Curly hair, what’s with the breakage?

Curly hair, what’s with the breakage?

In a previous article, we discussed some fundamentals about shampoos and conditioners. But even though you may have that routine down, there are still many factors that play into having strong and healthy hair such as hair type itself. Therefore, we need to take in consideration some of the logistics of having curlier hair and why it may be more prone to breakage.

Grooming your hair is necessary to make hair more manageable and sometimes more aesthetically pleasing. But combing, straightening, dying, and other manipulations of the hair all create stress which result in breakage over time. Before coloring or applying heat to your hair, let’s discuss characteristics of curly hair that make it more fragile.

Combing for your hair type

The degree of breakage depends greatly on the amount of coil present in the hair, and whether you comb your hair while it is wet or dry hair. Therefore, if you have highly coiled hair you want to reduce tension and tangles by combing while your hair is wet (Syed et al., 1998). Straight to wavy hair should be combed while dry. If combed while wet, straight hair tends to experience mid-length forces which result in breaks in the fiber (Swift, 1999).

Afro-ethnic tends to be curly or coiled. Curlier hair types also have less water content and are prone to frizz. But the hair varies in diameter along the hair shaft with the turning points along the curl tending to be smaller than other areas of the hair fiber. Therefore, making the hair more susceptible to breakage when exposed to mechanical stress like combing (Diaz, 2015).

Curly Coiled Hair Requires T.L.C.

We all know that hair of African descendants differs from that of Asian or European descent. However, did you know that Afro-ethnic hair has less active sebaceous or lubricating glands, and is also less dense than other hair types? Therefore, causing Afro-ethnic hair to be more prone to breakage during the growing process and slowing the hair from achieving long length (Syed et al., 1995).

Specifically, African hair, curly and wavy hair types have a high production of sebum. Sebum is an oily substance secreted from sebaceous glands. But the glands responsible for the production of sebum are less active compared to those of Caucasian descent. Therefore, there is an uneven distribution of lubrication along the hair fibers, as well as a manifestation of a less hydrated scalp (de Sa Dias et al., 2007). Combing and brushing are ways to lubricate curly hair as they aid in the diffusion of sebum along the hair fiber (Dias, 2015).

It may appear that African descendants have higher hair density than Caucasian hair from a visual standpoint. But, the number of hair follicles on average is 120,000 for Caucasians, and 90,000 in African descendants. Therefore, African descendants actually have less hair density, which may contribute to the experience of feeling hair loss once the curls are straightened (Dias, 2015). However, there is no need to panic as the perceived “hair loss” is simply a reduction in volume from the originally curly state.

Now that you know a little more about the fragile nature of curlier hair, it is important to keep this information in mind when managing hair. It is possible to have strong healthy hair but it will take patience and tender loving care as it grows.

According to a hair cosmetology review, here are some factors that contribute to strong hair:

  • Hair density

  • Hair diameter

  • Resistance to breakage

  • Ability to grow in length

  • Minimal frizz and tangles

  • and Maintenance of cuticle layers

Here are some tips to achieving strong hair

  • Pay attention to frizz! Frizz means that there is NOT smooth fiber interaction

  • Avoid high cleansing shampoos which remove a lot of surface oils and increase friction

  • Use conditioners and leave-on products to decrease friction among hair fibers

  • Apply shampoo to the scalp and NOT the top of the head which increases friction and tangling

  • Gently towel dry between shampooing and conditioning

  • Conditioner should be applied to the length of the hair and NOT the scalp

  • Curly hair benefits greatly from the use of leave-on products during combing

  • Straight hair tends to appear oily and dull with the use of leave-on products

  • Use silicones and vegetable oils to lubricate and seal cuticles!

  • Lastly, be G-E-N-T-L-E whenever you touch your hair


de Sá Dias TC, Baby AR, Kaneko TM, Robles Velasco MV. Relaxing/straightening of Afro-ethnic hair: historical overview. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2007 Mar; 6(1):2-5.

Swift JA. The mechanics of fracture of human hair. Int J Cosmet Sci. 1999 Aug; 21(4):227-39.

Syed AN, Ayoub H, Kuhajda A. Recent advances in treating excessively curly hair. Cosmet Toiletries. 1998;113:47–56

Syed AN, Ayoub H, Kuhajda A, Ahmad K. African-American hair. Cosmet Toiletries. 1995;110:39–48.