I have long hair – why does it “knot”, and what is the reason it’s so hard to separate when “knotted”?

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People with long and short hair can often find themselves wincing when combing their hair, because it’s “knotted” and pulling on their scalp.

Generally speaking, most of us would “power through” to separate the “knot”. But, what causes it? And, how exactly has it “knotted”?

Does hair want to tangle, for example, or is it that hair is trying to form a cohesive bond with other strands (I.e do dreadlocks play some part in this?)

I’d be interested to know. Hopefully there’s been some study into this sort of thing (knot theory? 😅)

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Part of it is the same thing that makes headphones in your pocket knot up–random motion sometimes gets caught up in hard to reverse ways and then you have a knot. But because it’s happening at a barely-visible scale and among thousands of strands with hair, it’s harder to just untangle like you do your headphones.

Part of it has to do with the structure of hair, and that part can act differently depending on what type of hair you have (this is why some types of hair form locs better than others). If you look at hair under a microscope, it’s made up of tiny scales, and the strand isn’t completely round (this also varies by hair type). Both the scales and the shape can affect knotting.

Different conditions (heat, pH, moisture) can affect how flat the scales lay, and when the scales are more open, they stick out more and can catch on each other, making knotting worse (it takes less weird relative positioning for the hair to get “stuck”). A good hair care process can minimize this influence, especially finishing up with a cold water rinse.

The shape of the strand has a couple effects. Curly hair is typically made up of flat strands, and straight hair is made up of more round strands. Those round strands essentially have nothing guiding them into alignment, so they’re more prone to that random motion that produces knotting, while those flat strands can lay flat against each other and move in groups (eg ringlets at a certain level of curliness), and staying grouped up both reduces the random motion and shifts the random motion to motion between groups rather than motion between individual strands, at which point its easier to untangle.

That “staying grouped up” matters, though, and default hair care is often intended more for straight hair than curly hair. A typical hairbrush often breaks up those groupings, negating much of that effect, which is why curly hair methods typically advocate strongly against using hairbrush.

I’m not entirely sure about dreadlocks, and I’m probably too white to be the best person to explain them, but my understanding is that proper dreadlocks are more about encouraging and tightening up the grouping tendencies of curly hair than producing knots, and proper dreadlocks are not knotted.

You just need to keep a clean edge on it and it won’t tangle as much. Get your stylist to trim off the uneven ends (about 1/8 of an inch) every six weeks. Work with mine!