Damaged hair is a nightmare that we all dread, but it's an experience we sometimes encounter. As some physicist once said, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Regardless of the origin of this quote, what matters is that hair damage is a consequence of the actions your hair undergoes and the care you provide. 

At times, it can be challenging to pinpoint the exact causes of hair damage and identify the signs of such damage. This article will guide you through the various factors at play, offering you the information you need to understand and address the issue.  

What causes hair damage?

Heat styling straight hair

Hair consists of three layers: the cuticle, cortex, and medulla. All of these layers can be subject to damage, but the extent of damage depends on various factors. In a sense, these layers are interconnected. The cuticle, serving as the protective outermost layer, plays a crucial role, as severe damage to it can render the inner layers more susceptible to harm.

Hair damage refers to the chemical or physical breakdown or removal of structural components, weakening the hair and making it more vulnerable to further chemical or mechanical breakdown.

The cuticle, can be readily assessed by touch, as damaged cuticles may result in rough or dry-feeling strands. However, damage to the inner structure is more about the hair's overall structural integrity.

Excessive physical manipulation, such as frequent combing, brushing, excessive sun exposure, bleaching, heat styling, and chemical treatments, can all potentially harm both the cuticle and inner layers of the hair. Chemical treatments, heat, and other structural-altering processes are more likely to damage the inner layers, while the other factors are primarily detrimental to the cuticle.

7 Telltale Signs of Hair Damage

Frizzy curly hair

Determining the extent of damage to your hair often requires a level of precision that typically involves laboratory analysis, which, frankly, isn't accessible to most people. As a result, we need to rely on more sensory and subjective methods to assess the damage. Questions like, "Does your hair break easily with minimal force?" or "Is it dry, rough, and uneven in texture?" become important in this context.

Here's the key: when you're trying to evaluate the damage to your hair, you have to compare it to itself. Reflect on what your hair used to feel like or compare the condition of your ends to the new growth.

Comparing your hair to someone else's to gauge the extent of damage is not a reliable approach. Different hair textures result in various interpretations of damaged and healthy hair. For example, naturally healthy curly hair may still exhibit some "frizz," whereas someone with naturally smooth hair will only experience frizz once their hair is considerably damaged.

Here are a couple of telltale signs to help you spot and identify damage:

1. Split ends

Trimming ends of damaged hair.

Split ends, as the name suggests, are the split or separated ends of the hair shaft, and they are a significant indicator of hair damage.

They can make your hair look disheveled and unhealthy. If split ends are not regularly trimmed, they can affect the hair's growth process, as these splits have the potential to travel up the hair shaft, causing further damage and making your hair appear even more unruly.

2. Hair breakage

"Oh no, my hair is falling out!" or, if you find a massive ball of hair in your palms after each wash or notice it shedding every minute, you don't need anyone to tell you that it's not normal. It's a clear sign of severe damage! However, hair breakage can be stopped and controlled, it very well does depend on the causal factor.

3. Feels dry

If you run your hands through your hair and it feels rough to the touch, dry, almost as if it's pleading for some moisture and tender care, then there's a bit of damage right there.

4. Looks dull

If you used to receive compliments about how shiny and gorgeous your locks were, but recently, those compliments have dwindled or ceased entirely, it's a cause for concern.

This change suggests that the cuticle, the outer layer of the hair, has encountered some damage, roughening its surface and causing uneven light reflection. The dull appearance can also result from product buildup due to excessive use of styling products, heat styling, lack of moisture, and various other factors.

5. Increased frizz

Frizz, often seen as the nemesis for those with curly hair, can indicate an underlying issue that needs attention or resolution when it occurs more frequently among those with curly hair.

This issue might be related to split ends, moisture problems, or other factors. However, for individuals with straight hair, the presence of frizz typically signals one thing and one thing alone – damage

6. Thin or sparse areas

Thin or sparse areas in your hair could indeed be an indicator of damage, although various other factors, such as aging, hair loss, nutritional deficiencies, heat or chemical damage, and hair breakage, could also be responsible. To address this issue, identifying the underlying cause is crucial, as the solution often lies in addressing the root problem.

7. Knots and tangles

Knots and tangles in your hair, on their own, aren't necessarily indicative of damage, as they can occur in both healthy and damaged hair.

However, if you find that you're experiencing an excessive amount of knots and tangles beyond what's usual for your hair, it could be a signal that something might not be right with the health of your hair. Listening to your hair and taking steps to address the issue is crucial.

One effective approach to reducing knots and tangles, is to improve your sleeping conditions. Using a silk pillowcase, scarf, or bonnet, and opting for a silk scrunchie can make a significant difference.

These silk surfaces are smooth, allowing your hair strands to glide freely without getting excessively tangled. This can help you manage knots and tangles, and in the process, you can work on finding or fighting off the root cause.

How to Test for Damage

This analogy from a Reddit user beautifully illustrates the concept of hair damage:

Imagine your hair is like a roof made of tiles and ladders. The tiles represent the cuticle, the outermost protective layer of your hair, and the ladders symbolize the cortex, which is comprised of protein structures. Damage can occur to both of these structures.

Cuticle Damage: Think of the cuticle as tiles on the roof. Opened tiles resemble scales, much like a pinecone or a fish with dropsy. Damaged and smashed tiles depict the cuticle's integrity being compromised. Tiles that have been ripped off the roof by the wind illustrate significant damage to the cuticle.

Cortex Damage: The cortex is made of ladders of proteins. Exposure to chemicals and heat can snap the rungs in these protein ladders, and these conditions can create acids that dissolve other parts of the ladders.

To assess the cuticle, you can run a small amount of your hair between your fingers slowly. Healthy hair, even if it's curly, should feel smooth and silky. If your hair feels rough, it indicates a damaged cuticle.

To test the cortex, take a few strands (about 10 or 20) and spray them with water. Then, grab them tightly and pull them apart. The goal is to see how much the hair stretches. If it doesn't stretch more than 10%, it suggests low moisture.

If it stretches more than 25%, snaps, or doesn't return to its original state when you relax your grip, it indicates low protein. Hair that doesn't stretch but instead snaps may have both chemical damage and a compromised cuticle, and it might require cutting.

October 13, 2023 — Michelle Fletcher Smith