Brittle Hair vs Hair Thinning – What’s the Difference?

When your hair is healthy, you just know it – it’s shiny, silky, glamorous and feels like a gentle caress against when it brushes your skin. Beautiful locks are such a confidence booster, as they make you look and feel young and elegant. However, when your hair has seen better days, it might take you a while to understand what is hurting it and what you could do to help it heal. You may have looked in the mirror and noticed that your tresses have suddenly become duller, thinner, more fragile. Running your hand through them may reveal they are also falling out more than usual. The first thing which may come to your mind is “why do I have brittle hair?” But in order to find the appropriate treatment, you need to be able to read the signs which tell you if you are truly dealing with brittle hair or if you are simply experiencing the thinning of your locks.  Here is how you can tell these common hair and scalp ailments apart.

What is brittle hair?

The term “brittle hair” refers to locks which are dry, frizzy, lackluster, affected by split ends and generally fragile and easy to break off. Dry, brittle hair often has a specific dull appearance and it can be difficult to comb and style, as it is predisposed to tangling and having strands snap when exposed to tension. This condition most frequently reflects the fact that your hair shafts are not receiving sufficient moisture. 

Healthy, properly moisturized locks are covered in a thin layer of natural oils produced by your scalp, which keeps their core protected. It also allows them to reflect light, giving them that coveted shimmering look. The absence of these oils changes both the texture and appearance of your hair, making it seem frazzled and lifeless. This can happen for a number of reasons. 

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Why is my hair brittle?

1. Exposure to the elements 

If you live in a hot, dry climate or your summers are scorching, you may want to consider additional hydration and protection for your hair. That is because spending time in the hot sun, with your locks blowing in the wind may make for amazing memories, but also for dry, brittle hair. The combination of heat and frequent gusts of air remove all moisture from your tresses, leaving them fragile, frizzy and dull. And if you’re thinking that hopping in the pool should take care of your hydration problems, think again! The chlorine used to keep the water clean and sanitized is only going to do more damage to your hair. 

2. Nutrient deficiencies 

While our hair is amazing, it has no way to produce the oils it needs in order to keep hydrated and protected from the elements. It needs the scalp to do that for it. Sadly, dry scalp will be flaky, itchy, and will produce only dandruff instead of nourishing oil. One of the reasons why your scalp may become dry is that it is not receiving the nutrients it needs in order to thrive. Not getting enough fatty acids, such as Omega 3, or vitamins A, B, E and D can make your scalp unable to produce the necessary substances that keep your hair moisturized.   

3. Excessive washing and styling

Especially when living in a dusty heavily polluted city, it’s normal to want to have clean, fresh-smelling hair every day. However, washing your tresses daily can strip them of the protective oils they need to shine and remain strong and healthy. Not many people know that regular shampoos and conditioners can be harsh and cause damage with overuse. 

However, heat-based styling appliances, such as blow dryers, hot rollers, straightening irons etc.can severely deteriorate the hair with frequent use, leaving you with dry and brittle hair. This happens due to heat damage, but harsh chemicals in certain styling products can also have the same detrimental effect.    

4. Physical Illness

Certain hormonal disorders, such as hypothyroidism or hypoparathyroidism (conditions of the thyroid gland) can cause both dry, brittle hair and scalp and thinning of the locks. These conditions also present a number of other symptoms such as fatigue, weight changes, sensitivity to cold or muscle cramps. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consider making an appointment with your GP, as these conditions are treatable and you’d be improving your general health and wellbeing as well as the appearance of your hair. 

5. Age-induced hormonal changes 

After mid-life, the scalp naturally slows down on producing the natural oils needed to moisturize your locks, which leads to brittle hair in many people of both genders. This process is even more accelerated in women who have undergone menopause, due to the hormonal changes which take place during this phase of life.  

6. Eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are both psychological conditions that can have a devastating effect on the body, including on your hair. Depriving oneself of vital nutrients by eating very little or losing massive amounts of weight in a short period of time will often result in dry scalp and implicitly, in dry, brittle hair. If you are living with any of these conditions, a mental health professional specialized in eating disorders should be able to provide you with assistance and support, as necessary.

How to treat brittle hair

If you’re throwing up your hands thinking “ why is my hair so dry and brittle?”, no need to worry – there are many things you can do to make it look and feel better. Here are some fast and sure ways to make your locks strong, luxurious and bright once more: 

  1. Improve your diet – make sure you are getting all the nutrients your scalp and hair need, by consuming the daily recommended doses of fatty acids, vitamins A, B, and D, iron, selenium, and zinc.  
  2. Say “NO” to heat styling – as often as you can, let your hair dry naturally, use regular hair curlers instead of hot ones and pass on heat-based straightening. If you absolutely have to get your hair heat-styled, use a protective mask on it. 
  3. Choose gentle cleaning and styling products – make sure your shampoo and conditioner are using a special formula for dry hair  
  4. Wash your hair less frequently – this may sound counterintuitive but even when it comes to washing, sometimes, less is more. Shampooing your locks once or twice a week is, in fact, sufficient to give most people clean and healthy tresses.  
  5. Good riddance to those split ends – they don’t only make your hair look frizzy and messy, they also make it more fragile and easier to break. If you haven’t done so in a while, it may be time to head to the nearest hair salon and cut those troublemakers loose. Your hair may be shorter for a while but it will be healthier and more beautiful in the long run 
  6. See a dermatologist or a trichologist (hair and scalp specialist) – they should be able to give you personalized advice and treatment for all your hair troubles. 

Brittle Hair Vs Thinning Hair: What’s the difference?

They usually look and feel different

Brittle hair looks and feels rough, tangled, and frizzy when dry and spongy when wet. It can often seem dull and make the colour of your dyed locks fade faster. When you have thinning hair, however, you will more frequently observe a widening of your hair partition, a receding hairline or spots on your scalp where your hair simply refuses to grow densely anymore.

They have different leading causes

While dry, brittle hair is most often caused by exposure to heat or harsh styling chemicals, the leading cause of hair thinning is male/female pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia), This condition affects, on average, half of men and a quarter of women by the age of 50.

Brittle hair can lead to thinning

Since brittle hair is fragile and prone to breaking off, it can cause or accelerate the thinning of your locks, especially if submitted to additional stress, such as extensive heat styling, rough handling, tying it back too tightly etc. Since dry hair lacks elasticity, strands break more often than normal, leaving the areas where most tension was applied looking sparse.   

By now you should probably have some idea if your hair troubles are caused by brittleness or thinning. However, while the tips above can definitely offer some insight for questions such as “Why is my hair so brittle?” and “What can I do to fix this”?, you should know that each individual is unique and so are their locks. If you have tried the remedies listed above and still feel like you have dry, brittle hair, it is probably time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist or a hair and scalp specialist (trichologist). They should be able to tell you exactly what is causing damage to your mane and what solutions are the best for you


The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology. Talk to a specialist ☎ 020 7935 1861.

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