Shedding vs. Breakage: How To Tell Them Apart & 7 Unique Causes
When you brush your hair or detangle mid-wash (with tons of conditioner, naturally), it can be distressing to see extra hairs accumulate; so many of us are on the hunt for lush, thick heads of hair after all. But excessive hair in your brush or down the drain doesn't always have the same cause: It may come from increased shedding, increased breakage, or a combination of the two.
And before you throw yourself into a tizzy trying to find a solution for your falling strands, you need to identify where your loss is coming from. Here, all that you need to know about the two.
Shedding vs. breakage: The major difference between them.
Hair shedding is a natural part of your hair-growth process: Your hair, as part of its life cycle, will eventually fall out. This happens every day. "On average you can lose anywhere from 50 to 100 hairs per day," says Megan Taylor, stylist at Gloria and Company in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Now, some people may notice more than that amount if they skip brushing or washing their hair nightly, as the hairs that were supposed to shed naturally day-by-day collect until you detangle the strands (this happens mostly with curly and kinky hair). You can identify a hair that has shed as it will be the full length of your hair, and will have the "bulb" of the hair follicle at the end.
Breakage comes in many forms, from split ends to snapped strands. You'll be able to identify breakage because the pieces are usually shorter and may feel brittle. If you run a brush through your hair and you see small, little wisps fall to the floor around you? That's breakage.
Reasons you may be shedding more.
There are plenty of reasons you may be seeing more hair shedding than usual; some are totally natural, others are just an unfortunate side effect of daily life, and some may be cause for alarm. Here are some reasons you may be seeing more shed hairs in the drain lately:
Telogen hair cycle stage
"Our hair cycle is broken down into three stages," certified trichologist Penny James previously explained to us about hair loss. Those three stages are technically called anagen, catagen, and telogen. If a majority of your hair follicles do happen to be in the telogen phase, you will experience increased shedding—and, though it's unfortunate, it's also totally normal.
Stress is a big trigger for hair loss, and it has its own diagnosis: a medical condition known as telogen effluvium. The stress pushes the follicles into the telogen phase. It happens because our hair is supersensitive to any kind of imbalance in our bodies, due to how fast those strands reproduce. So when our hormone regulators—specifically, our sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands1—are imbalanced, our hair is one of the first things to take a hit. Try to relax and decompress.
Too much prolonged buildup
Buildup, be it from oil, dead skin cells, products, or so on, can literally suffocate the hair follicle, causing hair loss. "If buildup is really extreme, it can even pull the hair down because there's so much inflammation around the hair follicle," says board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mudgil Dermatology Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D. You may need to invest in a scalp scrub to help lift off the buildup.
Hair shedding may be a sign that your diet is off or your body is not able to absorb certain nutrients. You may need to see a doctor for blood work. Lack of iron; zinc; fatty acids; and vitamins D, A, and E are some of the most common deficiencies that can contribute to hair loss2, according to research. You may need to adjust your diet accordingly, or look for a supplement that works for hair growth.
Reasons you may have more breakage.
Hair damage cannot be reversed—you can mask the appearance of damage, help your healthy strands stay intact, and promote proper hair regrowth, but once a strand is damaged, it's not going back. That's why it's important to stop the process before it starts. Here, the main culprits of damage:
Things like bleaching, dyeing, and relaxing can do a number. "Hair can dehydrate and quickly become damaged for many reasons. Some common causes are overprocessing and color-treating, which can both cause hair to lose moisture and eventually grow brittle if not conditioned continually to help stall more damage," notes hair care expert and stylist Josh Rosenberg. This is because during chemical processes, your bonds are broken down in order to get the desired effect (each process has a unique system, but they all essentially work by manipulating your hair bonds).
Overwashing and styling hair
"Some hair types have a cuticle that naturally lifts easier and, thus, are more prone to damage inherently. These hair types can become damaged from things like physical damage—brushing or styling—or overwashing," notes Rosenberg. Check out how often you should really be washing your hair here.
Skipping the nutrients
Keeping your hair hydrated and protected with antioxidants can help stave off damage—look for natural oils, butters, and vitamins in your hair products to help strengthen your strands.
When you see more hairs than usual fall out, take a hard look at those strands: It may be breakage, shedding, or both. Once you can identify your main problem, you can better identify the cause and treat your strand accordingly.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.