Combing Wet or Dry?

Combing Wet or Dry – What’s Best For Your Hair?

As anyone with long hair knows, tangles are a fact of life. This is because of the nature of the hair fiber surface (see below for a microscopic picture of a hair fiber). A single hair fiber is covered with a layer of cuticle cells (scales) like shingles on a roof. When long hair is rubbed vigorously during a shampoo or during sleep (when it gets rubbed against the pillow) the scaly structure of the hair surface causes tangles to form.

Root end                                          Tip end

                               Figure 1.  Scanning electron micrograph of hair magnified 1100 times.

Few people realize that combing and brushing tangled hair can do a lot of damage, especially if it is badly tangled, and you force a comb or brush through it.  To cause the least harm to your hair when it’s badly snarled, use a wide-tooth comb or hairbrush to remove the tangles.  Once the tangles are removed, you can use regular combs and brushes to style your hair without worry.

Use of Conditioning Products:

Using a conditioning product is the easiest way to detangle your hair. When you use a conditioner on your hair after shampooing it, the conditioner deposits a lubricating film on the surface of your hair, and also moisturizes it, which reduces “flyaway” hairs making it easier to comb, resulting in less damage to your hair.

Which is Better—Combing (or Brushing) Wet or Dry?

So which is better for your hair – combing it wet or dry?  Dry combing (or brushing) your hair can  damage it, since static can lead to both “flyaway” hair and cause tangles to form.  The best method is to do what they do in salons:  Spray a fine mist of water to your dry hair before combing or brushing.   This works best because:  1) Water prevents static (so no flyaway hairs). 2) A film of water acts as a lubricant, and helps detangle your hair and 3) Water gets trapped between hair fibers, which helps to keep them in your desired style.  This is not to be confused with combing your hair immediately after washing, which is a big no-no, if you want to prevent damage and breakage.  Large amounts of water weaken your hair, so immediately post-shampoo is the worst time to drag a comb or brush through it, plus it causes your hair to lose its shine.  Remember:  When it comes to hair tangles, a small amount of water can go a long way!

Loss of hair shine is due to the loss of the cuticle cells from the surface.  This is shown in the electron micrograph in Figure 2.  Big chunks of cuticle cells broken from the surface can be seen.  If this happens frequently, the cumulative effect is extensive loss of cuticle with consequent loss of hair shine.

Figure 2. Hair under the electron microscope:  What happens when you comb hair right after washing – big chunks of cuticle cells break off the surface, causing less shine.

The scanning electron micrograph of hair, wet combed extensively with 1500 strokes, is shown in Figure 3.  Such hair will have no shine.  When conditioners are applied there is a beneficial effect on protection of the surface.  Conditioner films deposited during the wash, lubricate the surface and protect the cuticle cells when the comb, or the brush glides over them.  Conditioners also penetrate under the surface cuticle to strengthen the cuticle layers preventing them from lifting and breaking.

Figure 3. Wet hair combed without conditioner can do a lot of damage (broken cuticle layers).

The take away message is that combing and brushing hair should be done with great care to avoid damage to the hair surface, prevent split ends, and preserve its shine.  This is especially true if the hair is wet and weak.

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