Dry hair signs to look for

How to tell if your hair is dry or damaged – and what to do about it

18th May 2024 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

 It can be surprisingly tricky to tell the difference between dry hair vs damaged hair and treating each can vary. Let us explain


When shopping for shampoos and conditioners, dry and damaged hair is usually lumped in together because they share many similarities.

However, there are also some key distinctions which can make a difference to how you treat and look after your locks.

Dry hair is typically a hair type, while damaged hair is a hair condition.

There are external factors that can cause hair to become dry, or dry-er, but it’s largely genetic.

People with curly hair, for instance, tend to have dry hair because the oils find it harder to travel down the lengths and ends.

Damaged hair, on the other hand, is largely caused by external factors – from heat and chemical styling to sun exposure and more.

The extent of the damage can be better or worse based on your hair type, but the causes are almost always self-inflicted.

However, it can be surprisingly tricky to tell the difference between dry and damaged hair when it comes to treating it and this could have you reaching for the deep conditioner, when you might actually need a protein treatment, and vice versa.

If you’re confused, or want to know which route to take then keep reading!


How Do You Tell If Your Hair is Dry or Damaged?

How Do You Tell If Your Hair is Dry or Damaged?mamabella | mamabella

Both dry and damaged hair lack moisture. This is why they’re often lumped together on hair products. Especially conditioners and hair moisturisers.

The lack of moisture in dry hair leaves it feeling rough to the touch. It looks dull and lacks shine due to a lack of natural oils and moisture. It’s often frizzy and static-prone, especially in low humidity environments.

Damaged hair, on the other hand, not only lacks moisture but also has structural harm. This can be identified by excessive breakage, split ends, and extreme brittleness. Hair that tangles easily and snaps when combed can often indicate underlying damage.


Dry hair: Signs to look for

Dry hair signs to look forShutterstock

Dry hair can be identified by a number of symptoms but all of them are caused by a lack of moisture. These include:

  • Dullness: Hair that lacks moisture often loses its natural sheen, giving it a dull and lifeless appearance. Shiny hair reflects light due to healthy levels of oils and moisture, so when these are missing or low, the hair looks lacklustre.
  • Rough texture: If you have dry hair, running your fingers through it might cause it to feel coarse or straw-like. Healthy hair should feel smooth and soft, whereas dry hair often feels rugged due to raised cuticles on the hair shaft.
  • Frizziness: Dry hair tends to frizz up, especially in humid environments. This is because dry hair tries to grab moisture from the air, causing the hair shaft to swell and create a frizzy texture.
  • Tangles and knots: Dry hair is often difficult to detangle because the roughened cuticles catch on each other. This can lead to knots and snarls, which are not only frustrating to manage but also can lead to breakage during styling.
  • Itchy, Flaky scalp: While an itchy scalp can be caused by various conditions, it often accompanies dry hair. A lack of moisture can extend to the scalp, leading to dryness and flakiness, similar to the symptoms of dandruff.

FURTHER READING: How to hair oil


Damaged hair: Signs to look for

Loreal Elvive Wonder Water review does it workmamabella | mamabella

Our hair before and after using the L’Oreal Elvive Wonder Water

The more damaged the hair is, the higher porosity it will be. Hair porosity refers to how our individual hair strands hold oil and moisture. From this, it can also mean how long your hair stays wet after a swim or a wash, how long it takes to dry, and whether it frizzes up at the first sign of air moisture. Take our hair porosity test to see what porosity hair you have.

Damaged hair can look different depending on the severity of the damage. However, common signs of damaged hair include:

  • Split ends: These are the most common sign of damaged hair are split ends. They appear as small, forked sections at the ends of the hair shaft. Split ends can make your hair look dull and lifeless, and they can also make it more prone to breakage.
  • Brittle hair: Brittle hair breaks easily and often has a dry, wiry texture. It may also be difficult to brush or style and won’t hold a curl, for instance.
  • Dry hair: Dry hair lacks moisture and can be easily damaged. It may appear dull and lifeless, and it may be prone to frizz. Dry hair is often caused by overwashing, heat styling, and environmental factors such as sun exposure and chlorine.
  • Lack of shine/dullness: Healthy hair typically has a natural shine. Damaged hair may instead appear dull and lifeless. This is because the cuticles, which are the outer layer of the hair shaft, have been damaged and are no longer smooth.
  • Frizz and flyaways: Frizz is caused by the hair’s cuticles becoming raised and uneven. This can happen due to a number of factors, including heat styling, chemical treatments, sun exposure and chlorine. Frizz can make your hair look unkempt and difficult to manage. Read more in our guide to the science of frizzy hair.
  • Breakage: This is a serious sign of damage. It occurs when the hair shaft is weakened and breaks. Breakage can be caused by a number of factors, including heat styling, chemical treatments, and excessive brushing. Breakage can make your hair look thin and unhealthy.

FURTHER READING: L’Oreal Elvive Wonder Water review: Does the 8-second Wonder Water *really* transform damaged hair?


So do I need a hair moisturiser, or protein treatment?

K18 vs Olaplex before and after photosmamabella | mamabella

The image above shows our hair when it was at its worst (L), how our hair looked after three months of using Olaplex, and after a further three months using K18 (R)

All hair types and conditions can benefit from hair masks and moisturisers so this should be your first port of call.

However, if your hair is damaged you may also need to add a protein treatment or bond-repairing treatment to shift the dial in terms the health of your hair.

This is because every cell in our body contains protein, and proteins are made up of long chains of building blocks called amino acids. In order for our bodies to repair cells and make new ones, we need to eat a diet rich in protein.

When it comes to your hair, each strand is made up of three layers:

  • Cuticle: The outermost layer of the hair that acts as a protective barrier. Your cuticle is made up of overlapping scales that lie flat or open depending on what condition your hair is in.
  • Cortex: The middle layer of the hair that gives it its strength, colour, and texture.
  • Medulla: The innermost layer of the hair.

Your cortex is where chains of a protein called keratin are found. These chains wrap around each other and are held together by the chemical equivalent of rungs and poles on a ladder.

“Imagine a rope. It isn’t one single fibre, but rather the interweaving of many, many much smaller strands,” explains hair repair brand K18. “On its own, one small string can’t support much weight; but when combined with dozens of others into a rope or cable, it can support a lot of weight. Hair is structured the same way.”

FURTHER READING: Best hair moisturiser UK: Top-rated hair moisturisers for all hair types


How to deal with dry hair

Best hair moisturiser UK for dry hair, natural hair, curls and moremamabella | mamabella

To sort out your dry hair, the best thing you can do is add as much moisture as possible. Or avoid doing anything that pulls the moisture from the hair.

  1. Hydrate and condition: Use a hydrating shampoo, and a rich conditioner designed for dry hair. Look for products that contain moisturising ingredients like shea butter, argan oil, or coconut oil. You can read more about this in our: What does shampoo and conditioner actually do to your hair? guide.
  2. Deep conditioning treatments: Apply a deep conditioning mask or treatment at least once a week. These treatments are more intensive and can penetrate deeper into the hair shaft to deliver much-needed moisture.
  3. Limit heat styling: Reduce how often you use heat styling tools such as flat irons, curling irons, and hair dryers. When you do use them, always use a heat protectant spray to minimise the damage.
  4. Avoid harsh chemicals: Steer clear of hair products containing harsh chemicals like sulfates and alcohols that can strip hair of its natural oils.
  5. Protect your hair: Protect your hair from environmental factors such as sun, wind, and cold by wearing hats or using products with UV protection. You can also buy products that protect your hair from pollution.
  6. Use a humidifier: Adding moisture to the air in your home with a humidifier can help prevent your hair from becoming too dry, especially in colder months.
  7. Regular trims: Regularly trimming your hair can prevent the spread of dry, split ends and improve the overall appearance of your hair.
  8. Eat a balanced diet: Ensure your diet includes plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals to support hair health from the inside out.
  9. Drink more water: Your body needs water for its organs and processes to work properly so increasing how much water drink has lots of benefits, including improving your hair.

How to repair damaged hair

woman holding and looking at split ends of her damaged hair. Separated dry ends, hair care problemGetty Images/iStockphoto

You can read more about to how to repair damaged hair here but sadly here is no quick fix other than chopping it all off and starting again.

The best place to start is by looking after your scalp so that the hair that comes through is as healthy as it can be. Products like scalp scrubs and scalp tonics help create the best environment for hair to grow in.

Elsewhere, we recommend:

  1. Getting a trim
  2. Using gentle shampoo and conditioner for dry and damaged hair
  3. Investing in a leave-in conditioner or hair repair treatment  – we love Olaplex and K18 and you can see how they compare in our K18 vs Olaplex guide.
  4. Try hair oiling
  5. Avoid overwashing
  6. Limit heat styling
  7. Avoid chemical treatments
  8. Treat your hair to a deep-conditioning mask
  9. Buy a wide-tooth comb
  10. Protect your hair from the sun
  11. Minimise tight hairstyles
  12. Eat more protein and get more vitamins

Editor’s Note: Having damaged our hair through heat styling and bleach, the only thing that truly made a difference was the K18 hair mask. This isn’t an advert, we’re just huge fans. The downside is that it’s really expensive but in our opinion, it really works.


Dry vs damaged hair: FAQs

Below we answer reader questions about dry vs damaged hair.

Do I have frizzy or damaged hair?

Frizzy hair isn’t always a sign of damage. Frizziness is often caused by dry hair that is trying to get moisture from the air. However, if your frizz is accompanied by other symptoms like split ends and brittleness, it’s likely a sign of damaged hair.

How can you tell the difference between healthy and damaged hair?

Healthy hair is smooth, resilient, and holds onto moisture well. It should have a natural shine and elasticity, meaning it can withstand normal styling without breaking. Damaged hair often looks dull and feels rough or brittle to the touch.

Can dry damaged hair be repaired?

While you can’t completely reverse damage, you can significantly improve the condition of dry and damaged hair. Using hair masks and hair moisturisers, including rehydrating treatments can all help. As can trying to prevent causing further stress on the hair.

The K18 hair treatment promises to mend the broken bonds in your hair but it doesn’t come cheap, and it’s not an immediate, wonder treatment. Whatever you do to help repair damaged hair, you need to be consistent.


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