How Do I Know If My Hair Has Breakage or New Growth?

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Dear Beauty Editor,

How do I know if my wonky hairs are breakage or new growth? And what do I do about them?


You may have some wayward hairs that don’t blend in with the others on your head, but let’s not think of them as wonky. They’re just eccentric. And like any free spirit, the best way to understand them is to get to know them better. Stylists say the easiest way to do this is by examining the ends. “Breakage often appears frayed or split at the end, while new growth tends to have a smooth, tapered tip,” says Ona Diaz-Santin, the owner of 5 Salon & Spa in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

I’ve heard that advice from stylists before, though I’d never actually tried it because I thought it would be impossible to determine the shape of a hair tip without, like, a magnifying glass. But I just examined a few of the more eccentric hairs on my head and can report that it’s surprisingly easy to see what Diaz-Santin is talking about. The final quarter-inch of these hairs taper to a fine point, sort of like a fancy paintbrush. They look like new growth. But when I took one of these hairs and pulled it until it snapped in half, the broken ends were a mess. One had a wiry texture and was slightly frayed; the other tip was blunt and the last eighth of an inch was bent at a weird angle. If you take a closer look at your strands, I bet you’ll be able to tell whether they’re broken or healthy.

If you’re still not sure, consider the location of the hairs in question. Damage tends to occur in places where you do damaging things, like heat styling or wearing accessories, extensions, or styles that create tension. If you grab the same chunk of hair near your face every morning and wrap it around a curling iron, and the wonky hairs are appearing along that chunk, well …you’ve probably got breakage.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rules above. Consider your edges: “It’s common for the baby or shorter hairs along your hairline to have a shorter growth cycle and not grow as long as the rest of the hair on your head,” says Diaz-Santin. “They may also have a different growth pattern compared to the rest of your head.” These hairs tend to be fine and delicate, so it may not be possible to examine their tips. Instead, you’ll have to use context clues. “If you notice that these hairs are consistently shorter and not growing longer over time, it is likely that they are part of your natural hairline and not a result of breakage,” says Diaz-Santin. But if the length has changed recently, or a lot of them got shorter around the same time or you recently changed your style or started using heat or chemicals on your hair, it’s likely breakage.

Once you know what’s causing your wayward hairs, you can decide what to do about them. If they’re damaged, you’ll probably want to prevent additional damage as you let them grow in. I could write you a book on the topic of hair damage, but you already know the basics: fewer chemicals, less heat, less friction, less tension, more moisture. I know that’s all easier said than done, especially if your style involves changing your hair’s natural color or texture. But even small changes to your routine can have a big impact. “I feel like if we viewed our hair as a fabric, we would be more mindful of the ways that we are treating it and caring for it,” says Gregory Patterson, a hairstylist based in New York City. We often “treat it like old denim and hope it will still look and feel like silk or cashmere.” He says one easy way to minimize damage is to sleep in a silk or satin bonnet, such as the Silke Hair Wrap, or switch to a pillowcase made of silk or satin, like the Kitsch Satin Pillowcase.

The last thing to consider is how you want to deal with your free-spirited hairs. If they’re the short, baby-fine ones along your hairline, you can use an edge-control product to slick them down or style them (find some inspiration here). Patterson says the key to styling fly-aways, regardless of their location, is selecting the right tool. He likes a toothbrush or kabuki makeup brush. “There’s something about the density and softness of the bristles that just snuggle those little hairs in under the rest of the hair,” he says. You should also check out Baby Tress’s hairstylist-beloved edge brush, the Imperfect Edge Styler (rather than throwing away brushes with slightly damaged packaging, the company sells them at a discount — something I’d love to see more companies do!). I also like Leaf & Flower’s new CBD Tame & Fix Flyaway Stick; it’s a mascara-like brush that delivers a non-crunchy gel that acts like a lightweight hairspray, sealing hairs in place.

I have one final tip I was hesitant to share, since it involves (a little) heat. But I tried it after Patterson told me about it, and it works really well and doesn’t seem to cause any damage, so here goes: Set a curling iron to the lowest heat possible, unplug it and let it cool down for a minute, and then glide the warm barrel over any hairs you want to encourage in a new direction. The gentle heat coaxes them into place, and once the hair cools, it “hardens” in its new position, explains Patterson. The result? Your wonky hairs are no longer wonky.

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And before you go …

Jenn will be answering all your questions about retinol on Tuesday, December 5, so leave yours in the comments here by the end of the week!

How Do I Know If My Hair Has Breakage or New Growth?