Weak & Breaking Hair

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Hair is often the first thing people notice about others. The abundance and variety of hair care products on the market indicate that women in particular consider the appearance and condition of their hair to be important to their self image and self esteem. Seeing clumps of hair on a hairbrush or blobbed on the shower drain can be cause for alarm.

What's Normal

Hair is said to be fine when the diameter of individual hairs is smaller than average. Hair can be naturally thin, meaning there are fewer hairs on the scalp than average. Hair can even be fine without being thin and vice versa. Hair strength is often genetic, with a tendency to have weak hair handed down from a parent. Most people lose from 100 to 150 hairs every day, but that loss is insignificant among the 100,000 hairs the average person has on her head. Every time a hair is lost, a new one takes its place. This process slows or eventually stops as people, especially men, age.

What's Not

Hair consists of a protein called keratin. The outer layer is the cuticle, made up of cells that overlap like fish scales and protect the soft inner layer called the cortex. The cortex contains the pigment called melanin that gives hair its color. Hair that is lost from breakage is different from normal hair loss. Hairs that fall naturally come from the scalp, usually with the bulb attached, while breakage occurs when the hair breaks off above the scalp. While some breakage is normal, excessive breakage indicates damage. Hair damage often shows up as split ends, with the split traveling up the hair shaft and ultimately breaking off.

Chemical Warfare

Leading causes of hair weakening and breakage are mistreatment and overprocessing. Frequent coloring, straightening and permanent waves use strong chemicals that damage hair fiber and take their toll on hair strength. These chemicals can get through the cuticle into the cortex, rearranging the chemical bonds to perm or straighten hair, or removing pigment to color it. When used too often or in too strong a concentration, these chemicals can cause irreversible damage, leaving the cortex exposed and turning the hair dry and frizzy. When hair becomes severely weakened, it splits and eventually breaks.

Heat and Stress Mess

Heat from blow-driers, curling irons, flat irons and hot curlers -- even overenthusiastic brushing -- can damage hair shafts, leading to breakage. Blow-drying wet hair heats up water that remains under the hair’s cuticle, causing it to expand inside the hair and leave spaces inside the hair fiber, which weakens it. Certain hairstyles like ponytails, tight braids and dreadlocks can also put stress on the hair, causing breakage.

Take Care

When split ends are visible, having your hair trimmed can help prevent further damage by preventing the splits from traveling up the hair shaft. Giving hair a rest from coloring, perms and heating tools helps prevent breakage. Avoid brushing the hair and never brush wet hair. Some over-the-counter products can temporarily help repair damage. A good stylist should spot signs of trouble and use products that are gentle on fragile hair.