How to Troubleshoot Hair Breakage: Health Issue or Hairstyle?

hair loss

Are you beside yourself trying to determine the reason behind excessive hair loss? If you’re wondering whether your hair breakage is health or hairstyle related, this post will help shed some light.

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When I learned that relaxers and hair dye were possibly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and autoimmune disease that was all I needed to hear. Having already been diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, reducing my exposure to toxins had become a way of life. I decided to stop using relaxers and hair dyes. 

I adopted a low-maintenance hair style and stopped using heat. I avoided harmful ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate and parabans. I did everything “right”. Yet in the coming months I experienced the worst hair breakage of my life. If you can relate, read on to find out how I analyzed potential causes and restored my hair back to health. 

Hair breakage versus Hair Loss

First, it’s important to distinguish between hair loss and hair breakage. Hair loss occurs when hair breaks off at the root. You can tell because you’ll see a white bulb on one end of the strand. Hair loss can be caused by:

  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Hormonal changes
  • Chemotherapy
  • Aging
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Hair breakage results when there has been damage to the hair shaft. Broken strands will appear shorter than the rest of your hair. Hair breakage can be the result of:

  • Heat 
  • Tension from tight braids or ponytails
  • Chemicals from hair dyes, bleach and relaxers
  • Towel drying
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Lack of moisture

Ruling Out Hair Breakage Due to Health Related Issues

Certain health conditions can cause the hair to become dry and brittle. This makes the hair more prone to breakage. Other health conditions cause hair loss that resembles genetic male and female pattern baldness. Still others can cause thinning or bald spots. Either way hair loss or excessive hair breakage should not be ignored.

Here’s the thing. I had a little of both. The breakage occurred really close to the root. Okay, so it wasn’t at the root, but it was damn close. I also noticed my center part had more “part” near the crown than I remembered. To rule out health related issues I made an appointment with my doctor. My doctor ordered blood tests to check my thyroid, vitamin D and an ANA screen which tests for autoantibodies in the blood. This test is the first line of testing that checks for autoantibodies associated with various autoimmune diseases.  

One common deficiency in women that can ultimately lead to hair breakage and/or hair loss is low iron. This is especially true when heavy menstruation is a factor. While I take iron for an iron deficiency, I routinely have my blood checked to see my iron levels.

In addition to a Complete Blood Count (CBC) my doctor ordered tests for Ferritin as well as Total Iron-Binding Capacity. The additional tests check the iron stores in the body to determine if there is an iron deficiency. When the body’s iron stores are low it can’t produce enough hemoglobin. If your hemoglobin is low you’re considered to be anemic. The CBC checks your hemoglobin.

Another factor to consider was stress. Along with the rest of the world, my stress levels had risen sharply with the onset of the pandemic. It didn’t help that I had lost my job. Dermatologists have reported a sharp spike in the number of patients they have seen for hair loss. 

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Analysis of Health-Related Factors and Hair Breakage

Sometimes test results aren’t always conclusive. Other factors may be need to be weighed and considered.

I wasn’t surprised when the test results showed that my iron was still a little low. My doctor didn’t seem overly concerned. Even still I kept this factor under consideration. The remaining tests were all within normal limits. According to my doctor, thinning near the crown of the head is not uncommon as you age.

There was still the issue of increasing stress levels. Could this have contributed to the problem? How could I know?

Frustration set in. I didn’t feel any closer to understanding the source of my hair breakage. But creating a timeline helped me to put things into perspective.

I started 2019 with a mild iron deficiency. Prior to 2019 I was actually anemic but my numbers were steadily improving. Even when my iron levels were at their lowest, my hair hadn’t been impacted. While not impossible, it seemed unlikely that the sudden breakage was the result of a mild iron deficiency.

As for stress, I began noticing broken hair long before my stress levels increased. So as much as I wanted to blame the pandemic, that seemed like an unlikely cause.

Five months before I noticed my hair was breaking off, I started transitioning from relaxed to natural hair. With this transition came a new hairstyle with new hair products and a new hair care routine. I felt like I was beginning to narrow down the true cause.

Even still I continued to eat iron-rich foods to supplement the iron that I take. And it couldn’t hurt to examine how well I was managing stress. Because you know what? Desperate times call for desperate measures. And when you look in the mirror and see nothing but broken hairs looking back at you, it’s time to take back control. By any means necessary.

Scrutinizing the Current Hair Care Routine

You know the old adage, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been”?. So many times we put the cart before the horse. We search online for “how to stop hair breakage”. Every post will list a bunch of do’s and don’ts. But guess what? If something in your hair care routine is causing hair breakage, the problem will continue to perpetuate until you change your routine.

I looked at everything including:

  • Washday routine
  • Nighttime routine
  • Styling routine
  • The types of products being used
  • Any recent changes to the hair care routine

Prior to washing my hair I applied oil and let it sit for at least an hour. I had switched from using shampoo to using a co-wash because shampoo can strip the hair of oils. After washing I used a deep conditioner. I dried my hair with a microfiber towel or cotton t-shirt and trimmed the ends every 6 weeks.

When my hair was mostly dry I twisted sections into two-strand twists using the LOC method. The next morning I applied oil and unraveled the twists. I re-twisted my hair each night because when I didn’t my hair lost all definition and felt dry.  In time I switched from a two-strand twist to a flat twist.

In a few months I began noticing frizz on the top of my head. My hair felt dry by the end of the day. I began experimenting with an assortment of hair products… puddings, butters, souffles and leave-in conditioners.

Using Natural Hair Dye

Adapting to a new hair texture and graying hair was more than I could stand at once. I decided to use a natural product to darken my the new growth.  I found a product that contained 100% pure henna. I added amla and indigo to help tone down the henna’s red hue and aloe vera for added moisture. I applied the mixture to my entire head.

To my horror, my hair became dry beyond belief. No amount of deep conditioner or oil could moisturize my parched tresses. The color didn’t even take well. Over the coming weeks I used a temporary spray-in color to darken the new growth.

By spring of 2020 it became obvious that my hair was severely damaged. Little broken hairs on my head stuck out in all directions, north, south, east and west. The coppery gray hair near my hairline looked and felt like frayed rope. I abandoned all of the hair puddings, butters and souffles and wore my hair in two-strand twists which I left in for two-week intervals. Every time I unraveled my twists, strands of hair near my hairline would break off into my fingers. 

Occasionally I tried brushing my hair into a ponytail. I smoothed my hair down with a little water and an oil blend and covered it with a scarf until the hair lay flat.  Within an hour of removing the scarf, coarse frizzy hair covered the once slick area like carpet. When it dried my hair felt hard to the touch.

Hair Care Routine – Analysis

Hindsight is 20/20. Sometimes it’s hard to see what you’re doing until you take a step back. Maybe you’re doing everything right. But something that you’re doing just isn’t working for your hair. The first step is understanding your hair type.

As my hair transitioned from straight to a naturally kinky-curly state it became drier. Kinky-curly hair forms an “s” or a “z”. It’s harder for oils produced in the scalp to travel down the hair shaft where the hair bends.

Speaking of dry hair, in the last year I noticed a lot more grays. As hair grays, sebaceous glands in the scalp produce less oils. Gray hair tends to be wiry, dry and prone to frizz. 

Dry hair can become brittle and fragile over time, causing it to break easily. This set the stage for a domino effect.

The twist-out is supposed to be a low maintenance style. But I retwisted my hair nightly. Not only that, I detangled my hair each night.  All of the combing and detangling caused the dry, fragile hair to break. When I switched to a flat twist I put more tension on the hair in order to keep the twist tight. 

Hair Care Products

The problem with introducing so many hair products at once is it’s impossible to know what you’re reacting to. As a person with multiple sensitivities, I had forgotten the golden rule I learned from living with an autoimmune disease. New products should be introduced carefully, methodically.  Sensitivity for me usually comes in the form of skin irritation. But even long before my diagnosis, I noticed that some shampoos and conditioners cause my hair to shed on contact.

Although I was careful to avoid harmful ingredients like sodium lauryl sulphate and parabens, many of the products contained alcohol. Spraying with temporary hair color on a daily basis only dried my hair out further causing additional breakage near the hairline. 

Even though I did my homework, confirming that the henna didn’t contain other harmful ingredients, I made three mistakes. 

First, I assumed that since the henna, indigo and amla were all 100% natural they wouldn’t harm my hair. Although henna is a plant, it can be drying for some individuals.  

Second, my hair was already dry and breaking before dying my hair with the henna. The henna further exacerbated the issue. In hindsight I should have waited until I got the breakage under control before dying my hair.

Third, if I would have tested  on a small section of hair I could have limited the damaging effects.

Hard Water

Here’s something I never would have imagined to be a contributing factor to my dry hair. The water. But since I was also dealing with dry, flaky skin I couldn’t ignore the obvious. Since beginning my transition to natural hair, I had started spritzing my hair each and every night with water.

Hard water contains dissolved minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium.  These minerals leave an invisible film on the hair and skin. This film makes it difficult for moisture to penetrate. 

When I was younger my natural hair wasn’t quite as dry. I lived in New York at the time. I noticed years ago when I moved to Pennsylvania that the water is harder.

Towel Drying: Cotton t-shirt Versus Fiber Towel

Look at any hair care forum and most people will agree. Using a regular towel to dry hair can result in dried out hair and frizz. At the recommendation of many Youtube videos I wrapped my hair in a cotton t-shirt or microfiber towel instead. This may just be a “me” thing, but in my hair’s sensitive state, I found both methods still made my hair feel dried out.

Restoring Hair Health

Identifying possible causes of hair breakage is the first step. If breakage is due to something like excessive heat, that’s simple to resolve. But what do you do if there are multiple possibilities? In my case, most of my problems centered around extreme dryness. I approached the solution the same way I did with my autoimmune disease. Basically I began throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if something would stick. 

Even though my blood test results were normal I decided to supplement my nutrient-dense diet with a multivitamin. Since I avoid foods like dairy and gluten to minimize my autoimmune flare-ups I wanted to make sure I was getting optimal nutrition. 

I take Pure Encapsulations Nutrient 950 vitamins because they’re gluten-free, hypoallergenic and non-GMO. They’re also loaded with B-complex vitamins which support hair growth.

Because my hair is so dry now, adding moisture on a regular basis is crucial. So I routinely wash with TGIN Moisture Rich Shampoo. I love this shampoo because it doesn’t contain parabens, sulfates, or artificial colors. It also leaves my hair feeling, and smelling nice. No squeaky clean hair here….just soft, clean hair.

Us sensitive girls have to avoid those harsh chemicals!

I also deep condition my hair with TGIN Honey Miracle Hair Mask. Every. time. I. wash. it. I kid you not, my hair has NEVER been this soft.

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To combat dryness resulting from hard water I purchased an inexpensive water filter that attaches to my shower handle. I was so pleased with how soft my hair felt after washing. I even began filling my spritz bottle with filtered water from the shower.

Home Remedy for Dry Hair

Having multiple allergies and sensitivities makes it difficult to find quality products rich in moisture. For me, the offending ingredients are shea butter, almond oil and sesame seed oil. These days it’s almost impossible to find hair products that don’t contain these ingredients, especially shea butter. 

I began experimenting with various oils. My hair loves Jamaican black castor oil. This thick oil was hands down the best one to combat the excessive dryness. Avocado and olive oils were close runner ups. Coconut oil added sheen. As much as I loved these oils, I felt like something was missing. 

I had seen many Youtube videos with creators making their own hair butter. I decided to give it a try. I have to say, I was super pleased with the results. My homemade hair butter provided the moisture my hair so desperately craved. I’ve noticed massive hear growth since making the recipe.

Because I could see firsthand how my hair responded to various ingredients, I could add in more of the ingredients my hair loved while avoiding preservatives, alcohol and other ingredients that caused my hair to react. Click here to see a recipe for hair butter. Add additional ingredients according to how your hair responds.

In an effort to keep my fragile ends healthy as I transitioned to natural hair I trimmed my hair every 6 weeks. I think this frequent trimming played a major role in achieving thicker, stronger hair. 


On the surface I had adopted a healthy hair routine. But after careful analysis it became obvious how I inadvertently sabotaged my efforts. Getting blood tests helped to rule out health concerns. Plotting events on a timeline helped to narrow down possible factors leading up to the breakage. Addressing the issues behind my hair’s lack of moisture and increasing the frequency of my trims set me on the path towards longer, thicker hair.

In less than a year my year has grown several inches and is thicker than ever.