Lab Notes: The Truth about Split Ends

Editor’s Note: Lab Notes is an ongoing series where we shed a scientific light on common hair questions, myths and problems.

Straight, curly, long, short, blonde, brunette, afro, or gray, there’s one thing that women of all hair types can lament together: split ends.

Split ends, officially known as “trichoptilosis,” are a common and unyielding hair condition. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself absentmindedly snapping off the ends of your hair while standing in line or killing time — a bad-for-your-hair habit your mom rightly hated.)

Countless products promise to mend or treat split ends, but the truth is, there’s no magic fix. Here’s the 101 on split ends, and how to keep those fraying ends at bay.

What are they? 

Split ends occur when the outermost protective layer of your hair, the cuticle, becomes damaged or destroyed — revealing the middle layer, the cortex. The cortex is made up of proteins called keratin that give your hair strength and texture. When exposed, the proteins can unravel and cause your hair shaft to split into two or more strands.

While trichoptilosis’ street name would lead you to believe differently, “split ends” don’t necessarily have to happen at the end of your hair. In fact, there are sixteen different types of split ends that can develop anywhere on your strands based on where the cuticle is damaged. Do you recognize any of yours in the illustrations above?

What causes them? 

As you might guess, the reasons for split ends are numerous and diverse, but they all come down to stressing out your hair. Excessive heat from blow dryers, curling irons and straighteners can burn your cuticles, while products like hair sprays, gels and mousses reduce your hair’s natural lubricants and dry out the cuticles. Your diet plays a role as well, as certain nutrients — particularly B group vitamins like biotin — are needed to build the proteins for healthy hair.

Natural wear and tear from environmental factors, such as wind, sun and dry air can also wear down the cuticle.

Remember, too, that hair is most vulnerable when wet. Friction caused by rubbing it with a rough cotton towel can cause breakage, as can combing wet strands with fine-tooth combs or brushes.

How do you “fix” them? 

While conditioners and oils do help split ends stick together for a short time, there’s no long-term fix. The only real way to get rid of split ends is a trim or haircut, which experts generally recommend every six to eight weeks. (See this handy guide from Self for recommendations based on your specific hair type). 

In the meantime, while it’s nearly impossible to eliminate split ends entirely, take it easy on that head of yours. Avoid high heat, harmful drying practices and extensive product use. Deep condition your hair regularly and research protective haircare for your particular hair type. It’s treating your hair with compassion that truly pays off in the split end department.