Ever go to brush your hair and notice that the ends are uneven and all over the place? Or perhaps you keep finding little splintered off strands on the back of your sweaters? This, friends, is a sign of hair breakage, and it happens to the best of us.
As Steven Picciano, a Goldwell National Artist explains, “Hair breakage is generally caused by two main factors: chemical or mechanical (aka physical) damage.”
It could be chemical damage
Chemical damage occurs when you’ve overprocessed your hair, which can happen both at home and in salons. “When you overuse home color (i.e. dye it too often) or leave it on for too long, it can be very aggressive on your hair,” warns Picciano. “Or, in the salon, if your stylist pushes your hair past its breaking point (usually by overlapping areas of bleach), that will cause breakage as well.”
And it’s not just hair color that causes your hair to become brittle, it could also be chemicals that are used in different perms or relaxers. “When any of these processes are done, the hair’s disulfide bonds are broken down, which is detrimental because these bonds count for one third of the hair’s strength,” explains Gretchen Friese, a certified trichologist for BosleyMD.
Chemical damage on its own would be enough to dry out your hair, but when you pair that with “constant heat exposure and thermal styling, it can weaken the hair significantly, causing it to feel brittle and break,” says Aura Friedman, a celebrity colorist at Sally Hershberger salons.
Which brings us to the next cause of breakage…
It could be mechanical damage
“This type of damage occurs as a result of daily heat styling from tools like blow dryers, curling irons, flat irons and hot rollers,” says Friese.
It can also happen when you put too much tension on your hair. “Breakage is very common in people who wear their hair up most of the time—such as athletes. I also find that it’s common among teenagers who frequently wear their hair up in tight ponytails and braids, which can lead to short, broken hairs in one specific area of the head,” she adds. “This is caused by a tight hair tie causing friction in the same area over and over again.”
It could be hair texture
“Individuals with natural hair tend to experience more breakage, as the hair can to be quite fragile and delicate,” explains Miko Branch, co-founder of Miss Jessie’s haircare brand. “That’s why it’s especially important to take your time with your routine and not be too rough when combing it out or styling it, as applying excess strain can cause strands to snap. You don’t want to accidentally cause damage by rushing through the process.”
It could be a nutritional deficiency
“If you don’t use chemicals or heat on your hair and you don’t wear tight hairstyles but are still experiencing a lot of hair breakage, then I would recommend seeing a doctor and getting some blood work done,” advises Friese. “You may be deficient in nutrients like iron, vitamins A or D that can cause hair to weaken and break. There are some supplements that can help, but I would still recommend seeing a doctor first to get to the root cause and make sure you don’t need any other treatments.”
How to treat hair breakage
“Two things that are crucial to making your hair stronger and less likely to break are protein and hydration,” says Harry Josh. “Protein bonds can restructure your hair to strengthen it and make it more durable, which helps to sustain coloring and everyday styling. However, using too much protein can make the hair brittle, which is where the hydration comes in. You really need to make sure you balance the two together.” (Josh likes Olaplex Hair Perfector for strengthening and KMS Moistrepair shampoo for added moisture.)
Branch agrees and emphasizes the importance of adding hydration throughout your haircare routine and being consistent with your treatments. “One of the best things you can do to prevent breakage is to apply moisturizing and deep conditioning treatments regularly, as a way to boost hair health instantly and in the long term,” she says. To that end, Branch recommends using a weekly treatment—in addition to a detangler and oil for the ends—to keep strands smooth and easier to manage, while minimizing breakage.
“Another easy way to prevent breakage is to use a heat protectant spray before styling your hair,” advises Matt Rez, a celebrity colorist and Redken brand ambassador. Spray it on damp, towel-dried hair and make sure to comb it through so it evenly distributes before you use any heat. (Bonus: This can also help cut down on frizz and flyaways.)
And last but not least, Friese recommends switching out your hair tie for something gentler (like a silk scrunchie instead of a tight rubber or cloth band) and moving the placement of your ponytail, braid or bun around your head regularly, so the tension isn’t focused on the same spot all of the time. If you can take occasional breaks from wearing your hair up altogether, that’s even better.
The bottom line
Hair breakage is common and it’s certainly annoying, but, in most cases, it’s easy to fix with consistent care. This includes keeping up with trims whenever possible. A general rule of thumb is that you should trim your ends every two months, even if it’s just a dusting. (If you have very damaged hair, most stylists we spoke to recommend getting a trim at least once every six weeks.) By trimming your hair, you’re making sure it stays healthy and strong, and stronger hair means fewer split ends and less breakage overall.
If you are—shall we say—extremely regimented with your highlights and root touchups, you may want to scale back a bit. “Ultimately, the best thing you can do to prevent hair breakage is limit the number of chemical processes you undergo,” says Friedman.
And when you do go for fresh color, it’s especially important to follow up with regular treatments at home. (Friedman swears by the K18 Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask, which works to rebuild broken keratin bonds.)