Intro to Transitioning 102a: Breakage vs. Shedding


Originally, this post was supposed to cover breakage vs. shedding, preventing breakage, caring for broke hair, moisture retention, and a drama-free wash day. That is a TALL ORDER, and would be way too long for ya'll to read, and for me to write. So I'm breaking it up. Here's to Transitioning 102a: Breakage vs. Shedding.

Although no one else can hear it, breaking hair is akin to the deafening blast of a cannon for a transitioner. Maybe I'm being a little dramatic with the onomatopoeia. My apologies - I've been reading the Hunger Games trilogy all week (and I just started Divergent yesterday), and my creative writing has been getting a tune-up. But in all seriousness, I can't be the only one who growls, huffs, and gets a little distraught when I hear or feel a strand of hair break. I become somewhat of a possessive, whiny, tween - it's mine, I grew it, I earned it, and you can't take it away. No, no, NO! Okay, again with the theatrics. Breakage is a pain, and it plagues naturals and transitioners alike. It's almost like a personal insult, every single time a strand breaks.

So, how do I deal with breakage and not go mad? I'll share those details in a few. But for now, let's clear the air a little and understand some key differences between breakage and shedding.

Breakage manifests as the result of a number of causes, such as:
  • dryness
  • overconditioning (yes, there is such a thing)
  • cuticle damage
  • improper handling of hair
Hair that breaks can do so at any length. Some breakage may be tiny wisps of hair the size of a pinky nail, which are likely the result of split ends, mid-shaft splits, or even just a weak point in the cuticle of the hair. Sometimes, hair breaks closer to the root and can be easily written off as shedding. This kind of breakage is important to check, and I'll share more on how to spot the difference in a second. The main source of angst in terms of breakage for transitioners is at the line of demarcation. The line of demarcation is the area along the hair shaft where the newly grown natural hair, and the old damaged/relaxed/heat damaged ends meet up. Here's a visual:

Courtesy of: hairstylings 101 via YouTube
The line of demarcation is a hotspot for breakage because you are essentially caring for two different textures of hair. Without getting too deep and sciency, relaxed hair has lifted cuticles, broken, and rearranged bonds. Heat damaged hair is melted. Either way you slice it, the hair is substantially, exponentially weaker than the natural hair. Have you ever helped someone carry or move a really heavy piece of furniture, and that person was waaaaaaay stronger than you? How hard was it for you to hold on and not completely drop what you were carrying? Think of your damaged hair in the same way. It's not nearly as strong as the new natural hair, and is trying to hang on like a hubcap in the fast lane - every time you handle it.
Shedding is a completely natural part of the hair life cycle (I will get to the cycle itself in a bit). Unless you are losing massive gobs of hair a day, it is perfectly natural to shed between 34 and 180 hairs per day. This is a broad range, but where you fall within it depends upon a few things like genetics, diet, and medical conditions, including pregnancy. If you are generally healthy and have a decent enough diet, shedding should fall within that normal range previously mentioned. If you are on the excessive end of the spectrum, and your hair is shedding/thinning at a rate you believe to be alarming, consult a medical professional. Hair loss can be a symptom of a larger issue. However, if you've gotten a clean bill of health and are still shedding insanely, your diet may be to blame. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals from A to Zinc (seriously) can cause accelerated hair loss. Click here for more on that.
How to Tell the Difference Between Breakage and Shedding
This is where a lot of people get a little confused. Hopefully, I can break this down in a way that eliminates all confusion, forever and ever. Lol. I'm kidding. But seriously, I hope this makes sense to someone other than me.
Before we discuss spotting the differences, we need to understand the life cycle of hair itself.
Every single strand of hair on our head exists in one of 3 stages at any given time. Those stages are:
Anagen: This is the active growth phase, which occurs between 3 and 8 years, depending upon genetics. 85 - 90% of the hair on your head is in the anagen phase, which means that with proper care, it is entirely possible to grow a head of long, healthy hair anywhere from 18 - 48 inches. (Based upon a growth rate of 1/2 inch per month. This does not account for trims and cuts). During the anagen phase of growth, the follicle grows deeper into the skin for nourishment.
Catagen: During the catagen phase, the strand of hair has reached its terminal length. It stops growing, the follicle shrinks and the hair is broken off from its blood supply. During this 2-4 week stage, a new hair begins forming in its place in the dermis while the terminally grown hair sits in the follicle preparing for exit.
Telogen: This is what is known as the resting and final phase of hair. Anywhere from 8 - 10% of our hair is in this phase, which is where the estimated 34 - 180 shed hairs per day comes into play. If you really want to know the math, let me know in the comment's and I'll share that too. Hair does not just fall out at the telogen phase, despite what it may seem like. Once the newly developed hair has grown enough, it pushes the old hair out and the anagen phase starts again. This push out produces the shed hairs that you see well, everywhere. Without proper removal (i.e. detangling), shed hairs become caught among the living (so to speak) and cause tangly, knotted, nightmares.
A magnified shed hair. Just imagine it is curly instead of straight.
Now that we know the life cycle of the hair, we can finally understand the difference between breakage and shed hair. Hair that has shed has a small, whitish bulb on the end. Period. Shed hair will never be without the bulb, that is the point at which the hair is closest to the follicle, not the follicle itself. The white bulb does not mean that you somehow damaged your follicles and another strand of hair will not grow. It simply means that strand of hair has lived a full life (again, so to speak because hair is, well, dead), and has moved on to make way for the new guy.
Do not ever assume breakage or shedding based upon the length of the hair. It is entirely possible (and I've got the hair to prove it) to have long pieces of breakage, and short pieces of shedding. Often, they can come from the same source. If you cause damage or place too much stress on your hair close to the root, you can end up with longer pieces of hair breaking off. Continuing in this practice guarantees that hair in that area will never reach a certain length. Therefore, but the time shed season comes around, the hair with the bulb on the end is especially short.
If you're having trouble seeing the bulb, hold the strand of hair up to the light (Rafiki and Simba style) to check. If you still cant see, place the strand of hair against a dark surface or dark piece of paper (preferably black). If you have dark hair, the strand itself will disappear and leave the bulb more visible. And if you can't find a bulb? It's breakage.
But no worries, because breakage is never 100% avoidable anyway. But you can mitigate it as much as possible. Stay tuned....
Yes, I just ended a post with a cliffhanger of sorts. I'm clearly having too much fun while reading these novels.


  1. This was a very informative article. I have been checking most of my strands and i usually run my fingers down the strand and most time always have a bulb.