What’s Your (Hair) Damage?

Everyone wants shiny, bouncy, commercial-worthy hair. In the quest for that flawless mane, many people torture their hair on a regular basis with blow dryers, flat irons or curling irons and then top it off with harsh treatments such as chemical straightening. But these everyday habits harm your delicate strands and can lead to the string of bad hair days you were hoping to avoid.The good news? Luscious locks are within your reach. By taking some smart steps, you can dial down the damage and help your hair reach its gorgeous and glossy potential.STYLING TOOLSWhile it can be as hard to part with your blow dryer or flat iron as it is to walk away from a pair of Manolos at a 70 percent off sale, styling tools only scorch and tug at your hair, causing major damage. Follow these tips to save your strands.Blow dryer: When your hair is wet, water collects under the cuticles (the outermost layer of the hair). The heat from blow-drying causes the water to form bubbles that stress and break the hair, leading to split ends and dullness.Drying every day can lead to some serious damage. Spacing out your blow-dry sessions can help minimize the risk. But the key to a healthier blowout is to use cool air, or towel-dry, and then use low heat and hit the off button as soon as your hair feels dry. Even just a few unnecessary seconds from a heat blast is a one-way ticket to Fried Hairsville.Hot tools: Hot tools like curling irons and flat irons are awesome for coaxing strands into certain styles, but they’re also a hair health killer. Heating hair above 212 degrees (the temp at which water boils) just once can cause bubble hair, which is similar to the effect of boiling water on the stove. In this case, bubbles form inside your hair shaft, causing brittleness and breakage. Not using a hot tool every day helps minimize the risk, but when you do use your tool, don’t hold it on one spot. Keep it moving in a fluid motion.Hot rollers: Hot rollers can dry out your hair just like any heated styling tool can, but the real danger here is rolling them too tight. Constant tension at the roots can cause the hair to fall out, so go easy. Pressing: Pressing with a hot comb can cause all sorts of damage. The combs are generally heated to at least 150 degrees, which can cause bubble hair, a condition in which the water in the hair actually boils, forming bubbles inside the shaft. The bubbles make the hair prone to severe breakage. If you prefer pressing, it’s best to leave it to a professional who has experience controlling heated combs. To minimize damage, don’t press your hair more than once a week.Bobby pins: Super-cute—and super-terrible for your hair. Bobby pins grip the hair tightly and cut into the hair shaft; use them repeatedly in the same spot and you’ll notice breakage. Scale back on your bobby-pin usage, or move them around so you’re not hitting the same areas every time.Elastic bands: The nature of elastic bands is to grip the hair tightly so it will stay in place, but that gripping cuts into the hair shaft and causes fraying. If you wear your hair in a ponytail every day, you might notice breakage near where you put the elastic band. Minimize damage by using thick, fabric-coated bands (never use rubbery elastics!) and give your ponytail a break, or consider a shorter haircut.Brush: For all the women who don’t have a pixie cut, brushes are kind of a necessary evil. We say “evil” because brushing causes wear and tear on the hair’s cuticle (the outer layer that seals in shine). Brush with a gentle touch! Vigorously brushing your hair Marcia Brady–style can cause all sorts of damage. Avoid metal brushes at all costs—they can actually lacerate the hair. Stick with smooth plastic or natural bristle, neither of which will snag the cuticle as much.Comb: If you use a comb to detangle your hair, for best results, start from the bottom and gently work your way up. Vigorously pulling a comb through your hair from the top down can snap strands like a rubber band. A wide-tooth comb made from plastic or wood is best—always avoid metal combs, because metal can lacerate the hair.CHEMICAL PROCESSINGWhether you’re trying to disguise gray strands or want smooth, straight hair that behaves in bad weather, chemical processing such as coloring and straightening can harm your hair. Here’s how to minimize the damage to your mane.Semi-permanent Color: All coloring processes reduce elasticity to some degree (less elasticity means more breakage). Semi-permanent color is less damaging than permanent color or lifting (colorists’ fancy word for bleaching). That’s because the dyes used have small molecules, so they get into the hair shaft easily, without damaging the outer layer. For the same reason, they also wash out quickly. Leave-in conditioners can help smooth the cuticle, which increases shine and helps your hair hold on to color for longer. Permanent dye: Permanent dye deposits color into your hair shaft. The solution most likely contains hydrogen peroxide and ammonia to open up the cuticle and drive the color molecules into the hair. Unless a full bleaching process is required to change the hair color, permanent dyes are less damaging than lifting (colorists’ fancy word for bleaching). However, the cuticle (the outside layer of hair) still gets roughed up a bit. Leave-in conditioners can help smooth the cuticle, which increases shine and helps your hair hold on to color for longer.Unless you have extreme color fade, it’s not necessary to color your entire head every time. Just concentrate on the roots. If you repeatedly darken your entire head, your ends will get darker over time. That’s because your hair gets more porous toward the ends, and porous hair absorbs more color. This is the opposite of the natural look—natural hair is darker at the roots and subtly fades lighter as it grows out. If your hair looks brassy, counteract it with a cool-toned gloss (also know as toner), which will restore your color without depositing more pigment.Lifting: While the results can be gorgeous when you lift your hair all over (lifting is colorists’ fancy word for bleaching), the process is super-damaging to your locks. Lifting requires hydrogen peroxide to strip the natural color, which increases porosity and raises the scales on the hair’s outer layer. This leads to less shine, more breakage and chronic dryness. Get thee a protein-rich hair mask, stat! Protein is a natural polymer that attaches to the hair, helping to fill in damaged areas. It forms a smooth, light coating that’s great for any hair type.If you repeatedly lift, or lighten, your hair, it will get more porous over time and eventually become prone to severe breakage. Focus the color on your roots, and if the rest of your hair gets brassy, counteract it with a cool-toned gloss (also know as toner), which will restore your color without stripping your hair.Highlights: Highlights lift, aka bleach, the hair—a process that requires hydrogen peroxide to strip the natural color. This increases porosity, leading to less shine and more breakage. With highlights, you’re not lifting your entire head of hair, which does minimize the amount of potential damage, but it’s important to treat your highlights with tender loving care to prevent as much breakage as possible. Get in the habit of using a protein-rich hair mask regularly. Adding protein back into the hair will help fill in the holes and decrease breakage. Keratin straightening: Also known as the Brazilian blowout, keratin straightening is considered a miracle by many curly-haired gals. In this process, the hair is coated with a keratin solution and pressed in place with a flat iron. The solution can help restore the hair shaft and make your hair more resilient than before, but trouble occurs if the stylist uses a flat iron that’s too hot.Scorching is common, and that can lead to mega-breakage, so if you notice broken hair after your treatment, speak up next time and ask your stylist to turn down the heat. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that most keratin solutions contain formaldehyde, a highly toxic carcinogen, which is why we don’t give this service the thumb’s up.Straightening: Permanent relaxing chemically breaks microscopic bonds in the hair so the strands can be manipulated into a straight style. Red hair and African-American hair can be more difficult to straighten, and more likely to suffer damage. The straightening process weakens the hair structure, so breakage and splitting are common. Relaxing virgin hair can be damaging, but most of the trouble arises when the solution is applied to already-straightened areas. Even if your stylist is applying the solution only to your roots, it’s difficult to avoid at least some overlap.Body wave or perm: Perms chemically break microscopic bonds in the hair so the strands can be manipulated into a wavier style. The bonds reform in a curlier shape, a delicate process that continues for two to three days after treatment (which is why you can’t wash your hair). Perming virgin hair isn’t terribly damaging (though it still breaks down the hair’s structure), but trouble arises when the solution is applied to already-permed areas. Brillo hair! Even if your stylist is applying the solution only to your roots, it’s difficult to avoid at least some overlap.HAIR HABITSSwimming in chlorinated pools, sporting tight braids and stressing out can leave you with less than healthy hair. Find out why these habits are harmful.Tight twists or braids: Tight twists and braids cause what’s known as tensile stress, which is basically a constant tugging on the hair follicle. Regular tensile stress can cause permanent hair loss, known as traction hair loss. For African-American women, tight twists and braids commonly lead to hair loss at the hairline, and in the middle of the scalp, a condition that’s even more likely among women who also have Type 2 diabetes (though scientists aren’t sure why yet). The only way to prevent this type of hair loss is to chillax on the super-tight braids—give your hair follicles a chance to recover. Chlorinated water: Swimming in a pool may feel heavenly, but it’s hellish for your hair. The chemicals in chlorine suck the moisture out of hair strands, which can lead to severe dryness or straw-like texture. If you dye your hair, the chemicals can react with your hair color—blond hair can turn green (it’s rust from the copper in chlorine oxidizing on your hair) and darker shades can turn brassy (chlorine dries out the hair, which affects color).To protect your locks at your next swim session, apply a thick conditioner or a mixture of waterproof suntan oil and conditioner. Comb it through your hair to coat each strand. This will protect your hair from chlorine (or salt, if you swim at the beach) and lock in moisture. After swimming, wash your hair immediately with a shampoo designed to remove chlorine or at least rinse with plain shower water, and use a heavy-duty conditioner.Stress: Stress has a profound effect on hair. A traumatic emotional or physical event can screw up your hair’s growth cycle, which means that about three months after the major stress, you might pull out clumps of hair while brushing or washing. Most people grow the hair back once the trauma has passed, but it can take months. Stress can also cause hair to turn gray. The tendency to go gray is mostly genetic, but if you have chronic stress in your life, it sure ain’t helping.RELATED RESEARCH: Stress Turns Hair Gray

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