What's the Difference Between Hair Shedding and Hair Breakage?
Hair - it would be nice if it just stayed attached to your scalp, but nope. You find strands in your shower drain, curled in the bristles of your brush...even on your pillow when you wake up in the morning. Although it might be alarming to see hair loss and thinning, it can actually be a normal part of your hair’s life cycle. So how do you know if what you’re seeing is simple shedding or breakage? And more importantly, what can you do to minimize the fallout?
What Is Hair Shedding?
Hair shedding is a naturally part of the growth cycle of your hair. This growth cycle has three phases—the growing phase (anagen), transitional phase (catagen), and shedding phase (telogen). For most people, the anagen part of your hair cycle lasts for about three to five years. The catagen transition lasts only about ten days before the telogen phase begins, which is when hair is released from the follicle. For three months, the hair follicle remains inactive until the anagen phase begins again.
Although it may sound like a lot, it’s normal for people to lose about 50-100 strands per day. Every follicle in the scalp operates independently, so the telogen phase is staggered throughout your scalp. This is why you typically don’t notice hair shedding when looking in the mirror.
If you seem to be shedding more than 100 strands per day, it’s possible that you’re experiencing excessive hair shedding, or telogen effluvium. This temporary condition occurs when a stressor disrupts a normal hair cycle or intensifies the telogen phase. For example, women who have given birth experience a period of telogen effluvium because during the nine months of pregnancy, the telogen phase was halted. Excessive hair shedding after giving birth is the scalp’s way of catching up to its normal cycle. Other stressors that can trigger excessive hair shedding include significant weight loss, heightened stress, high fevers, surgery, recovering from an illness, and stopping hormonal birth control pills. However, you and your hair can breathe a sigh of relief, as excessive shedding is temporary, and after it stops, hair typically returns to normal fullness within six to nine months.
What Is Hair Breakage?
Hair breakage is not the same as hair shedding. Breakage occurs not at the roots, but elsewhere in the hair shaft, and can happen for several reasons, such as tugging or repeatedly twirling your hair, brushing or combing wet hair, pulling hair into tight styles like buns or ponytails, or harsh styling. Daily heat styling can expedite breakage. Even tossing and turning while sleeping can create friction between your hair and your pillowcase, leading to more hair loss. And don’t forget that diet can impact hair breakage, as well—a lack or excess of protein can create weak spots in hair shafts.
So how do you know if the strands you see are a part of your normal shedding or a sign of breakage? The simplest way is a bulb test. Take one of your lost hair strands and examine it from end to end. If it was shed from your scalp, there should be a white bulb at one end. If there isn’t a bulb, it’s likely a broken strand. You’ll also notice that it’s shorter than the actual length of your hair.
How to Fix Hair Breakage
- If you’re experiencing hair breakage, your hair may be brittle or dry. Look for super nourishing products, like Color Protecting Shampoo and Conditioner—and cut back on heat styling. When you can’t skip the heat, be sure to use styling products that protect your hair, such as Style, which also packs nourishing ingredients like maracuja oil and mongongo oil.
- Instead of combing or brushing hair when wet, use your fingers to smooth out tangles. Hair is at its weakest when wet, so skip a bristle brush when blow drying. Look for a brush with soft, bendable bristles, and blow dry when hair is 75% dry.
- Don’t skip trims, as they help keep split ends at bay, which will help prevent hair breaking.
- If you’re a hair twirler–stop! And if you’re a ponytail or tight chignon enthusiast, mix it up by wearing hair down at least a few days a week. Look for elastics that don’t tug or pull on hair—and never use a plain rubber band.
- If you notice a lot of strands on your pillow in the morning, swap your cotton pillowcase for a silk one. This will not only feel luxurious, but will also reduce the friction on your hair when you turn your head while sleeping.
- Make sure your diet has a good balance of protein. Too little leads to weakness in hair shafts; too much can make hair brittle. An easy way to determine this balance is to complete a strand test. Wet a strand of your hair and gently pull, then release. If the hair returns to its original length, you have a good balance of moisture and protein. If the hair stretches a lot and breaks, you could benefit from more protein in your diet. If the hair doesn’t stretch much at all, you could have too much protein, and your hair might need more moisture than protein to get that good, healthy looking balance.
The Breakdown (or Shed-down)
Hair shedding is a normal, everyday occurrence. If you think you’re experiencing more hair loss than normal and can’t pinpoint a stressor, consider making an appointment with your doctor. Hair loss is different than shedding, and your doctor can help determine the cause (and the treatment).
Hair breakage, while also common, is something we’d all rather avoid. To minimize the fallout, take care of your strands by choosing the right products, from daily styling to the pillowcases on your bed. Make time for regular trims, and treat hair gently, whether it’s wet or dry. Your (much fuller-looking) hair will thank you.