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Unlocking the Science: Why Hair Feels Like Straw and Solutions

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Are you frustrated because, despite just styling your hair, it already feels as dry and brittle as straw? The sudden change in hair type and texture may not be so sudden after all. The dryness likely developed over time due to various factors.

Factors contributing to your hair feeling like straw may include over-cleansing, insufficient slip and lubrication, regular exposure to chlorine and ocean water, hard water, intensive chemical treatments, UV radiation, dry cold air, frequent thermal styling, and potential medical concerns. Understanding these factors is key to addressing and resolving the issue effectively.

In this article, we’ll delve into the reasons behind the straw-like texture of your hair and, more importantly, provide actionable tips to restore its former luster. To ensure you receive expert guidance, I’ve sought insights from a Cosmetic Formulator with a PhD in Chemistry, specializing in the science of hair.

9 Common Causes of Straw Hair

Image of Pinterest pin titled "Why hair feels like straw (here are the fixes)."

Hair, a protein fiber,1 possesses a distinctive porous structure naturally shaped in a cylindrical form. The chemical composition of hair keratin involves various amino acids bonded to create a helical fiber strand.

Thanks to its protein nature and numerous cuticle openings, hair can absorb moisture from the environment and from active ingredients applied to the hair shaft.2

It’s essential to grasp hair’s protein-based, porous nature because this understanding sets the stage for recognizing how external factors and treatments can influence moisture absorption, impacting your hair’s overall health and texture. Now, let’s delve into the common reasons behind the development of a straw-like texture:

1) Over Cleansing

Effective hair cleansing is crucial in any hair care routine, removing excess oil, dirt, and product buildup. Despite the common belief that daily hair washing ensures cleanliness, it can actually harm your hair quality. Water, a universal solvent used for cleansing, can lead to dryness when hair is excessively exposed and kept wet for extended periods.

The use of sulfate shampoos, particularly those containing sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), is often associated with negative effects such as stripping essential lipids from the hair surface, resulting in dryness and increased vulnerability to damage. Its sister molecule, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), is also commonly used as a shampoo base.

Quote

“The primary concern – that SLS has potential for being irritating to the eyes and skin – can be easily addressed by proper formula development and appropriate irritation testing performed by the product manufacturers.” – According to the National Library of Medicine

Individuals vary in sensitivity to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). If you’ve observed a shift in your hair texture after transitioning to a sulfate-containing shampoo, it’s advisable to switch to a gentler alternative or explore sulfate-free options.

Sulfate-free formulations are favored for their heightened skin-friendly attributes and gentle characteristics. Examples include surfactants based on glucosides and cleansing agents derived from amino acids, known for their potential positive impact on hair and potential to enhance overall hair health.

2) Lack of Slip and Lubrication

Removing essential lipids from the hair surface and scalp can lead to a loss of surface slip and lubrication, resulting in a rough hair texture. The absence of oil, emollients, and conditioning treatments exacerbates the roughness, leaving the hair dry.

Furthermore, the lack of hydrophobic ingredients deprives the hair of essential elements needed to align cuticles, fill gaps beneath cuticle layers, and reduce friction during combing.5 Conditioners and leave-in conditioners, containing emollients and other ingredients, play a crucial role in filling these gaps, preventing dryness, and providing essential lubrication and moisture.

These formulations protect hair strands from environmental stress and contribute to maintaining optimal moisture levels, enhancing shine, and improving manageability.

Unfortunately, for those with busy schedules, skipping conditioner, especially leave-in conditioners, exposes the hair to physical wear, tear, and environmental stress, leading to a lack of emollients and slip, ultimately resulting in dry, straw-like hair.

3) Frequent Exposure to Chlorine Water and the Ocean Water

While swimming in chlorine-filled water or basking in prolonged sun exposure might feel refreshing, these activities can adversely affect your hair. Exposure to chlorine, specifically in swimming pools, or pollutants commonly found in ocean water can shift the pigmentation of hair to a yellow-golden color.

Chlorine, an oxidizing agent added to pool water for microbial control, can also oxidize hair proteins, leading to protein loss and significant hair damage. This process degrades surface lipids and deprives your locks of essential lubrication and slip.

Sea water, rich in soluble salts, forms deposits and crystals on hair strands, contributing to stiffness and roughness, ultimately giving the hair a straw-like appearance and feel.

4) Hard Water

Hard water, characterized by high mineral content, can contribute to straw-like hair. The minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, can interact with hair proteins in hard water, causing a buildup that leads to dryness and stiffness. This accumulation may make hair rough and brittle, exhibiting a straw-like texture.

Check out this blog to learn how to remove hard water build-up.

5) Aggressive Chemical Treatments

Oxidation processes, like permanent bleaching and coloring, involve the use of alkaline hydrogen peroxide, with added ammonia, to raise the treatment product’s pH. Ammonia and hydrogen peroxide collaborate to bleach the melanin in the hair cortex, inducing a color change.

However, side reactions with alkaline hydrogen peroxide can oxidize hair proteins and lipids. Scientific studies indicate that bleached hair often exhibits high porosity, cuticle removal, and protein loss.4,6 The bleaching process renders hair strands challenging to comb and brush, and additional treatments like straightening or perming cause significant damage to the hair fiber’s internal structure.

Also, harsh chemicals in straighteners or perms, such as ammonium thioglycolate, sodium hydroxide, and guanidine hydroxide, break disulfide bonds between hairs, making the hair more fragile, susceptible to damage, and prone to water loss, resulting in a dry feel after treatment.

6) UV Radiation

UV radiation has the capacity to modify chemicals within hair fibers, generating highly reactive oxygen molecules.7 These molecules initiate chain reactions that oxidize hair proteins and lipids, ultimately weakening the hair’s structure. Reports have extensively documented the scale of photodamage resulting from light exposure.7,8

Extended and excessive exposure to UV radiation renders the hair brittle, leading to a straw-like appearance, stiffness, and hardening.

7) Dry Cold Air

While the hair’s moisture-absorption ability is advantageous, exposing it to harsh weather conditions can induce protein denaturation and structural damage. The combination of low humidity and winter cold has the potential to strip moisture from the hair, resulting in dry, brittle hair and frizzy strands.

Humidity isn’t the only factor influencing hair health; ambient temperature also plays a role. In colder months, low humidity and insufficient heat can cause water molecules to exit hair fibers, leading to a lack of moisture, which means your hair will be dry and frizzy.

This happens due to the concentration gradient difference in water molecules between the air and hair fiber, resulting in dry, hard, and unruly hair that is challenging to style.

8) Frequent Thermal Styling

Frequent use of heat styling tools like hair straighteners and blow dryers can yield stunning results, but excessive heat use may harm your hair proteins, resulting in dryness and breakage. A closer examination of hair strands using a scanning electron microscope reveals structural damage, with chipped cuticles and the emergence of tiny bumps or gas bubbles on the hair surface.

Experts attribute this phenomenon to localized steam generation beneath the hair cuticle layers, leading to the formation of bumps. Over time, the hair undergoes a loss of moisture and shine, becoming coarse and experiencing a substantial decline in mechanical strength.

9) Medical Conditions

Dry and brittle hair may indicate an underlying medical issue, and there are a number of reasons for this, including scalp conditions like psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis, thyroid gland imbalances, anemia, iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, hormonal imbalances such as menopause and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

Beyond these factors, it’s essential to consider inner body metabolism, which significantly influences hair growth, the hair cycle, and overall health. Nutritional deficiencies can also contribute to hair issues. Maintaining a healthy diet plays a crucial role in addressing these concerns.

Solutions to Fix Straw-Like Hair

Here are effective strategies to improve straw-like hair and enhance its overall health and appearance:

  • Boost Hair Moisture – Maintaining and restoring hair moisture is crucial to minimizing the intensity of straw-like hair.
  • Keep Hair Conditioned – A combination of humectants, hydrating agents, emollients, and cationic hair-detangling ingredients works synergistically to enhance hair quality. This teamwork aligns cuticles, reduces surface friction during combing, and prevents the loss of hair proteins, lipids, and water. You can use a hair mask or deep conditioner at least once a month to boost nourishment and hydration. These intensive treatments penetrate the hair shaft, promoting optimal moisture retention and leaving your hair smoother, softer, and more manageable.
  • Apply Natural OilsNatural oils, such as coconut, olive, sesame, and sunflower oils, are effective remedies for various hair and scalp issues. They provide a green, sustainable, and cost-effective solution to straw-like hair. Consider using them once or twice weekly, adjusting the amounts to find what works best for you. These oils can be applied as standalone treatments or blended with other hair products for added nourishment and lubrication.
  • Use Leave-in Conditioner Regularly – Never go outdoors without applying a leave-in conditioner. Additionally, avoid excessive flat ironing or hairstyling practices to minimize damage.

Understanding Straw-Like Hair: Causes, Effects, and Remedies

Curly-haired woman looking at extremely damaged and dry ends.

Straw hair is a term used to describe dehydrated, stiff, and brittle hair fibers. This condition manifests in dryness, a rough appearance, and poor sensory conditions, ultimately leading to hair breakage, hair loss, styling challenges, and difficulties in hair management and the overall condition of your hair.

Several factors contribute to this straw-like appearance, and in this guide, we’ll explore the primary causes, the impact of having straw hair, and effective remedies to address the issue.

Characteristics of Straw Hair

  • Dry hair feeling
  • Exhibits split ends
  • Presents a rough feel when running fingers along the strand
  • Features a stiff and hard surface, making it difficult to bend a hair strand
  • Becomes challenging to comb and brush
  • Shows a tendency to break when subjected to a little force

Summary

The root cause of straw-like hair lies in the depletion of moisture and inadequate conditioning, resulting in hardened and stiff hair fibers. To revitalize and maintain healthy hair, it’s crucial to consistently uphold optimal moisture levels. Achieve this by opting for mild cleansing products that do not strip away essential moisture and incorporating rich moisturizing formulations into your hair care routine.


References

1. Feughelman, M., Natural protein fibers. J. Appl. Polym. Sci. 2002, 83 (3), 489-507.
2. Wolfram, L. J., Human hair: A unique physicochemical composite. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2003, 48 (6, Supplement 1), S106-S114.
3. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999.
4. Robbins, C., Chemical aspects of bleaching human hair. J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 1971, 22 (6), 339-348.
5. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999.
6. Zavik, C.; Milliquent, J., Hair bleaching. In The Science of Hair Care, 2nd ed.; Bouillon, C.; Wilkison, J., Eds. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC London, 2005; pp 246-268.
7. Nogueira, A. C. S.; Dicelio, L. E.; Joekes, I., About photo-damage of human hair. Photochem. Photobiol. Sci. 2006, 5 (2), 165-169.
8. Fernández, E.; Barba, C.; Alonso, C.; Martí, M.; Parra, J. L.; Coderch, L., Photodamage determination of human hair. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology 2012, 106 (0), 101-106.

HI,I'M VERNA

I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

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