The Root Causes of Damaged Hair: Technically Speaking
Hair breakage is the ultimate, frightening (think-The Scream) 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.
Mechanical Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling
Mechanical stress is caused by the increased styling efforts to maintain natural hair. Whether you’re doing a two strand twist out, bantu knot, wash and go, coiled twist, cornrows, or sister locs, you are physically manipulating the hair and applying mechanical stress to the hair system, which ultimately boils down to your hair becoming more prone to being damaged. Curly hair (especially type 4 hair) is susceptible to breakage due to the curl pattern. Regardless of how carefully the physical manipulation is done, there still remains the potential for incremental damage to the hair system.
Thermal Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling
Thermal stress is caused by the practice of using heat to style and manipulate the hair system. This includes flat ironing, blow-drying, and hair dryers. Heating the hair follicles causes the cuticle to be lifted from the hair shaft, which exposes the cortex. Once the cuticle is raised and the cortex is exposed, moisture readily evaporates from the hair.
Chemical Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling
Most natural divas are quick to tell you that they have not used “creamy crack” on their tresses in X amount of years. However, “creamy crack” is only one of many types of chemical stress. Other chemical stressors include hair colorants and shampoos.
Many natural women are using hair colorants. Whether permanent or demi hair colorant systems, most products use some type of alkaline ingredient such as ammonia to lift the cuticle and allow the dye to penetration the hair shaft. Under high pH conditions, the cuticle is forcibly lifted to expose the cortex, which can result in acute damage to the hair system. The damage might show up as moisture loss, brittleness or possible hair breakage.
Shampooing the hair can also cause chemical stress. The natural hair care regimen requires that we wash our hair more frequently. Depending on the shampoo this could lead to disastrous results. Most people know to avoid SLS and SLeS shampoos because they tend to strip the hair of its natural lipids. However, no one is talking about the importance of optimal pH levels for shampoo regardless of the surfactant system. I have seen “no poo” shampoos on the market that have a pH of 8-9. They are marketed as natural but are possibly worse than SLS in shampoo because under high pH conditions, the cuticle is forcibly lifted to expose the cortex, which can result in incremental damage to the hair system. Again, the damage might show up as moisture loss, brittleness or possible hair breakage. Yes I purposely repeated myself to drive home a point. Are you beginning to see a correlation between high pH levels and damaged cuticles?
So as you can see, the three amigos-mechanical stress, thermal stress, and chemical stress can cause hair damage, which will ultimately lead to hair breakage. I’m being redundant on purpose because I really want to drive this point and make sure you fully understand what damage is and how it occurs.
Tip of the Day: The optimal pH of a shampoo is 5.5 – 6.5. Regardless of what product you are using, get a pH strip and test the product before using it. If the pH is between 5.5 – 6.5 and does not contain SLS, SLeS or ALS then it is probably OK to use. Remember, at a pH of 6.9 you begin to open hair cuticles.