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What Causes Dry, Brittle Hair and How Can You Treat It?

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/01/2020

Your hair puts up with a lot. From sizzling heat to chemical treatments, you put your hair through the wringer. So, it should come as no surprise when it starts to show signs of damage.

Brittle hair is a combination of dryness, dullness, split ends and frizzing.

Like dry skin, dry hair has a wide spectrum of levels from mild to severe and a wide range of causes, as well. Understanding what causes your hair to become dry and brittle is half the battle. 

Let’s explore the subject of brittle hair and its causes. We’ll also talk about the difference between brittle and thinning hair, and how to treat it. 

What Does Dry, Brittle Hair Look Like? 

Your hair is unique as you are. Your hair type determines its volume and texture, as well as your options for styling. Some hair simply doesn’t respond as well to heat and styling products as other types. 

Regardless of your hair type, there are some common signs of healthy hair:

  • Minimal shedding.

  • Smooth texture with minimal tangling

  • Retains natural texture when exposed to humidity 

  • Healthy scalp free from dandruff

  • Natural luster and shine, but not overly oily 

  • No split ends or fraying; minimal signs of breakage

  • Snap-back quality; doesn’t break when pulled

  • Natural movement and bounce

Hair that absorbs water like a sponge rather than repelling it is typically too dry. Brittle hair is also likely to be rough to the touch and more likely to break when pulled or stretched. If your hair doesn’t hold style or color well, it could also be a sign of dry, brittle hair. 

If your hair is showing signs of damage, it’s not something you should ignore. Finding more hairs in your brush than usual or seeing hairs sprinkled on your pillow when you wake up may be the result of thinning rather than breakage. 

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How is Brittle Hair Different from Thinning Hair? 

You’ve probably become accustomed to how your hair feels when you pull it up into a ponytail. If one day there’s less hair to pull back, you’re going to notice and you’re probably going to be concerned.

It is completely normal to lose anywhere from 50 to 100 strands of hair on a daily basis. After all, the average person has between 90,000 and 150,000 hairs on their head, so it’s no big deal.

When you start to lose more than 100 or even 200 hairs a day, however, it could be a sign of a bigger issue. 

Roughly one in four American women suffer from thinning hair and, while most women experience it in middle age, it can happen at any time.

Most women notice thinning hair on the top third of the scalp while the hairline remains intact. You may also notice a widening part, or a thinner ponytail when you pull your hair back.

Female pattern hair loss occurs when new hair grows in finer and thinner than the original hair, resulting in lower hair volume and, eventually, halted growth. 

Some of the things that cause your hair to become brittle can also contribute to thinning.

Things like stress and styling damage are potential causes, but most cases of hair loss are related to genetics. 

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Treatment Options for Dry, Brittle Hair 

The first step in restoring your hair’s healthy texture and shine is to make healthy changes to your diet.

When your diet is poor, it will be reflected in your body and in your hair.

A healthy diet for hair includes plenty of lean protein as well as fresh fruits and vegetables to provide antioxidants and hair-supporting nutrients like biotin, vitamin E, vitamin C and iron. 

In addition to making healthy changes to your diet, there are certain things you can do to start improving the condition of your dry, brittle hair. Here are some ideas: 

  • Switch to a shampoo and conditioner designed for damage control. These are made with hair-supporting ingredients like antioxidants, protein and moisturizing oils to help restore your hair’s healthy condition and strength. 

  • Use a pre-shampoo treatment or conditioning mask. It may take a few extra minutes in the shower, but the moisturizing and reconditioning benefits are well worth it. 

  • Choose hair styling products made with hydrating ingredients. Look for moisturizers like shea butter, argan oil and coconut oil, while avoiding harsh and drying ingredients like alcohol and sulfates. 

  • Try washing your hair every other day. Washing your hair every day can strip away the natural oils that keep your hair hydrated and conditioned. Try washing your hair every other day instead, using a dry shampoo if needed on the days between. 

  • Be more mindful of how you wash your hair. When shampooing your hair, concentrate the lather at the roots and leave the ends alone. With conditioner, concentrate your attention on the dry, split ends and avoid the scalp area. 

  • Use protective hair products when exposing your hair to heat or sun. Spritz on a thermal protector spray before using heat tools and protect your hair with a spray-on SPF for hair before spending the day in the sun. 

  • Be smart when using heat tools. Always make sure your hair is completely dry before using heat tools and avoid lingering in one section for too long. One or two passes is all you need with a flat iron — anything more will increase the risk for damage. 

In addition to following these tips, you should be aware of the things that cause your hair to become dry and brittle.

Something as simple as hot, sunny weather can dry out your hair and frequent use of heat styling and smoothing treatments can make matters worse.

Hormonal hair loss can occur during pregnancy, menopause and menstruation. Yet, tight hairstyles, harsh chemical treatments and drying shampoo can also affect your hair. 

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How to Prevent Dry, Brittle Hair 

Many women take their hair for granted. But when you look in the mirror one day and suddenly realize that your hair is damaged and dry, you may find yourself wishing that you’d done a little more to protect it over the years. 

Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to protect your hair

  • Change your hair style once in a while to reduce stress on the hair follicles. This is particularly important if you typically wear a weave or tight hairstyle.

  • Take an occasional break from using heat tools. If you straighten or curl your hair on a daily basis, take a few days off and pull your hair back into a loose ponytail, instead. 

  • Use the low heat setting on your hair dryer to get the damp out of your hair, then let it dry the rest of the way naturally. 

  • Deep-condition your hair before and after applying color or chemical treatments. Your cuticle opens during these treatments, leaving it more susceptible to damage.

  • Use shampoo and conditioner designed for your types of hair and avoid harsh and drying ingredients like sulfates, silicones and alcohol. 

  • Be careful when brushing and combing your hair, particularly when it is wet. Use a wide-toothed comb on wet hair or a brush specifically designed for detangling. 

If you suspect that your hair problems are due to thinning rather than dryness, you may want to talk to your doctor about medical treatments for hair loss. 

A topical minoxidil treatment (two percent concentration) is a very effective treatment for hair loss in women — more effective, in fact, for women than for men.

In clinical studies, nearly 20 percent of women using topical minoxidil for eight months experienced moderate hair growth and 40 percent experienced mild regrowth.

Keep in mind that continued use is required for long-term benefits — if you stop treatment, you may lose the hair growths you’ve gained. 

Every woman wants long, luscious locks, but healthy hair takes time and effort to maintain.

If you’re subjecting your hair to heat and harsh chemical treatments, you may need to start taking steps to rehydrate and restore your hair’s healthy condition.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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