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At what point does dyeing your hair literally make it fall out?

Last week, Keira Knightley confessed that her hair began to fall out in chunks.

“I have dyed my hair virtually every color imaginable for different films,” she said in an interview with InStyle. “It got so bad that my hair literally began to fall out of my head.”

Not even her access to celebrity hairstylists and the finest salons and products could save her from what so many of us have experienced: seriously bleach-damaged hair. Hey, sometimes stars really are just like us.

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But can bleach really cause your hair to fall out so badly you need to wear wigs? If you do it wrong, it sure can says Lia Flynn, a hair stylist in Denver who specializes in doing trendy rainbow hair colors (which require a lot of bleach). “It sounds like Keira got what we call a ‘chemical cut’,” she says. “The hair doesn’t fall out of your scalp so much as it just breaks off because the strands have been so weakened.”

This is a phenomenon that anyone who bleaches their hair long enough will likely experience. Flynn explains that the developer changes the pH balance in your hair, opening the cuticle so your old color can come out. But even after you rinse it out and dye a color over the top it still retains this porousness, which makes it very fragile, she adds. Do this over and over again and you have a recipe for “gummy,” dry, damaged hair that, yes, can break off by the handful.

Eventually the damage was so bad for Knightley that she had to resort to wigs for acting and a big chop for her real-life locks. But she accidentally stumbled onto an ingenious solution that has restored her fried fringe to all its former lustrous glory. Her secret weapon? Pregnancy. After her daughter Edie’s birth a year ago, Knightley started to notice new hair growth and it hasn’t stopped since.

She’s not the only one to have noticed this perk of pregnancy. In fact, it’s some women’s favorite part about growing a baby. But even though your locks look shinier and thicker, it’s a little bit of an illusion according to the American Pregnancy Association. The extra estrogen in your body doesn’t cause more hair to grow, but it does keep it from falling out as quickly, making it appear thicker. In addition, many newly pregnant women start taking prenatal vitamins, which some say can make hair look shinier and healthier (although there’s no hard science to back that up).

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So what can a lady do if she wants thicker, stronger hair and she doesn’t feel like having a baby? Protein treatments and pH balancing masks are Flynn’s No. 1 recommendation for healing damaged hair and a must for women who are maintaining their lighter hair color with frequent dyeing. It’s also important, she says, to wash with shampoos and conditioners specially formulated to protect fragile dyed hair and to wash only when you absolutely need to.

As for all of those pricey hair-growth vitamins? “Forget them. I’ve never found one that really works and I’ve tried them all,” she says. A 2012 study found that supplementing with biotin might help increase the rate at which your hair grows and slow down thinning, but the rest are just overpriced vitamins.

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