Friday, January 3, 2014

Friction, Breakage and Hair Shedding

Updated: June 2016
There are any number of serious reasons your hair can suddenly start to fall out - illness, thyroid disease, nutrient deficiency, extreme physical stress or many other diseases or medications. These are important to consider. Hair loss is a signal of something wrong.

I'm skipping the more serious problems and going right to the things you put on your hair!

Let's talk about friction. You need friction to stop on roller skates, on a bicycle, in a car. Smooth ice = low friction and you just keep going when you try to stop. Rough pavement = plenty of friction to slow your motion and your tires wear down over time.

Friction is an issue for anybody with more than a half inch of hair because there is a lot more to hair care than moisture or protein or whatever the bottle or shampoo or conditioner says a product is for. Some people have healthy hair that doesn't need a lot of extra help staying hydrated, but it does need extra lubrication. The longer your hair is, the more lubrication you need. Tangle-prone hair needs more lubrication.

Usually we want low friction in our hair so the strands slide past each other and don't tangle or rub off cuticles - especially the chipped or broken ones. Sometimes a little friction is okay to help maintain volume, but on a regular basis, friction can cause problems.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
What you probably already know:
If your hair rubs on other hairs, your shirt collar, a scarf or necklace or earrings or hair pins or ponytail holder, friction occurs. If your hair does this frequently (collars, ponytail holders) that area can become weakened and break. If you hair has a pre-existing weak spot like a tear or split, it can break with less force than usually required.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

You'll see breakage as shed hairs shorter than your full length. If you slide your fingers over both ends, you will feel no bulge of a root on the hair. But when you have whole-hair shedding, the whole hair comes out, root and all. It's normal to lose some hairs every day. If you wash your hair once a week or every 2 weeks, you'll shed more hairs during washing than somebody who washes their hair every other day. It's the remarkable increases in shedding that indicate something may not agree with your hair.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Black arrows point to elevated cuticles on this porous hair. These are easily broken off with friction on the hair. Good lubrication in the form of conditioners, oils (and protein for some people) can help slow the process of cuticle breakage.

What you may not have known:
Sometimes we can have excess whole hair shedding - roots and all - from too much friction. When you see a lot more hair falling out, keep a close eye on it over time in case these simple solutions don't help. But before you panic - consider that your hair might be sticking to itself (friction), rubbing on itself, on your hands during detangling and washing, roughing itself up and yanking itself out by the roots. It sounds painful, but it doesn't feel like individual hairs being plucked from your scalp. What you do notice is a tangly, unpleasant feeling in your hair.

What sort of things create excess friction in hair? (In no particular order).

  • Using styling products with a tacky, rough or sticky "finish" - some strong-hold gels, salt sprays, for example.
  • Skipping conditioner or not using enough conditioner.
  • Not doing oil pre-wash treatments on hair that needs them.
  • Avoiding deep conditioning when you need it. 
  • Using too much protein (how much is "too much" varies from person to person - but I don't recommend making hair gel from gelatin and using that to style your hair regularly).
  • Coconut oil - for some people. Sometimes hair will become stiff, rough, crunchy or brittle from using coconut oil. I suspect this may be more a problem for low-porosity hair.
  • Acidic or alkaline treatments. These can increase friction in hair. One needs to respond to that need for more lubrication.
  • Too much washing, too much high-heat styling, excessive brushing.
  • Chemical processing (highlights, permanent waves, relaxers, permanent hair color).
  • Henna (especially right after using henna).
  • Shampoos - especially sulfate-free shampoos without enough lubricants added.
  • Too-high (alkaline) or too-low (acidic) treatments used in hair that cannot tolerate those things.
  • Hard water residue

What to do?
Some of these are obvious, use more conditioner if you need it. If you're experiencing more tangling than usual, use an oil pre-wash treatment or deep condition your hair. If your styling products are making your hair tacky and tangly, try something else or use a leave-in conditioner and/or some oil with the product to see if you can reduce the crunch. Or apply the product to wetter hair to dilute it.

For hennaed hair - load on the conditioner, deep conditioning and oils (whatever works with your henna product), especially the first few weeks after hennaing.

For chemically treated or mechanically damaged hair: Your hair needs more lubrication from conditioners, oils, deep conditioning. If you're experiencing a lot of whole-hair shedding, you need to use these things far more than you have in the past

For shampoos: Many of the sulfate-free shampoos can create excessive friction during washing unless they are formulated with lubricants. These shampoos make hair feel tangly when wet and tacky. It's not that they're necessarily stripping your hair or overly harsh - it's a by-product of the sulfate-free detergent itself. Lots of ingredients have a unique "skin feel." Many sulfate-free detergents have a tacky skin feel. To manage that, product formulators often add ingredients to counter that an provide lubrication.

Ingredients that provide lubrication in shampoos. This has nothing to do with mildness, only with likelihood that the product is less likely to increase friction in hair:
  • Salt thickeners (Salts thicken shampoos and make them feel slippery - sodium chloride, magnesium sulfate are examples). It's not necessarily the salt itself that's drying for some people, it's the fact that you can only thicken shampoos with a somewhat high concentration of detergents with salt successfully.
  • Polyquaternium-10
  • Polyquaternium-7
  • Polyquaternium-44
  • Silicones (Dimethicone, Amodimethicone, Silicone quaternium-18, "siloxanes") - See this blog post for more about silicones. The water-insoluble silicones provide the most lubrication, but the water-soluble ones can reduce that "sulfate-free detergent tackiness" a bit.
  • Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
  • Glycol distearate (makes shampoos "pearly" looking)


  1. Hi. What kind of nutrient deficiency could contribute to hair shedding? The middle of my right side is shedding though I don't think it is due to excess friction. I do use Pantene Truly Natural deep conditioner which has a lot of slip, and I maintain my hair lubricated. Please note that I am a nursing mom of a now six months old baby, and I transitioned from relaxed hair to natural throughout my pregnancy. I assessed my hair to be low porosity. thanks much.

    1. Hello L Mahoney,
      Have you researched post-partum hair loss? You're still in the time frame for that, which is a normal thing to experience. During pregnancy, fewer hairs are shed than usual due to hormonal changes - they stay in the "growing phase." After delivery, those hairs go into the "resting before falling out" phase and later on, they begin to fall out. It's like your scalp is "catching up" for 9 months of less-than-average shedding at once.

      One of my favorite vloggers, Naptural85 has a video about that:

      If it keeps up and you're not seeing lots of new little short hairs soon - then things to have tested are hemoglobin and ferritin (lots of doctors miss low ferritin, it needs to be about 70 micrograms/liter to avoid hair loss, whereas most people won't be notified of a low ferritin level until it is around 10). Zinc and vitamin D can also be part of hair loss if they are low.

      It's important to have these things tested rather than supplement without knowing whether one has a deficiency minerals/vitamins or not because too much of any of these can be a problem also.

      Best wishes!

    2. OMG! During my pregnancy I was diagnosed with iron deficiency and prescribed something to help bring it up to normal levels. I guess my hemoglobin/ferritin are still low because I stopped taking the supplements immediately after delivering the baby…so I guess you are spot on. I just had no idea pregnancy iron deficiency could also have negative impact on hair! My hair is now fully natural and apparently healthy but SHEDDING, like a lot even with a slip conditioner on, and especially more in the last couple of months. I was getting sooo confused and frankly scared. I will get back to my iron supplement NOW! I will certainly check out Naptural85 on the subject. Greatly appreciated WC. You'are life savior.

  2. Hi! I'm happy to find information about hair care that has science to back it up! Thanks for sharing! I don't know if you'll see this now or if you can help, but I thought I'd try. I have a 4-year old daughter with thin hair that has been very slow to come in. It took about 3 years before I could put an elastic in her hair. It has finally started to get some length (past her shoulders in the back, but still uneven due to the top not catching up with the bottom yet). I still can't put it all in one ponytail. However, she has one area in the back on one side of her head that breaks off frequently. It will finally start to catch up to the rest of her hair, and then I notice it has broken off again. The back of her hair will get snarly and messy and stick out of the back of her head from rubbing against anything, which happens a lot with a 4-year-old. I am really not very knowledgeable about hair care, so I don't know if there is something I could do differently that would help. I wash it about once a week with a kid friendly shampoo plus conditioner and use a very light spray of leave in conditioner when combing her hair. The odd part is that it is mostly only one part of her hair that breaks off so much. And it happens even when I am being careful about how I comb it out and about how I style her hair, which is most often left down in the back and just carefully combed out once or twice a day. Any suggestions of where to start or what may help are appreciated. Thank you!

    1. As a blogger who can't see your little one, my first instinct is to suggest having a pediatrician check into this, ideally one familiar with some dermatology. Sometimes a patch of hair like that is telling you something about that area of skin - like some inflammation may be occurring there. That is especially applicable if the hairs broke off close to the head.

      Assuming nothing were wrong - then one wonders whether she is twirling or holding the hair with her fingers (at night, maybe) or rubbing her head against the sheet where it would weaken that area (sleeping on one side).

      From a hair-width perspective, this section of hair might be finer (narrower individual hairs) than the rest and therefore more susceptible to breakage. If this were the case - a conditioner with a little protein might give her hair some more strength so it can resist breakage better. In the tab at the top of the page is a link to a page of "Product by Ingredient Category" which has a list of conditioners with protein to give you an idea of what's available. Little-kid hair is usually on the fine side, and if those delicate hairs are extremely fine, they will break with relative ease compared to other hairs.
      Protein adds a bit of weight to hair also - to help fight tangles. Good luck! W

  3. Thank you for your response! I missed it for quite a while, but I finally saw it! I will look into your ideas and see what I can find out that might help with my daughter's hair. Thanks!