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Split Ends vs Healthy Hair: Expert Advice to Tell Them Apart
Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Updated on December 3, 2023

Telling apart split ends from healthy hair is not usually difficult, especially if you are experiencing dry, brittle hair. And it is normal to be annoyed by your locks’ frizzy appearance.

However, not all split ends are easy to spot, as hair damage can sometimes be subtle and fine vertical fractures can be difficult to see with the naked eye. Moreover, even the healthiest of hair has a few split ends, due to everyday wear and tear.

The best way to be sure whether you have split ends or healthy hair is to ask a trichologist to examine your locks. But if that is not an option, there are a few tricks you can use, such as documenting your hair baseline, checking the appearance of your hair fibres thoroughly and questioning your hair care routine.

Read this article to find out more about:

  • The difference between healthy hair and split ends
  • The main causes of your split ends
  • The best ways to prevent split ends from forming
  • How to treat and repair your damaged hair
Table of Contents

What are split ends?

Split ends are scientifically known as trichoptilosis (a common form of trichoclasis) and they represent the longitudinal splitting and fraying of hair fibres. While, as its name suggests, this type of hair fracture usually occurs towards the lower end of your strands, it can also appear higher on the hair shaft.

hair structure informational graphic
The structure of the hair strand

 

Your hair strands are composed of an outer protective layer known as the cuticle, a thick, keratin-rich layer called the cortex and a centre, known as the medulla. Split ends occur when the protective hair cuticles are damaged or removed, as this makes the cortex more vulnerable to developing cracks.

The size of the medulla may also play a role in end splitting, as hair types with more medulla tend to be softer and more fragile. This creates a weakness in coarser hair types which have a larger medulla [1].  

What does a healthy hair strand look like versus split ends?

Informational graphic showing the difference between healthy hair and split ends

Whether straight, wavy or curly, a healthy strand of hair is normally smooth-textured, shiny and has clean cut ends or tapered tips [2]. 

When placed under a microscope, the cuticle that protects the hair fibre is packed tightly around it, not raised and there are no signs of nodes, fraying or fractures around the hair shaft.

healthy hair strand under a microscope

Split ends, however, can have various appearances, due to the fact that they can split into several patterns, as a result of the way the hair was damaged and the extent of the fracture:

Split end typeWhat it looks like

Baby split

baby split end

An incipient split end, not yet fully developed

Traditional Y split

Traditional Y split

The most common form of split end, is when the hair shaft splits in two

Double Y split

Double Y split

When one segment of the split also forks

Taper/candle split

taper or candle split end

When the hair strand becomes very thin and fragile towards the end, after a split fragment breaks off

Fork split

fork split

When the hair shaft end splits into multiple frayed ends

Tree split

Tree split end

When the hair strand splits in several places and some of the segments also fracture, branching out

Knotted split

knotted split end

Especially in curly, textured Afro hair, split ends can become knotted, making them difficult to brush without breaking

Incomplete split

Incomplete split

When the strand starts splitting but does not fully do so

When examined under a microscope, a split end looks frayed, with segments shooting off from the hair shaft.

split ends under a microscope

How can you tell the difference between split ends and normal hair?

Nobody has perfect hair with no split ends whatsoever. However, many frayed hair strands are often problematic, as they will give your hair a frizzy, dull look. Moreover, split ends are not only a cosmetic problem but a sign of underlying hair damage, which can lead to breakage and hair thinning.  

There are several things you can do to tell if you have split ends or if your hair is healthy:

1. Check the overall appearance of your hair regularly

 look for signs of dull, brittle hair, frizziness, uneven strand length and thinning towards the lower section of the strands.

Helpful tip

It is a good idea to take a picture of your hair right after you’ve trimmed your ends, to have a baseline look to compare to. 

2. Take a good look at the ends of your hair

If you can see even incipient split ends in many strands, it is a good idea to get ahead of the problem and get them trimmed or take steps to prevent further breakage.

Helpful tip

Use a magnifying glass to see your hair ends properly. If you don’t have one on hand, you can use the zoom on your phone camera. 

3. Braid your hair to see differences in hair length and condition

The frayed ends of shorter strands will stick out from your braids and become easy to spot.

Helpful tip: If your braid has smooth, even outer edges, your hair may be healthy, while if it resembles an ear of wheat, it is a sign of broken hair and split ends.

Helpful tip

If your braid has smooth, even outer edges, your hair may be healthy, while if it resembles an ear of wheat, it is a sign of broken hair and split ends.

4. Examine your hair carefully after harsh hair treatments

Certain hair treatments, such as perming, relaxing, dyeing or bleaching, can damage your hair shafts, making them more fragile and more prone to split ends.
Helpful tip

If you have permed hair or natural curls, it can be more difficult to notice split ends so gently extend the end-portion of your curls to look for split ends.

5. Monitor your hair loss

Some hair loss is normal in the shower or while brushing your hair. However, if you are losing more than 50-100 strands a day, it could be a sign of damaged hair, which often has split ends.

It is best to see a trichologist at the first signs of hair thinning or balding, as hair loss may also be a sign of a common scalp problem or a condition which causes your hair to fall out, such as androgenetic alopecia.

Helpful tip

Put a piece of gauze over your shower drain and collect the strands caught in it after washing your hair. Check them for split ends and compare their number and appearance to those collected after your next shower.

What causes split ends?

There are several reasons why your hair ends might be splitting. The most common of them are as follows:

Friction

Friction is one of the most frequent causes of split ends. This happens when hair is brushed too vigorously, scrubbed too hard when washed or simply rubbed against your clothes or other strands of hair [3][4]. 

Split Ends vs Healthy Hair: Expert Advice to Tell Them Apart, Wimpole Clinic

Harsh chemicals in hair treatments or styling products 

Some of the chemicals used to relax, perm, bleach or dye your hair can penetrate deep into the hair shaft, causing structural damage and making your hair more fragile and susceptible to splitting  [5][3]. Moreover, frequent use of dyes contribute to hair loss.

dry, frizzy hair ends

Unprotected exposure to the sun

Overexposing your hair to the sun without UV protection is not only at the root of summer hair loss, but can also cause split ends. That is because UV radiation causes morphological changes in your hair strands, making them duller, rougher, more brittle and prone to splitting and breaking [6][4].

wind blowing through someone's hair

Excessive use of heat styling 

Applying high heat to your hair on a regular basis dehydrates it and affects its capacity to retain moisture. Moreover, exposing wet hair to heat of over 125C can lead to the formation of gas bubbles within the hair shafts. This makes them dry, brittle and prone to fractures [7]. It can be difficult to fix heat-damaged hair if it has already split so it is best to prevent this by using heat styling sparingly.

Irregular bubbles found in hair shafts
Irregular bubbles in hair shafts observed on dermoscopy [7]

Hair type and genetic hair conditions

Some types of hair get split ends more easily than others, due to their structure and texture. For example, curly and kinky hair is more likely to fracture when washed or brushed, due to the small angle of the curls [5].

Moreover, some inherited hair conditions, such as trichorrhexis nodosa, can cause structural abnormalities in your hair strands, making them more likely to break and split [8].

Hair shaft with trichorrhexis nodosa
Hair shaft with trichorrhexis nodosa

How do you prevent split ends?

If you don’t have split ends yet, you’ll be happy to learn that there are a number of things you can start (or stop) doing to help your hair remain happy and healthy. Here are some of the best advice for keeping split ends away:

 DOs to prevent getting split endsDON’Ts to avoid getting split ends
Get your ends trimmed regularly (every 3-4 months) so they don’t get a chance to split.Don’t pull or tug on your split ends, this will only lead to more hair breakage.
Keep your hair moisturised and conditioned so it stays supple.Don’t overuse hair products which contain harsh chemicals (bleach, hair dye), as they can penetrate the hair shaft, damaging it.
Use UV protection on your hair when out in the sun to avoid radiation damage.Don’t heat style/dry your hair too often, as the heat can deteriorate your hair strands
Use a towel to gently pat your hair after washing it, then leave it to air dry, to minimise friction.Don’t rub your hair vigorously when washing or drying it, as friction is the main cause of breakage.
Detangle your hair patiently, using a wide tooth comb, to avoid breakage and splitting.Don’t brush your hair while it is wet, as it may be more elastic, but it is also more fragile and can split if you pull too hard [2].
Make sure to rinse your hair properly after washing it, as the detergents in shampoo can damage your strands. Here are some of the best and worst shampoos for hair loss.Limit how often you wash your hair if you find it becoming too dry, as it can strip away the natural oils protecting your hair shaft. Using dry shampoo up to twice a week can provide an alternative.
Maintain a healthy, vitamin rich diet to keep your hair nourished, strong and protected.Don’t go on very restrictive diets abruptly, as it can lead to dry, fragile hair.
Use a silk pillowcase to avoid hair friction in your sleep.Don’t tie your hair with tight elastic bands, as they can cause strand tension and breakage.

Can healthy hair have split ends?

While even the healthiest hair has a few, barely noticeable split ends, if you have enough of them to wonder whether your hair might be damaged, it is likely that you have too many. 

Excessive split ends are usually a symptom of more extensive damage to your strands. That means they don’t only make your hair look frizzy and lacklustre, but they also indicate your hair is fragile and prone to breaking, which can result in hair thinning. 

person looking at split ends under magnifying glass

Is it healthy to pick your split ends?

If you have split ends, it is not at all a good idea to pick at them. While it can seem like this reduces your hair frizz, it can, in fact, lead to further hair fracturing. Strands which have split ends are already damaged and fragile, often due to being handled roughly. Pulling and tugging on them will make them fray even further or break off entirely. It may also make the hair shaft split all the way to the base, damaging the hair follicle and leading to hair loss. 

If you notice that picking your split ends happens more often when stressed or anxious or that you are experiencing a sense of compulsion to do so, it is best to see a mental health specialist. That is because, on rare occasions, it can be a sign of trichotillomania [9].

woman closely examining the ends of her hair

How do you treat split ends?

While there are certain hair products which promise to repair split ends, they only make your hair seem smoother but do not fix the fractures. And since your hair is fragile and damaged, it will just keep splitting unless the root cause of the fractures is removed. The only surefire solution is to trim your split ends and engage in preventive hair care to keep your hair tips healthy in the future. 

person getting their hair cut

If you are looking for natural ways to conceal your split ends before you can get them trimmed, here are some of your best options:

  • A keratin treatment for hair uses protein to flatten the hair cuticles, making your locks seem smoother and improving your appearance. However, be aware that keratin treatments may contain formaldehyde, a substance which can cause nausea, nose bleeds, skin irritation and even cancer [10].  
  • A deep conditioning mask makes your hair smoother, reduces frizziness from split ends and makes your tresses easier to style.
  • For natural moisturising and shine, you can use hair oils which are rich in fatty acids and have a lubricant effect, reducing hair friction [1] (argan oil, coconut oil, Brazilian nut oil, olive oil, marula oil for hair growth, mustard oil for hair growth, etc.)
woman pouring oil on her hair

Are you concerned about your split ends?

Split ends can be a symptom of more extensive hair damage, which, if left untreated, can worsen over time, weakening your strands and leading to hair thinning. So when you notice a concerning amount of split ends, it is a good idea to get your hair health professionally assessed.

Book a consultation now with one of our leading hair specialists and they will give you a complete report of the condition your hair and scalp are in. They will also be able to provide you with the best-personalised advice and treatment for happy, healthy, luxuriant locks.

Split Ends vs Healthy Hair: Expert Advice to Tell Them Apart, Wimpole Clinic

Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)
Medically reviewed by Dr Meena Zareie (GMC)Updated on December 3, 2023
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
Talk to a specialist ☎ 020 7935 1861.

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