you must prevent the damage from occurring.  Remember the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?“ Well it applies to hair as well and the only way to prevent hair damage is avoid or minimize stress to the hair system.

Again, stress is the driver for hair damage. The most prevalent types of stressors in the natural hair care community are mechanical, thermal and chemical stress. When hair is damaged, look for the following signs and behavior:

  • Increased porosity and hair dryness
  • Increased split ends
  • Increased brittleness due to decreased elasticity/suppleness

Let’s delve a little further into the three types of stress for natural hair care styling: mechanical, thermal, and chemical stress.

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30 Comments on "6 Hair Stressors that Lead to Breakage"

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U you said that “the natural hair care regime requires you wash your hair more frequently” that is not true. This is a very false statement. Not everyone has the same regime so it varies. Who is giving his false facts and why are they bring let on this website as a true statement. I’d like to start seeing some sources on these post. This authors believes that they can speak for everyone

@ Victoria Thanks for the comments. I definitely did not mean to offend or over generalize. On the subject of shampoo frequency, my comments were meant to convey the following: women with natural hair have the option and freedom to wash their hair more frequently than women with relaxed hair. Depending on the product used, hair texture, porosity, and density, one might need to shampoo more frequently. On the subject of pH of the shampoo. I was commenting on the basic nature of Decyl Glucoside(DG). It is a typical surfactant in Non SLS shampoos. Google the MSDS for the DG.… Read more »

If the decyl glucoside is basic, usually the shampoo formulation will have other ingredients that bring the ph level down and balance it out.


@ Raven
Good point. I completely agree.

I most cases you do add citric acid to balance things out. But, I have seen products that have not done that or over done it with the acid. Thx


I have a question. I do not have type 4 hair. I really do not know how to describe my texture but I have been using Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo. I just looked it up and it has a high ph around 9. My hair tests as low porosity. You said that shampoos witha high ph are not safe but then you do realize that a lot of regular shampoos are either full of build up ingredients or they strip natural oils. So what do you recommend someone use? Examples?


Well stressors are environmental and mechanical. I am desperately trying to reduce the detangling time and tangles, also using rubber/elastic bands and detangling when soaking wet and very dry (wet stretches out my fine and thin strands till they snap and dryness causes breakage and knotting).

Is it me are we missing the breakdown of:
UV Stress
Hydral Stress
Environmental Stress

I know what they are but I figure if they were breaking it down the first three might as well break down them all or they spreading this discussion into two articles?


@ hyspin

I intentionally left out enviro,hydral and UV. I wanted to focus on the Mechanical (Tensile), Chemical and Thermal because these are the stessors that are most likely to contribution to breakage as a result of styling.


Moral of the story is every time you touch your hair, you can potentially cause damage to it! That’s all folks! LOL!




@ Rou

I see you have jokes 🙂

No, I am not saying that you can’t touch your hair. The other part of this article(not posted here) is that you whether you are natural, relaxed, coloring, flat ironing, braiding, towel drying or brushing. Please consider using a reconstructor as a preventative measure to preventing dryness and breakage on some frequency. Not saying over do it with protein. Just add a protein treatment on some frequency.


Why does it seem counter-intuitive to us an acidic (pH 7) shampoo? My assumption that a more basic (alkali) shampoo would be less harmful. Which brings me to my next point… if I’m supposed to use acidic shampoo, and my hair cuticle will begin to open with a shampoo that has a pH of 6.9 or greater… wouldn’t that mean that plain ol’ tap (shower/sink) water would cause the very same damage, considering water hovers around a pH of 7? Or is that null and void because it is considered neutral?


@ Behold A Lady

Thanks you the comment.

Remember that under basic conditions, your hair cuticles open up. Under acidic conditions the hair cuticles contract. Under neutral conditions, pH 7 the cuticle is not affected. The question is what is the original condition of the hair. If your hair is dry, damaged, easily tangled and highly porous then you want to go acidic with the shampoo.

If your is low porosity, then you can afford to be slightly basic. Castile soap is a good occasional shampoo for sister’s with low porosity hair.


But water has a pH of 7, so can’t that too open your cuticles? :S


@ xx

No at pH of 7, water will not open or contract cuticles. The only other thing going on with hair is that hydrogen bonding is breaking. This is why your hair will extend when wet. This is also why we get shrinkage. The hydrogen bond breakage is reversible. When water evaporates, the hydrogen bonds form and we get shrinkage.


Thank you for the article. Everyone seems to be over-analyzing everything. I think it is a well-written article with good, easily understood points. Basically, I feel the main point is to be very gentle with your hair, minimal heat styling, minimal chemicals and read and investigate the ingredients you are using. Maybe I’m just not hypersensitive about my hair. Anyway, that’s what I got from the article.


Thanks Erika!


Amen to that:))


I too was looking for the section on hydral damage. Joe, can you post in comments?

I an overnight conditioning once a week and refresh hair with water spritz about twice a week and was wondering if that may be too much?

Is hydral damage caused by frequency of water use, amount of water use, duration of water use or all cases? And if all is there one that has proven to be more problematic than another?

@ J Thanks for the comments! On the question of over conditioning and spritzing, let your hair guide you. I look at porosity and enviromental conditions. If you have high porosity hair and are from Chi Town and it’s dead of winter, you can use whole lot of condishing and moisturizing 🙂 If your hair is limp, mushy and lacks structure and elasticity, you might be over condishing. I really doubt this because you don’t see this often. @ Hydral Stress/Fatigue Here’s how I think about Hydral Stress. It’s very similar to mechanical/tensile stress only the driver is not styling… Read more »
Thank you Joe! Your thorough answer is REALLY helpful 🙂 I JUST started using coconut oil and can feel how it really seeps in- good to know that it helps with gradual absorption too. It is also nice to know that hydral fatigue is temporary if it does occur. No my hair is not mushy. I actually feel like it is strong and firm but very moisturized as of late which I am maintaining with these weekly treatments- I just started to worry because hydral fatigue is something I often hear about but there is never much detail to help… Read more »
Ms. A.

I have a question. No matter what shampoo or conditioner I use, I have been noticing that my ends are splitting, bubbling (where the hair isnt splitting from the end but in different sections), and nothing is working on that. I have tried different shampoos, get my ends trimmed, moisturize, deep conditions– the works, but nothing seems to work. I have stress around planning a wedding and my job, but I keep my hair in protective styles ALL the time. Please help because I cant seem to stop the breakage!!!!


Try detangling before washing and washing in sections(twisted, braided, etc). Try seamless combs. Try finger-combing. Try only focusing shampoo on your scalp.

P.S. Ends are always gonna split–all you can do is try to minimize he damage.

@ Ms. A The most likely cause of the bubble hair is either excessive heat or in some rare cases color treatments. Are you blow drying or flat ironing??? If so, go with med to low heat on the settings. On the split ends, it is most likely styling. I know your doing protective styling but remember to be gentle with twisting and pulling. That all adds up to tensile stress. My advise is to use reconstructors on some frequency. It will temporarily repair damaged hair. Once the damage is done, there is nothing to my knowledge that will fix… Read more »
Ms. A
Thanks for the reply Joe and Anon! I detangle in sections, and wash my hair in twists afterwards so that it wouldnt get tangled again. I havent tried seamless combs or just putting shampoo on my scalp, so I can try those things and see what works. I haven’t been blow drying, and I get my hair flat ironed VERY RARELY, so that’s why it is confusing. I will definitely take your advice and use reconstructors more frequently. Hope it helps, I am tired of cutting my hair to get rid of these ends and single strand knots :-{! lol.… Read more »

Hi! Thanks for this article.

Other than pH strip testers, is there any other way to know the pH level in a product? By instance, the ingredients? What are the specific ingredients that can determine whether the shampoos, conditioners or any other is more acid than alkaline or vice versa?



@ Laurie
In some cases you can see the pH from the ingredients. For example, if it said saponified oils then it is a castile soap. The pH is 8–9. For other surfactant systems, it’s more difficult. Formulators know because we read the MSDS of the raw materials. I talked about Decyl Glucoside being very basic. I think Cognis was the manufacturer that I saw had a high pH. Look for an acid to reduce the pH. Citric Acid is common but Phosphoric acid is also used.


Forgot one point. Castile soap is not necessary a bad thing if your hair is low porosity. If it is high porosity then you might want to use a shampoo with a more gentle/neutral shampoo. I like to stay within a pH of 6.5 to 5.5 but depending our your hair 4.5 can be a good thing for highly porous hair.


Thank you so much for this video. I have my first shipping order coinmg up and I’m nervous about it. Plus, I still need to figure out shipping prices. I was wondering what shipping method you use for across country shipping. Would you use ground or expedited? Also on Uline the 14x14x10 box has two options, the regular and then one that is 275lbs double walled. Which one do you use? Thank so much for your help!


This woman should get paid every time this picture is used! LOL she would be crazy paid by now!!! I don’t know her name- I just call her Michael Knight’s model (from Project Runway)

Pamela Nicole
Hello all I am grateful for this write up on breakage. My hair has been growing beautifully and then like a month ago I started noticing all this crazy breakage in my sensitive area “my crown” area. but after reading this I think it might have something to do with the fact that I have high porosity hair and probably from the years of the perms and heat. I try to combat the problem with protein and oils, but was wondering is there any other solution that I can try. Will definitely try to use the correct products any help… Read more »

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