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What Causes Hair Damage?

Whether you're relaxed or natural, damaged hair can either derail your hair care journey or be a minor setback depending on the degree of damage. Some forms of hair damage can be easily fixed with a strict regimen while others require that you cut the damaged hair and start over.

Black woman holding her curly hair

Hair damage can present in a few ways and can range from moderate to severe. Damaged hair can present as patches of broken hair, limp hair that can't hold a curl (over processed hair), loss of curl pattern in natural hair or hair may feel extremely brittle and coarse to the touch. You may also see small pieces of hair whenever you comb or brush your hair instead of long strands of hair, indicative of hair shedding (telogen effluvium).

There are different categories that hair damage can fall into. These include physical, environmental, chemical, lifestyle and improper grooming practices.

Physical Damage

Mechanical Stress

Overmanipulating the hair by brushing, combing, or styling hair too vigorously can lead to breakage and split ends. Styling the hair in the same way continuously can also put consistent tension or stress on the same section of the hair, resulting in breakage.

Black woman holding a pink bedazzled flat iron and blowdryer


Excessive and improper use of hot styling tools like flat irons, curling irons, and blow dryers can damage the hair cuticle, leading to dryness, breakage, and brittleness.

Heat should be used in moderation and a heat protectant should always be applied to the hair before using hot tools.

You should also avoid applying heat to dirty hair, or hair that already has styling and finishing products applied.


Pulling hair tightly into styles like ponytails, braids, or buns can cause stress on the hair follicles and lead to traction alopecia or hair loss. Styling the hair tightly over a prolonged period of time can eventually lead to irreversible damage of the hair follicle, resulting in permanent hair loss.

Environmental Damage

Sun Exposure

Your hair is part of the integumentary system which also includes the skin and nails. This means that UV radiation from the sun can have an adverse effect on the outer layer (cuticle) of the hair, similar to how skin can be negatively impacted by sun exposure. Excessive exposure to UV radiation can lead to dryness and brittle hair.

Extreme Weather

Harsh weather conditions such as wind, cold, and humidity can strip the hair of its natural oils, leading to dryness, frizz, and breakage. Working in an extremely cold environment can also lead to dry and brittle hair which if left unchecked, can lead to breakage.

Black woman with platinum blond finger waves

Chemical Damage

Over processing the hair with chemicals such as relaxers, perms, bleach, hair colour etc. can result in damaged hair.

Over processing can occur due to a variety of factors. These include keeping chemicals in your hair longer than recommended by the manufacturer. It can occur when a chemical process is done too soon after another chemical service or if an incorrect strength of a chemical is used.

This type of damage can be extremely severe, resulting in extreme hair breakage, loss of the elasticity of the hair, due to too many of the disulfide bonds in the hair being broken.

Lifestyle Factors

Poor Nutrition

A diet lacking in essential nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals can weaken the hair structure and lead to dull, brittle, and easily damaged hair.

Lack of Hair Care

Neglecting proper hair care practices like regular washing, conditioning, and moisturizing can contribute to dryness, tangles, and breakage.

Moisturizer should be focused on the ends of your hair and should be applied daily or as often as needed. The moisture balance of your hair needs to be maintained for hair to be soft and pliable while combing or styling your hair.

Black hairdresser styling the edges of a client with braids

Improper Grooming Practices

Overuse of gels and edge control products 

Improper and excessive use of styling products can also cause your hair to become extremely dry and brittle. In some instances where gel or edge control is used daily, it can result in breakage of the fine fragile hairs along your hairline.

Moisturizing with Oils & Butters

Oils and butters coat the hair strand and form a hydrophobic (tending to repel or mix with water) barrier preventing moisture from leaving the hair but also, it prevents additional hydration from entering the hair strand.

Dropper with oil

This method of moisturizing can be made worse by not using a clarifying shampoo to completely remove that oil or butter buildup on the hair strand. Utilizing this method of moisturizing over time can disrupt the hair's moisture balance and leads to the hair becoming dry and brittle and can eventually lead to hair breakage if not corrected in a timely manner.

Hygral Fatigue 

This is damage caused by repeated swelling and shrinking of the hair which can lead to cracks developing in the hair. This can increase the hair's porosity by causing the outer cuticle layer of the hair to raise. Hair can become dry, brittle and split ends can also develop along the hair strand. One main culprit of hygral fatigue is daily wet styling or regular spritzing of water on the hair throughout the day. Routinely conditioning hair for longer than recommended can also lead to hygral fatigue.

Damaged hair may result from any one of the abovementioned factors. However, it is usually a combination of a few of these that eventually result in chronic damage and hair breakage. Understanding the long-lasting impact of these factors, can help individuals make informed choices about their hair care routine and lifestyle habits to minimize damage and promote healthier hair.

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