Why Is My Relaxed Hair Breaking and Shedding and How Can I Stop It?

Why Is My Relaxed Hair Breaking and Shedding and How Can I Stop It?

Whilst the process of relaxing hair can be tedious, time consuming and in the worst-case scenario, painful. Regardless, the end results – glossy, shiny, straight, easy to manage hair are enough to make us repeat the process again and again. Unfortunately, repeating the process of relaxing afro textured hair has the inevitable outcome of hair breakage, hair shedding or hair loss. This is because chemical straightening involves the permanent rearrangement of disulfide bonds within the hair shaft which weakens hair strength and elasticity, making it prone to breakage and hair shedding.

Hair is a collection of protein cells which are held together by three types of hair bonds: disulfide bonds, hydrogen bonds and ionic bonds. Hair bonds have a glue-like effect on protein cells, maintaining the shape formed by the hair cuticle, whether that be straight, curly or coily. Because relaxing hair involves changing hair shape, the glue-like hair bonds which hold protein cells together, maintaining hair shape and structure must be broken. When hair bonds are broken or weakened hair becomes damages, weak and vulnerable to breaking and shedding.

What Are Hair Bonds?

Hair bonds hold protein structures of hair in place, helping to maintain hair shape. There are three types of hair bonds:

  • Disulfide bonds – they are the strongest hair bonds, giving your hair strength, elasticity and shape. Disulfide bonds are broken by product with high alkaline content.
  • Hydrogen bonds – provide hair with elasticity and strength. Hydrogen bonds are not as strong as disulfide bonds but they are more populous in number. They can be broken when water is applied to hair.
  • Salt/Ionic bonds – provide hair with elasticity and strength. Salt bonds affected by changes in hair pH levels which means they easily broken by acidic or alkaline hair products.

how disulfide, hydrogen and ionic bonds work in the hair structure

How Do Relaxers Work?

For a chemical relaxer to be effective in straightening hair it must have enough alkaline content to weaken disulfide bonds. Disulfide bonds are resilient and difficult to break so high levels of alkaline are required to diminish them and rearrange.

Alkaline causes hair cuticles to rise, allowing the relaxer to penetrate the cortex, reducing the strength of the disulfide and ionic bonds, which in turn loosens the intensity of the curl/coil of the hair strand. High levels of alkaline disrupt hair pH balance.

pH scale

This is why hair and scalp usually require the application a neutralising agent after the relaxer has been rinsed. Neutralising agents restore hair and scalp to a healthy pH balance, restoring hair moisture.

Alkaline has a drying effect on hair and scalp because it rises hair cuticles allowing moisture to be released from the hair shaft making hair brittle and prone to breakage and shedding.

Different Types of Relaxers and How they Cause Hair Breakage

Lye Relaxers

There are two types of relaxer, lye relaxer and no lye relaxer. Chemical relaxers which contain lye have high levels of sodium hydroxide which is an alkali. Lye relaxers typically have pH levels between 12 and 14 reflecting the high levels of alkaline. Because Lye relaxers are alkaline based, they weaken disulfide and ionic bonds quickly, by rising hair cuticles giving relaxer access to the cortex.

how hair relaxer works

Once the relaxer penetrates the cortex it breaks down the remaining hydrogen and ionic bonds transforming hair from curly/coily to straight speedily.

How Lye Relaxers Cause Hair Breakage and Shedding

Lye relaxers cause hair breakage and potential rapid hair shedding by weakening or breaking down disulfide and ionic bonds. Because these bonds contribute to hair strength and elasticity, diminishing them makes hair weak, fragile and prone to breakage and hair shedding. The more you relax your hair, the weaker the disulfide and ionic bonds become which in turn makes hair lose its strength and elasticity, becoming feeble and fragile. Therefore relaxing hair over a prolonged period of time is highly likely to result in hair breakage and shedding.

No Lye Relaxers

No lye relaxers have lower pH/alkaline levels because they are calcium hydroxide based to cater for sensitive scalps. No lye relaxers straighten hair by destroying disulfide bonds which hold the protein cells together in hair, changing their composition to make hair straight.

How No Lye Relaxers Cause Hair Breakage

The side effect of using no lye relaxers is that calcium residue, which looks similar in appearance to dandruff can build up on the scalp.

 calcium build up on hair and scalp making hair dry and prone to hair breakage and shedding

Once calcium builds up on the scalp, it blocks the pathways used by sebum to secrete on scalp and hair. When sebum becomes blocked from flowing along the scalp and hair, hair and scalp becomes dry. Also, the hair follicle shrinks as the pathway it travels through retracts because it is blocked by a build up of calcium and regular follicular (such as hair growth and scalp and hair lubrication) activities cease. Once follicular activities cease, hair growth slows. Consequently, hair which is naturally lost through the hair growth cycle is not replenished at a healthy rate making hair coverage of the scalp appear thin and scant. Further, because hair and scalp become dry because of the lack of sebum, hair becomes fragile, thin and weak and prone to breakage and shedding. This is why hair that has been relaxed for many years loses its body and looks limp and thin.

How To Prevent Relaxed Hair Breaking and Shedding

Preventing hair thinning, breakage and shedding whilst relaxing your hair is a difficult task, because the process of relaxing weakens and damages your hair, making it limp and fragile whilst diminishing its elasticity, as explained above. Here are a few tips to limit the damage caused when relaxing your hair.

  • Restore the pH balance to your hair after relaxing your hair

This can be achieved with a good neutralising shampoo. Upon relaxing your hair, the pH balance of your hair and scalp will alter from its usual number between 4.5 and 5 to between 10 and 14. Restoring the pH balance of hair and scalp to its natural levels of acidity maintains a healthy scalp because:

  1. acidity keeps scalp infections and bacteria at bay
  2. acidity also closes hair cuticles. Closed hair cuticles to seal moisture and hydration in the hair shaft as well as acting as a protective shield for hair from external damage
  • Avoid colouring your hair whilst relaxing it

Colouring your hair is achieved in a similar way to which your hair is straightened. Hair bonds are weakened and cuticles are raised to allow the chemicals and colours to penetrate the cortex to achieve the colour change. Colouring and relaxing hair simultaneously place extreme strain on hair because it is put  in a perpetual state of damage and fragility making the path to hair breakage and shedding more rapid. Click here for more information on the impact of colouring on afro textured hair.

  • Avoid Hairstyles which are too tight or tug and pull on the hair and scalp

When hair is relaxed the process involves breaking down hair bonds which diminishes hair strength and elasticity. The elasticity of hair is its ability to stretch and return to its original shape. Because relaxing hair involves altering the shape of hair, after hair is relaxed, when stretched it will not be able to revert to its original shape because it has lost its elasticity. This means hair lacks the ability to stretch, bounce and be resilient to the pulling and tugging which takes place during hair styling. Once hair loses its elasticity, when pulled or tugged breakage, snapping and shedding is more likely to occur. Further, wearing relaxed hair in tight ponytails, braids, cornrows or weaves can trigger hair loss conditions such as Traction Alopecia, click here for more info and Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia, click here for more info.

  • Condition hair frequently

A good conditioner closes hair cuticles. Closed hair cuticles seal moisture into the hair shaft and acts as a protective layer, making hair strong, moisturised and healthy. A good conditioner will help to reduce the damage relaxers cause. Click here to find out why it’s important to condition afro textured hair.

  • Frequent trims can help to keep relaxed hair as healthy as possible

Relaxed hair is typically dry and weak, two components which can cause split ends. If split ends aren’t trimmed hair can become even weaker and more prone to break and shed. Regular trims help to prevent split ends. Click here to learn more about the benefits of regular trims. 

  • Have a healthy, protein filled diet

Hair primarily consists of protein cells, so to strengthen hair, preventing breakage and shedding, having a healthy, protein filled diet will help. Giving your body the protein required for the hair formation process will assist in hair growth and hair strength, preventing hair breakage and shedding.

  • Going natural

There is no denying it, if done well, relaxed hair can look chic and glamorous and the added bonus is it is convenient to manage. For all of its advantages, unfortunately shedding and breakage is an inevitable outcome for hair which is consistently relaxed over a prolonged period of time. Therefore, going natural is advisable to stop the vicious cycle of hair breakage. Click here for advice on how to make the transition from relaxed to natural hair whilst avoiding further hair loss.

Treatment for Relaxed Hair Which is Breaking or Shedding Excessively

If your hair is breaking or shedding excessively you might require treatment to prevent further damage to your hair and restore hair growth.  ProTress Essential Scalp Therapy Energising Shampoo and Lotion provides treatment that can halt the progression of hair loss and breakage, improving hair growth whilst strengthening weak and damaged hair. Our unique formula contains the patented Si MATRIX PF which will rebalance and reactivate the scalp and improve micro circulation to stimulate hair growth. ProTress is enriched with natural extracts of Rosemary, Nettle and Passion Flower. Rosemary, Nettle and Passion Flower have a cleansing effect on the scalp, preventing hair loss whilst encouraging hair growth, making hair thicker and stronger.

ProTress works best if not used on the day hair is relaxed, but at the following hair wash cycle.

restored hair growth after hair breakage and shedding caused by relaxer

 Nor shall foreigners drink the new wine For which you have laboured, (without my permission), says YHVH

 association of registered trichologists


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