How to Tell the Difference Between Fine, Thin, and Thinning Hair

As men, our relationships with our hair are complicated. Who among us doesn’t want to look in the mirror and see a full head of shiny, flowing hair? But sometimes the cards can seem stacked against us. Hair comes in all kinds and textures, plus, there’s the thinning issue that will affect nearly all of us at some point in our lives. In those cases, instead of wishing life was different, it’s best to work with what you have. If you’re frustrated with what you perceive as a lack of hair, whether it’s something that you’ve just noticed or have dealt with your whole life, the first step in getting the best hair possible is knowing the hand you were dealt. Once you understand if you have fine hair, thin hair, or even thinning hair, you’re on your way.

What is Fine Hair?

With fine hair, the size of the actual strands of hair is smaller than other types. “It’s missing the inner structure called the medulla,” says trichologist Bridgette Hall, which makes the physical diameter of each strand smaller. It also contains less protein, which can make fine hair seem “floppy and a little fluffy,” she says. It’s usually smooth, without a lot of natural volume, and is usually seen in lighter hair colors like blonds. It’s important to note that since fine hair refers to the actual size of the hair itself, it does not have anything to do with density, which is how much hair you have. “You can have fine hair and have a full head of hair,” says Hall.

Is Fine Hair Bad?

No type of hair is inherently bad, but they all come with their own issues. Fine hair is no exception. “The biggest misconception is that fine hair doesn’t require a lot of conditioning,” says Hall. Since fine hair can seem naturally soft and silky, it’s easy to think you can skip conditioning, but “it still requires the balance of moisture, lipids, and protein like every other hair type and texture,” she advises. Without proper conditioning, fine hair can easily become dry and brittle and break easily. Heavy products can make fine hair look greasy and weigh the strands down easily, so use a lightweight conditioner regularly and look for water-based styling products.

“The other thing with fine hair is that the natural oils from the scalp are able to get to the hair fiber more rapidly,” warns Hall. This can lead to buildup on the scalp and make fine hair look greasy and oily faster. “It can also create some scalp issues, because the oil sits on the scalp and the hair doesn’t have the weight to absorb it,” she says. She recommends using a hair rinse or gentle scalp scrub to help remove built-up oil and keep the scalp fresh.

What is Thin Hair?

Fine hair and thin hair can easily be confused, but while fine hair refers to the thickness (or lack thereof) of the actual hair shaft, thin hair is about the density. In short, it’s how much hair you actually have. In most cases, having thin hair means that the hair follicles on your scalp have a greater distance between them than other hair types, according to Hall. Additionally, most hair follicles contain more than one hair; in thin hair, there could be fewer per follicle than other hair types. All of this comes down to genetics, since how much hair you have (whether it’s thin or thick) is really a matter of how many hair follicles you have naturally.

Is Thin Hair The Same As Thinning Hair?

It’s easy to confuse naturally thin hair with thinning hair, especially if you’re a man who is especially concerned with losing his hair. Having thin hair does not necessarily mean you’re losing it, though. All types and textures of hair can become thinner and having thin hair to begin with doesn’t mean you’re more prone to hair loss.

How Do You Know If You Have Thinning Hair?

“If your hair is thinning, it means the actual quality of your hair is changing,” says barber Doug Paster. Your hair could start thinning for a variety of reasons. One could be age: “when you start going grey and lose pigment, the cuticle of your hair gets skinnier and the actual hair itself becomes a little more fragile,” he says. Plus, as you age, the life cycle of your hair slows down, says Hall, which means that the length of time between the shedding phase and the regrowth phase becomes longer. There is also a process called miniaturization, which happens when the amount of hair in each follicle decreases (say, from four to one) and “can give you the feeling that your hair is thinner,” she adds. And yes, it could also be hair loss, like Male Pattern Baldness, which is largely genetic.

The best way to understand if you have thin or thinning hair is to look for changes in your hair quality and hairline over time. “If you’re thinning, you are going to see areas around your hairline start to recess,” says Hall, and you’ll start to be able to see more scalp through the hair. You may also see more shedding when you run your hands or a comb through your hair. If your hair isn’t dense, but you don’t notice any of these changes, you have thin hair; if you notice changes over time, chances are it’s thinning.

How To Identify Your Hair Type

We’ve established that fine hair is often smooth and silky, but also lays flat pretty easily. Thin hair can have a similar look, but has to do more with the density of the hair than the actual diameter of the strands. If you’re having a hard time understanding whether you have fine or thin hair (or both), the best thing to grab a handful of hair in your fist, if it’s long enough. Then looking in the mirror, look at the roots. If you can easily see your scalp through the hair, it’s thin. If you can’t, it’s medium or thick.

How To Style Fine and Thin Hair

Whether you have fine or thin hair or both, styling it properly is the best way to keep it looking its best. Luckily, the way to style both fine and thin hair is similar—it’s all about adding volume. Avoid heavy products, like oil-based pomades and thick waxes, which can weigh it down and make it look greasy. Instead, go for matte and water-based styling products that are lightweight and will help keep it looking full and natural.

Tips for Styling Fine Hair

Start with how you’re washing it. “Instead of shampoos, washes are great,” says Hall. Hair washes and rinses will help clean your hair and remove oil buildup from the scalp without weighing it down with extra ingredients. Then use a lightweight conditioner specifically formulated for fine hair to help keep it moisturized.

When it comes to styling products, go for things that are meant to pump up hair. Root sprays and mousses are a great option “for guys that don’t like a sticky feel,” she says. Add some mousse to damp hair and comb it through with your hands. Let it air dry or, for added volume, use a blow dryer on a cool temperature to “make the cuticle separate and stand up,” she advises. “It’s like roughing up fabric to create volume.”

Dry shampoo is also a great styling product for fine hair—it gives volume and texture,” says Hall. Spray a bit at the roots on dry hair and run your hands through to pump up the roots. Don’t let the name fool you. “Think of it more as a malleable hairspray,” says Paster. “You get an extra boost at the root ,but then you’re able to manipulate it. You can make it messy; you can brush it down to make it soft.” It won’t weigh your hair down like pomade and will leave it looking natural instead.

Tips for Styling Thin Hair

Styling thin (and thinning) hair is similar to styling fine hair: “you’re going to be looking for root lifts,” says Hall. Things like dry shampoo, mousses, and thickening sprays can all help create volume and fullness where there isn’t any naturally. Unless you have fine and thin hair, you could also use a thickening paste, which is more of a creamy pomade, or a lightweight balm if you have a shorter style and want more hold. Salt sprays, when sprayed on damp hair and left to dry, can create natural-looking texture and volume as well.

When you’re choosing products, avoid shine. “Use light, matte, not-shiny products to give you some texture that doesn’t look too structured,” says Axe master barber Pedro Rosario. Think about it: you may notice more scalp through thin hair when it’s wet, so products that are shiny will give the same effect. And if you know that your hair is actually thinning, and not just naturally thin, Hall recommends looking for treatment-based products that will help style your hair without damaging it further. A shampoo or conditioner, for instance, that’s specifically formulated for thinning hair will likely contain ingredients to help keep the scalp and hair follicles healthy and the hair strong.

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