What Causes Split Ends and What Can You Do?

Healthier and gentler habits can be a cure for split ends

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Shiny, silky smooth hair is perceived as healthy hair. But what about frizzy hair? The appearance of damaged hair can be a sign of excessive hair brushing or the overuse of chemicals and thermal treatments. It can also be a sign of internal factors, such as nutrient deficiencies, or even be a result of genetics. Split ends can be taken care of, but it is important to understand what causes them and how to prevent them.

 

Hair Structure

The hair structure consists of three layers, the cuticle, cortex, and medulla:

  • Cuticle: Outermost layer. Composed of tiny dead overlapping cells, like roof shingles or fish scales. This transparent layer serves as a protectant for the other layers.
  • Cortex: Middle layer. The cortex is the main component of hair containing keratin and fatty acids that adds elasticity and resistance to the hair. The cortex also contains a pigment that gives hair its natural coloring.
  • Medulla: Inner core. The medulla contains more loosely packed keratins, fatty acids, and pigment.[1] This core is only seen in thicker, coarse hairs.

 

Split Ends and Why They Happen

Split ends are exactly what they sound like. They occur when the hair shaft splits from a single strand to multiple, usually occurring at the tip. This is typically a sign of damaged or unhealthy hair. Split ends occur in response to excessive or repeated chemical treatments, grooming habits, and various environmental exposures. These can result in progressive damage to the hair, seen as “weathering”.[2] This is when the hair becomes frizzy, and tangled, making it difficult to maintain. After repeated exposures, the outer protective layer of the hair, the cuticle, no longer maintains its protective function. The loss of this layer renders the rest of the hair strand more susceptible to subsequent damage and breakage, resulting in the appearance of split ends.[2] 

 

Environmental Causes

Anything that can damage the outermost layer of the hair shaft, the cuticle, can lead to split ends. Common causes of split ends include excess heat applied to the hair, chemicals added to the hair, and physical damage.

Heat

The use of blow dryers, straightening irons, curling irons and other various heat producing tools are common thermal treatments used to manipulate the hair. Thermal treatments are effective in temporarily changing the shape of hair or speeding up the drying process. These processes can also cause damage to the hair, leading to the appearance of split ends. When heat is directly applied to the hair with the use of irons, or indirectly by a blow dryer, it removes the presence of water retained within the hair and can damage the cuticle. The lack of hydration in the hair results in the cuticle becoming brittle and more susceptible to cracking, which results in split ends.[3] The damage process is accelerated by continuous and extreme thermal exposures.[3]

Physical damage

When the hair is wet, it can naturally stretch up to 30% without damage.[4] However, if stretched beyond 30% it can lead to irreversible damage and hair fracture.[4] Excessive combing when the hair is wet can lead to additional stretching, and consequently hair breakage. Brushing the hair when dry can also lead to the formation of split ends. This is a result of repeated friction on the hair shaft, which causes damage to the cuticle layer.[2] When this layer becomes damaged, the small scale-like cells of the cuticle become frayed and lead to the formation of split ends.

Chemical damage

Artificial hair color and chemical hair processing are common chemical processes that can lead to hair damage. The use of chemical dyes, bleaching agents, hair relaxants and perming solutions all lead to progressive damage of the hair. Perms and relaxants are used to change the shape of the hair from straight to curly, or from curly to straight. For this process to occur, the disulfide bonds that give hair its natural structure must be broken.[2] Disulfide bonds are responsible for both the shape and strength of the hair. When these are broken, the strength of the hair is weakened. Similarly, when changing the color of the hair, the chemicals must penetrate the cortex, the middle layer.[2] Before they reach the cortex, they must get go through the outer cuticle layer of the hair, the cuticle. This causes damage to the cuticle layer and leads to the appearance of frayed or split ends as a result.[2]

Ultraviolet damage

Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause both physical and chemical damage to the hair.[5] UV radiation causes hair to lose its natural color, and become hypopigmented or lightened. This is why in the summer, hair generally turns lighter as there is more sun exposure. Ultraviolet sun damage has the same effect on protein bonds as it does pigmentation on the hair. Over time protein and keratin bonds within the hair can be damaged by repeated sun exposure. Protein is what gives hair its flexibility, strength, and shine. With both the color and protein being affected by the sun, the hair can become dry, weak, brittle, and rough in texture while losing its natural color and natural shine.[5]

Table 1. Some Tips to Battle Split Ends

Causes

Treatment Options

Thermal Damage

· Limit the use of thermal treatments

· Use lower heat temperatures

· Let hair air dry naturally

· Use thermal hair protectants prior to thermal use

Physical Damage

· Apply hair oils before combing wet hair to reduce excessive stretching

· Use a wide tooth comb when combing wet hair

· Avoid over brushing or towel drying hair

Chemical Damage

· Reduce chemical exposure to hair

· Avoid “Ammonia Free” hair dye, as they contain other damaging chemicals

· Use semi or demi-permanent hair dyes to avoid ammonia exposure

UV Damage

· Wear protective hair garments

· Apply hair sunscreen

 

Nutritional Damage

There is an average of 100,000 hairs on the top of the head that grow at a rate of 0.3-0.4mm a day.[6] This process requires a lot of energy and proper nutrients. Nutrition plays a pivotal role in maintaining the health of hair. A balanced diet of protein, vitamins, and minerals are a good way to get nutrients needed for healthy hair. However, if there is nutritional imbalance or deficiency, this can lead to the progression of damaged hair. While there are many vitamins and minerals that can help supplement and maintain the integrity of hair, zinc, iron, and protein are among some of the most influential.

Table 2. Nutrients for Healthy Hair

Nutrient

Function

Deficiency

Where to Find

Zinc

Influences hair follicles and hair growth[7]

Lack of zinc may result in decreased hair growth[7]

Oysters, beef, turkey, chicken, cocoa, legumes, and peanuts[8]

Iron

Important for the production of hemoglobin, which is responsible for the transport of oxygen to the body for growth and repair of cells[7]

Hair follicle matrix cells are fast growing. Without adequate iron, the cells will not have enough nutrients to grow and divide. This can result in decreased hair growth[9]

Meats: Beef, pork, poultry, pork, lamb liver, fish

Veggies: white beans, pistachio nuts, green parsley leaves, dried apricots and figs[7]

Amino acids & Protein

The amino acids cysteine and methionine are precursors to keratin hair protein synthesis. Proteins, specifically keratin, are found in the cortex and serve as a structural component of the hair[7]

Deficiency of protein may result in hair thinning, weakness, and hair loss[7,10]

Eggs, lentils, quinoa, almonds, peanuts, broccoli, edamame, avocado, tofu, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, fish and various meat sources

 

Genetic Causes

In addition to external and nutritional factors that can lead to the development of split ends, there are also internal or genetic factors that can also cause split ends.

Trichorrhexis nodosa

Trichorrhexis nodosa is an inherited autosomal dominant disorder of the hair shaft in which thickened or weak points (nodes) cause weakening and easy breakage of the hair.[11] It is the most common inherited defect of the hair, but it may also be acquired in people who have normal hair that has been exposed to enough damage. This condition is also described as “bamboo hair”. Trichorrhexis nodosa leaves the hair more susceptible to damage and breakage due to the weak points along the strand of hair. Damage can be induced by common triggers, such as thermal and chemical treatments, and over brushing the hair. This condition can be identified based on the location of where the split ends occur. Since the weak nodes are dispersed along the entire hair shaft, split or frayed ends may be present in the middle of the hair shaft, as opposed to the tip.

Trichothiodystrophy

Trichothiodystrophy is another example of an inherited condition that can cause an increased number of split ends. It is a rare autosomal recessive genetic disorder that manifests itself in many body systems and tissues. However, this disorder frequently affects the hair. Trichothiodystrophy is characterized by sulfur-deficient fragile and brittle hair.[12] Sulfur is one of the main components responsible for maintaining the strength and integrity of the hair. When hair has an abnormally low amount of sulfur, it will not be strong enough to withstand daily trauma to the hair, such as brushing. This condition typically results in short, sparse hair.

 

Treatments

Aside from cutting off split ends, various other solutions can help maintain and preserve hair health without compromising hair length. Popular treatments can be found in the kitchen.

Oils!

Oils play an important role in protecting the hair from damage. They function by filling the gap between the overlapping cuticle cells.[2] This serves to prevent the penetration of aggressive substance that may damage the hair. This property also helps to mask the appearance of split ends by improving the natural shine and silkiness of hair. When combing wet hair, oils also help to limit the additional stretch of the hair, and therefore reduce irreversible hair damage.[2] There are many oils that can be used for these purposes, such as, argan oil, mineral oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, and just about any other type of oil.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is the only oil that has been shown to be effective in reducing the amount of protein loss in both damaged and undamaged hair when used as a pre and post-wash grooming product.[13] This means that coconut oil may be effective in both preventing and treating protein loss in hair, therefore reducing the risk of hair damage. All of these oils can be used as a hair mask to provide extra nutrients and protection, or as a mild leave-in treatment that also serves as a shine booster and frizz minimizer.

 

How to Prevent Split Ends

  • Identify and avoid triggers that commonly cause split ends
  • Avoid excessive and aggressive brushing and combing of both wet and dry hair
  • Limit excess applied heat to the hair
  • Decrease the frequency of chemically applied hair treatments
  • Ensure proper daily nutrient requirements
  • Use moisturizing oil treatments to preserve the cuticle layer
  • Maintain hair health by getting trims several times a year
  • Protect hair from UV sun exposure

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.

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References

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  2. Gavazzoni Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overview. Int J Trichology.2015;7(1):2-15; PMID: 25878443 Link to research.
  3. Lee Y, Kim YD, Hyun HJ, et al. Hair shaft damage from heat and drying time of hair dryer. Ann Dermatol.2011;23(4):455-462; PMID: 22148012 Link to research.
  4. Sinclair RD. Healthy hair: what is it? J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc.2007;12(2):2-5; PMID: 18004288 Link to research.
  5. Lee WS. Photoaggravation of hair aging. Int J Trichology.2009;1(2):94-99; PMID: 20927230 Link to research.
  6. Papa CM. Hair. In: rd, Walker HK, Hall WD, et al., eds. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. Boston1990.
  7. Goluch-Koniuszy ZS. Nutrition of women with hair loss problem during the period of menopause. Prz Menopauzalny.2016;15(1):56-61; PMID: 27095961 Link to research.
  8. Murphy EW, Willis BW, Watt BK. Provisional tables on the zinc content of foods. J Am Diet Assoc.1975;66(4):345-355; PMID: 1090644 Link to research.
  9. Goldberg LJ, Lenzy Y. Nutrition and hair. Clin Dermatol.2010;28(4):412-419; PMID: 20620758 Link to research.
  10. Guo EL, Katta R. Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatol Pract Concept.2017;7(1):1-10; PMID: 28243487 Link to research.
  11. Martin AM, Sugathan P. Localised acquired trichorrhexis nodosa of the scalp hair induced by a specific comb and combing habit - a report of three cases. Int J Trichology.2011;3(1):34-37; PMID: 21769235 Link to research.
  12. Stefanini M, Botta E, Lanzafame M, et al. Trichothiodystrophy: from basic mechanisms to clinical implications. DNA Repair (Amst).2010;9(1):2-10; PMID: 19931493 Link to research.
  13. Rele AS, Mohile RB. Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. J Cosmet Sci.2003;54(2):175-192; PMID: 12715094 Link to research.