The Weathering of Hair: How Hair Damage Makes the Least of What You Have

Weathering of Hair

The wrinkled, bone-dry, parchment-like skin of a person who spends much of their life in the wind and sun is said to be “weathered”. While “weathering” is a term very familiar in association with skin, hair is also subject to cosmetic and structural damage that some experts call “weathering”. An example of weathered hair we all recognize is “surfer’s hair”—frazzled hair damaged and bleached by hours of soaking in salt water and exposure to the sun.

Weathered hair, like weathered skin, detracts from your appearance and makes you look older than your actual age.

Weathering that affects the hair shaft but not the hair follicle (the “root”) is a minor cause of hair loss. It is, however, a common cause of frazzled, hard-to-manage hair, and it is something you want to avoid after a hair restoration procedure if you want to keep your newly restored hair looking as good as possible.

What is Hair Weathering and What Causes It?

Some structural breakdown occurs in scalp hair as a part of the normal growth-and-shed cycle (See Hair Growth Cycle and Hair Loss for more information). Over time in the normal hair growth cycle a hair tends to become shaggier in appearance as it ages; this is due to gradual breakdown of the structural proteins in the hair shaft.

The normal structural breakdown can be hastened and worsened by hair-damaging environmental factors and cosmetic procedures that contribute to “weathering”:

Excessive sunlight (ultraviolet) exposure can damage hair as well as it can damage skin. Wearing a head covering protects hair as well as skin from excessive ultraviolet exposure. In addition, there are sunscreen products made to be applied to the hair to prevent weathering. These products can be helpful if you spend a lot of time in the water.

Excessive wetting, especially in salt water, is damaging to hair. Sun and salt water are the combination that results in “surfer’s hair”. Vigorous combing or brushing of wet, tangled hair is tempting in order to put the tangled hair in order, but this should be avoided because vigorous combing or brushing is especially damaging to the hair shaft.

Chemical and physical damage caused by long-term permanent waving, hair curling and hair straightening can cause the type of hair-shaft damage that "“weathers” hair.

Chemical damage caused by bleaching, dyeing, and the use of degreasing shampoos can cause significant damage to the hair shaft.

Friction and physical hair-shaft injury caused by hard combing and brushing, braiding, and corn-rowing are significant causes of weathering, but this type of damage can also result in permanent hair loss due to traction alopecia (See Other causes of hair loss for more information).

In addition to avoiding those things that can damage hair, a physician hair restoration specialist may recommend ways to restore strength and shine to already damaged hair—for example, use of leave-in protein conditioners.

Severely traumatic or frequent injury to the hair shaft disrupts the outer layer of the hair and allows the inner layer to splay out, making the hair hard to manage. Weathering damage can occur to hair without one’s knowledge. Hair has no nerve connections and thus cannot give one a feeling of pain when it is damaged—unlike skin that can become painful when it is sunburned or chapped. Nevertheless, hair is a complex structure like skin, with multiple layers that can be disrupted by environmental or cosmetic damage.

Under the microscope, the outer layer of a mature hair has a fish-scale appearance due to the overlapping layers of cuticle that cover underlying layers. Cuticle is a dense proteinaceous material that provides structure and protects softer layers underneath. As a hair ages and naturally “weathers”, these cuticle scales become jagged and break off. Physical and chemical (cosmetic) damage can hasten the degradation of cuticle.

When the outer cuticle layer of a hair becomes excessively “weathered”, the softer underlying layers are open to chemical or physical damage. Loss of the cuticle layer also allows underlying layers to lose structure and form ridges, fissures and nodules. Hair that has lost its structure is a common cause of frizzy, hard-to-manage hair.

We usually notice this “weathering” in scalp hair, but body hair can be similarly damaged by environmental factors and by hard scratching with fingernails.

Because so many environmental and cosmetic factors may be at work in the life of any one person, it may be difficult to point to one factor as “THE cause” of hair weathering. A physician hair restoration specialist can assist a patient in identifying—and avoiding—factors that cause hair to appear “weathered”. In rare instances, a genetic condition may contribute to breakage and frazzling of the hair shaft. The physician hair restoration specialist will rule out the presence of any of these genetic conditions during the full medical and scalp examination that is conducted before hair restoration is undertaken.

Excessive weathering of hair does not usually preclude a person from having medical or surgical hair restoration, if the hair follicles have remained undamaged. When follicles are undamaged, hair transplantation will usually be successful and medical treatment may restore activity in undamaged but inactive hair follicles (See Nonsurgical hair loss treatment options).

Cosmetic and environmental factors that contribute to hair weathering should be avoided after hair restoration—not so much because they may make restoration fail but rather because weathering may negate much of the improvement in appearance that hair restoration is meant to achieve. The physician hair restoration specialist can offer advice regarding hair care that maximizes appearance after hair restoration.

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