Last Updated on December 2, 2022 by Verna Meachum
You just styled your hair, but it already feels like straw. What gives?
Your hair texture didn’t just suddenly change overnight. If you’re wondering why hair feels like straw (so dry and brittle), more than likely, it’s been developing over time and there are now several factors contributing to your newfound dryness.
No one enjoys having straw-like hair, yet so many of us suffer from it at some point.
But what is actually causing our hair to feel that way? And more importantly, is there anything we can do to fix it?
This post will explore the science behind lackluster hair and offer some tips on how to get your locks back to their former glory.
Straw hair represents a physical state of hair fibers. Hair fibers that are extremely dry, stiff, and brittle are called “Straw Hair”.
This describes hair dryness, rough appearance, and poor sensorial conditions. Extreme Straw conditions eventually lead to hair breakage causing hair loss, poor styling, and difficulty in hair management.
This straw appearance can be due to several factors. Here, we study the main causes of this problem, the impact of having straw hair, and remedies to fix the problem.
First, let’s identify some characteristics of straw hair.
Identifying Why Hair Feels Like Straw
• Feels dry
• Split ends
• Rough feel when running fingers along the strand
• Stiff and hard surface, difficult to bend a hair strand
• Difficult to comb and brush
• On applying a little force, hair strands break
Main Causes of Straw Hair
Hair is a protein fiber.1 It is a unique porous material shaped naturally in a cylindrical format.
The chemical composition of hair keratin is made up of different amino acids bonded together to form a helical fiber strand.
Due to hair’s protein nature and thousands of cuticle openings, it can absorb moisture from the air and active ingredients applied to the hair shaft.2
Although this is great, exposing hair to harsh weather conditions and aggressive chemical treatments also denatures its protein content and can damage its structure.
The low humidity and winter cold can pull moisture from hair, and make your hair dry, brittle, and frizzy.
Hair cleansing is a crucial step in any hair care routine. It helps to remove excess oil, dirt, and product build up from the hair surface.
Although you might think washing your hair every day keeps it clean, in reality, it could be damaging your hair quality.
Water is a universal solvent used for cleansing and rinsing off. Excess water exposure and keeping hair wet for an extended time can make them dry.
Excessive use of sulfate shampoos may have a negative effect on your hair, such as removing the essential lipids from the hair surface. This in turn causes dryness and makes your hair more susceptible to damage.
Among sulfates, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which is frequently found in shampoo INCI listings, has gotten a bad reputation for being a harsh ingredient. Its sister molecule, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), is also commonly used as a shampoo base.
“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
However, some people are more sensitive to SLS and SLES than others. If you have noticed a change in your hair texture since switching to a shampoo containing sulfates, it is best to switch to something more gentle or look for sulfate-free shampoos.
Sulfate-free formulations are preferred due to their higher skin-friendly index and mild nature. A good example are Glucosides-based surfactants and amino acid-derived cleansing agents, which may have a positive impact on hair and may improve hair health.
Lack of Slip and Lubrication
If you remove essential lipids from the hair surface and scalp, it can also damage surface slip and lubrication. Likewise, lack of oil, emollients, and conditioning treatment makes the hair surface rough.
Additionally, not having oil leaves hair dry and creates a rough surface. These hydrophobic ingredients are vital to align cuticles, fill the empty spaces underneath the cuticle layers and minimize the frictional force during combing.5
Conditioners and leave in conditioners are hair products that contain emollients(and other ingredients) to help fill the gaps along the cuticle hair strand and prevent dryness.
These formulations are formulated to help lubricate and moisturize the hair as well as protect the hair strands from the environment.
In addition, they help to maintain the moisture level of your hair, provide shine, and manageability.
Some of us are often busy with work and skip out on applying conditioner to our hair; leave-in conditioners in particular. This exposes the hair to physical wear and tear as well as environmental stress.
This lack of emollients and slip can make hair dry and have that straw-like feel.
Frequent Exposure to Chlorine Water and the Ocean Water
Although it might feel refreshing, swimming in chlorine-filled water or spending extended amounts of time in the sun can wreak havoc on your hair.
Furthermore, the pigmentation of their hair has shifted to a yellow-golden color due to exposure to chlorine in swimming pools or other pollutants commonly found in ocean water.
Chlorine is an oxidizing agent added to pool water to inhibit the growth of microbes. The trace amount of chlorine in pool water can also oxidize hair proteins. This can cause protein loss from hair fiber indicating significant hair damage.
This same mechanism not only degrades the lipids on the surface of your hair, but it also leaves your locks without any essential lubrication or slip.
Sea water is saline containing significant levels of soluble salts. Their deposits and crystals on hair strands can also make hair stiff and rough and they look and feel like straw.
Aggressive Chemical Treatments
Oxidation processes like permanent bleaching and coloring use alkaline hydrogen peroxide. Ammonia is added to raise the pH of the treatment product.
Ammonia and hydrogen peroxide work together to bleach melanin present in the cortex of your hair, resulting in a change of color.
However, side reactions can occur with alkaline hydrogen peroxide. It may also oxidize hair protein and lipids. In fact, scientific studies have found that bleached hair often has high porosity, cuticle removal, and protein loss. 4, 6
Bleached hair strands are more difficult to comb and brush because of the bleaching process. Also, straightening or perming your hair causes significant damage to the inside structure of your hair fibers.
The chemicals used in straighteners or perms, such as ammonium thioglycolate, sodium hydroxide and guanidine hydroxide, break the disulfide bonds between hairs.
These chemicals are aggressive, which makes hair more fragile, susceptible to damage, and hair easily loses water molecules, hence why it often feels dry after a treatment.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation alters chemicals inside hair fibers and may create extremely reactive oxygen molecules. 7
These species can cause chain reactions that oxidize hair proteins and lipids, weakening the structure of hair. Reports have documented the magnitude of photodamage caused by exposure to light. 7-8
Excessive and prolonged exposure to UV radiation makes the hair brittle and it will appear straw-like, stiffened, and hardened.
Dry Cold Air
Not only does humidity influence the health of your hair, but the temperature of your surroundings does as well. In colder months, low humidity and lack of heat can cause water molecules to leave hair fibers, leading to dryness and frizziness.
This is due to the gradient concentration difference in water molecules between air and hair fiber. The result is dry, hard, and messy hairs that are difficult to style.
Frequent Thermal Styling
Heat-based hair styling, such as flat ironing and blow drying, can create gorgeous results. However, overuse of heat styling tools can damage your hair proteins and lead to dryness and breakage.
When hair is examined with a scanning electron microscope, it reveals structural damage to hair strands. The cuticles are chipped off from the surface and the hair surface appears with tiny bumps or gas bubbles.
Hair experts believe this is due to localized steam generation under the cuticle layers which causes bumps.
Eventually, hair loses its moisture, and shine, and becomes coarse with a significant loss in its mechanical strength.
If your hair is dry and brittle, this might be a sign of an underlying medical issue, such as:
• Scalp conditions, such as psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis.
• An overactive or under-active thyroid gland.
• Anemia, iron deficiency or vitamin B12 deficiency.
• Hormonal imbalances like menopause and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
• Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.
The main factors that cause straw-like hair are mentioned above. In addition, inner body metabolism also affects hair growth, the hair cycle, and overall health.
Solutions to Fix Straw-Like Hair
• Boost Hair Moisture content – This is vital. Maintaining and restoring hair moisture can minimize the intensity of straw hair.
• Keep them conditioned – The blend of humectants, hydrating agents, emollients, and cationic hair-detangling ingredients work together as a team to boost hair quality. It aligns cuticles, minimizes surface friction in combing, and prevents the loss of hair proteins, lipids, and water.
• Oil your hair – Natural oils are an excellent remedy for several hair and scalp problems. They are a green, sustainable and cost-effective solution to straw-like hair. Coconut, Olive, Sesame, and sunflower oils are recommended at least once or twice a week. Play around with the amounts and see what works best for you.
• Leave-in Conditioner is A Must – Never step outdoors without applying a leave-in conditioner. Also, never use flat ironing or blow dry without a leave-in conditioner to protect hair against high temperatures.
The primary cause of straw hairs is a lack of moisture and proper conditioning, as the hair fibers become hardened and stiff.
To restore healthy hair, it is essential to maintain adequate moisture levels at all times. This can be done by using mild cleansing products and rich moisturizing formulations.
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.