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What’s a Damaged Hair Follicle and What Can You Do About It?

BY Felicia Ler

Disclaimer: The information provided is not intended as medical advice. For any medical concerns, always contact your doctor.

When thinking about your hair’s health, you might tend to focus on the hair shafts and scalp. Yet the issue goes deeper than that. In fact, the determining factor for optimal hair health can be traced to the hair follicles.

But what if your follicles become damaged? Are there any signs you should watch out for? Most importantly, can you do anything to address and even prevent damage in the first place? Ahead, you’ll learn everything you need to know about damaged hair follicles.

All About the Hair Follicle

Damaged hair follicle: hair anatomy diagram

Small but mighty, the hair follicle is a wondrous mini-organ that lies just below the skin and scalp. All of us are blessed with fully formed hair follicles at birth that cover most of our bodies. That said, scalp follicles generally produce longer hair fibers than the peach fuzz on the other parts of your body.

From an anatomical point of view, the hair follicle is an extension of the outermost skin layer that protrudes down into the inner skin layer. As you can see from the diagram, the follicle is home to the hair fiber. The visible part of the fiber (above the scalp) is known as the hair shaft. Meanwhile, the hidden part (below the scalp’s surface) is called the hair root.

The hair follicle is structurally specialized to help you shed the old fibers and grow new ones. Here are a few of its key structures:

  • Hair bulb: The hair bulb is located at the bottom of the follicle and houses the hair papilla. The papilla receives a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients from the neighboring blood vessels to nourish the follicle.
  • Follicular matrix: This part of the follicle lies above the hair papilla. Made up of keratinocytes (a type of epidermal skin cell), the matrix is considered the production factory of the structural hair protein, keratin. The matrix also contains melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) to give color to the fibers.
  • Sebaceous gland: Although this sebum-producing gland isn’t exactly part of the hair follicle, they work closely together to lubricate the hair shafts and scalp. How it works: The sebaceous gland secretes sebum (an oily, waxy substance) that flows into an opening along the upper portion of the follicle.
  • Bulge: The bulge is rich in follicular epithelial stem cells that produce new hair when activated. Research shows that follicular stem cells can regenerate the hair follicles, sebaceous glands, and even the outermost skin layer.

Courtesy of its unique features, the hair follicle plays a vital role in the hair growth cycle as follows:

  • Anagen (growth phase): The follicular matrix becomes a powerhouse of new hair cell production for about two to six years.
  • Catagen (regression phase): The lower portion of the follicle shrinks as it gets ready to stop all hair growth for roughly a few weeks.
  • Telogen (resting phase): The follicle rests and stops growing new hair for about three months. The old hair that’s ready to shed is known as club hair.

The takeaway is healthy hair follicles = healthy hair growth.

How to Tell if You Have Damaged Hair Follicles

Because the vitality of your follicles is intricately tied to your overall hair health, you can definitely tell if your scalp is home to more than one damaged hair follicle.

Hair Thinning and Hair Loss

One of the key signs of damaged hair follicles is hair thinning that ultimately leads to hair loss.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, damaged hair follicles often mean an impaired hair growth cycle. For example, telogen effluvium (a temporary form of hair loss) occurs “when an increased number of hair follicles prematurely enter the telogen stage.” This leads to excessive hair fall without progressing to actual baldness.

Meanwhile, androgenetic alopecia (commonly known as female and male pattern baldness) occurs when each anagen phase becomes progressively shorter over time. As a result, your hair grows shorter with each cycle, which eventually causes hair loss. It also explains the receding hairline characteristic of this condition.

Another common cause of damaged hair follicles leading to hair loss is traction alopecia (or traction folliculitis). It typically occurs when you constantly pull on your hair roots, causing mechanical damage to the follicles.

Premature Graying Hair

If you have a damaged hair follicle, chances are its internal matrix is also affected. Given that the matrix houses pigment-producing cells, your follicle may have lost its ability to produce pigmented hair.

A 2018 study in the International Journal of Trichology explained that “hair is actively pigmented in the anagen phase and is ‘turned off’ during the catagen phase and absent during telogen.” Unfortunately, in graying hair follicles, there’s cellular damage accompanied by dead pigment-producing cells.

In this case, if you do have one (or more) damaged hair follicle, you can expect gray or white hair sooner than you think.

Dry Hair and Scalp

A damaged hair follicle can also affect the nearby sebaceous gland. If you recall, the follicular stem cells not only regenerate the follicles but also the sebum-producing glands.

Research suggests that when the scalp is injured, the stem cells in the bulge area of the follicle lose their ability to rejuvenate the sebaceous gland. As a result, little to no sebum is produced, leading to dry hair and scalp.

5 Do’s and Don’ts to Ward off Damaged Hair Follicles

As you can see, damaged hair follicles are not ideal. But all may not be lost. When caught in the early stages, follicular damage may be reversible, such as the case of traction alopecia. That’s because the hair follicle possesses self-regenerative properties that can heal itself, provided that the damage isn’t too extensive.

Of course, prevention is still necessary to downplay the odds of damaged hair follicles. Here are five do’s and don’ts to help maintain your follicles in good shape.

Do: Keep Your Scalp Clean

Your scalp is home to your hair follicles. Keeping this area clean and free of buildup (read: excess sebum, sweat, dirt, and product residue) gives your follicles the best chance of thriving.

Look toward gentle, sulfate-free haircare formulations that cleanse your scalp without over-drying it. Case in point: Function of Beauty’s custom shampoo and conditioner that can be tailored to your unique scalp and hair needs.

For starters, we recommend our “soothe scalp” hair goal to reduce scalp buildup and prevent flakes. The “nourish roots” and “oil control” hair goals can also downplay excessive oil production.

Don’t: Pluck Gray Hairs

It can be tempting to pluck out gray hairs, but we strongly recommend against doing so. When you forcefully pull out the hair shaft before it’s ready for shedding, there’s a good chance of damaging your hair follicles.

Instead, book an appointment with your colorist.

Do: A Gentle Scalp Massage

You may also wish to incorporate a gentle scalp massage into your everyday haircare routine. When you lightly massage your scalp with the pads of your fingers, this simple home remedy may encourage blood flow to the hair roots. This can help the follicles get the oxygen and nutrients they need to flourish.

Don’t: Use Tight Hairstyles and Chemical Relaxers

As mentioned earlier, repetitive tugging of the hair roots leads to damaged hair follicles and hair breakage. That’s why it’s highly advisable to use hairstyles that don’t create too much scalp tension — say, a loose bun or ponytail.

On top of that, minimize or skip the chemical relaxers and hair extensions to ease up on the tugging and pulling of your hair shafts

Do: Eat a Balanced Diet

Just like you eat to satisfy your hunger, your hair follicles need the right nutrients to maintain their strength and health. So what should a hair-healthy diet include? Think lean proteins, iron-rich foods, and biotin-based ones, to name a few.

Meanwhile, if you suspect nutrient deficiencies, speak to your doctor or dietitian. They may recommend suitable dietary supplements, like vitamins A and E, to help promote healthy hair follicles.

Consult a Healthcare Professional

Sometimes, lifestyle changes and haircare products aren’t enough to address serious cases of damaged hair follicles that have led to hair loss. If that sounds like you, consult a licensed dermatologist or trichologist for professional medical advice on how to proceed in treating hair follicle damage.

Healthy Hair Follicles = Strong, Happy Mane

Your hair follicles directly impact the overall health of your mane, so it’s in your best interest to keep them robust.

Since your follicles aren’t visible to you (they’re just beneath your scalp), you’ll have to rely on other ways to determine if they’re whole or damaged. Thinning hair, graying fibers, and a dry scalp often hint at trouble brewing below the scalp’s surface.

While hair follicles can regenerate themselves if the damage is reversible, it’s still best to prevent it from occurring altogether. That’s where simple tweaks to your daily routine, like a scalp massage and healthy eating, may help.

On top of that, you’ll also want to keep your scalp and strands clean with the right haircare products to give your follicles the best chance of being in top form. Take our hair quiz to build your custom formulation today.