The Common Mistake That Can Lead to Mold Growing in Your Hair

It’s a healthy-hair tale that’s told time and time again: Anything for your hair that involves heat-related styling is bad; anything that lets it dry naturally is good. That statement might have held some truth at one time, but with all the modern hair tools and updated product formulations, it’s no longer that simple. Air-drying may be more damaging than you could ever imagine—not just for the health of your strands and scalp, but even your skin.

Myth 1: Going to bed with wet hair is a good idea.

In shocking-hair news, this “everyone has done it” habit can actually lead to mold growing on your scalp. Anabel Kingsley, trichologist at Philip Kingsley, explains that like with anything that you might expose to for too long, your scalp (and pillow!) can actually harbor bacteria and house mold, which in turn, can cause flaking and dandruff. “Being the environment from which hair grows, scalp health is vital for healthy hair. In fact, studies have proven that a flaky scalp can cause and/or worsen hair loss,” Kingsley says. “Plus, if the scalp is in bad condition, the hair is likely to be dull and limp.” New York hair stylist Ilias Zarbalis says the combo of wet hair and sleeping can also cause frizz, flyaways and breakage. “If you do have to go to bed with wet hair, never skip out on some sort of hydrating and protective product and try to get as much moisture out of your hair as possible. This will help products absorb and avoid damage—wet strands have a tendency to be more pliable, causing them to break easily, especially as you sleep.”

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Myth 2: Brushing through wet hair is OK, as long as your use the right brush.

Not exactly, and this is probably the number-one mistake most people make when it comes to air-drying their hair. Kingsley says it’s better to start with a comb if your hair is wet, and only make the switch to a brush once it is dry. “Wet hair is swollen hair and it stretches by as much as 20 to 30 percent,” she explains. “Roughly brushing your hair when it’s wet can snap it like a rubber band.” And when it is time to brush, look for what Kingsley refers to as a “scalp and hair-friendly” pick: brushes that are padded and vented and have rounded, flexible plastic prongs. “Whatever kind of brush you do use, be gentle,” she adds.

Myth 3: You don’t have to be that careful when handling wet hair.

Britta Cox, founder and creator of Aquis, a line of absorbent Aquitex hair towels, says most hair issues start from how you manage wet hair in general. “Water in hair does not come without some risk of damage, and the wetter the hair, the more the risk. Depending on the type and health of hair, that risk varies.” As she explains, hair contains keratin proteins held together by disulfide and hydrogen bonds, which provide strength and shape. “If the hydrogen bonds are exposed to water for too long, they break and hair can plasticize. It gets mushy from the inside and becomes stretchy, which weakens it and can lead to split ends and breakage. It’s always safer to work with damp hair as opposed to soggy-wet hair to minimize these risks.”

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Myth 4: Towel-drying is totally overrated.

“Towel-drying your hair is the first step you should do once you get out of the shower!” Zarbalis says. It may sound simple, but this tip will benefit you in the long run: “Rubbing hair too forcefully will roughen up the cuticle, leading to frizz and breakage. I recommend blotting hair with a towel and shaking it out with your fingers. This will take hair longer to dry, but it will be healthier.” And if you do air-dry, Zarbalis says nailing down the proper product lineup is key. “Using a little bit of product is a very important step in order to maintain a desirable look. Most hair has a natural wave, so I suggest a curl or wave cream. For someone with fine or straight hair, I recommend using an oil at the ends to tame flyaways.”

Myth 5: Heat-styling is never healthy.

Yes, heat tools can be taxing on your hair, but Zarbalis says they don’t have to be. “Before using a heat tool, it is important to hydrate and protect your locks to ensure a nourished look. Using a heat protectant will help lessen damage, while also increasing shine and eliminating frizz,” he adds. “I also always recommend setting the tool on a low temperature. It should be hot enough to curl or straighten your hair, but not hot enough to burn it. And at no time should you ever hold a heat tool in one spot—always keep it moving.”

Inside tip: Still not convinced how water affects hair? Cox says to do this simple at-home test: Put one hair into a glass of water; leave it there for a few minutes before taking it out. Hold each end of the strand and slowly pull on the hair, you can feel it stretch. Pull until it snaps and breaks. Now, hold a dry hair and pull from each end the same way and notice how much stronger it is. “You can also test the integrity of the cuticles by running your finger along the length of a wet hair versus a dry hair. Wet hair swells and raises cuticles, making them rough. A healthy hair has closed cuticles to protect the interior of the hair so it feels smoother.”

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