It’s a given that exposing your hair to harsh chemicals and tons of heat will break down the integrity of your strands and damage them. Knowing what can wreak havoc on your hair can make a big difference in how severe the damage (if any) will be.
Anything that makes use of abrasive chemicals—think straighteners and perms—physically alters the shape and curl pattern of the cortex of the hair. “Extreme overprocessing can lead to a breakage at the skin’s surface and entire areas of hair loss, which can sometimes be permanent,” says Dr. Craig L. Ziering.
Heat-based styling tools emit high levels of heat (some go upward of 400 degrees) that force the hydrogen bonds in the hair to change, causing water to boil inside the hair. This results in moisture loss and dryness. If you use a heat tool on a daily basis, you’re going to have a lot more damage than someone who uses one only once or twice a week. Heat is also known for lifting and breaking the hair’s protective cuticle. “Applying heat for too long on the hair and pressing and pulling irons that are set at 475 degrees are extremely damaging to the hair,” says celebrity hairstylist Kevin Mancuso.
The old wives’ tale of brushing your hair 100 times a day doesn’t really do much for your hair at all. Brushing creates friction in the strand that can fray the ends and cause them to unravel and split. Using a comb (a wide-tooth one as opposed to a metal one) is best. But, if you prefer a brush, opt for one that has natural bristles, which won’t damage the hair and also stimulates the scalp. “Always start at the tips instead of the root of the hair and very slowly work your way up to the root,” says Dermatologist Jennifer Ahdout, MD.
Trendy braids and ponytails can look cute, and are easy to pull off. However, wearing your hair back on a regular basis and pulling it back too tight can cause permanent damage, like traction alopecia, which causes the hair to start to miniaturize and eventually stop growing. To limit damage, Takamichi Saeki of New York’s Takamichi Hair suggests using soft elastic ribbon hair bands instead of more traditional rubber bands.
Washing too often can strip much needed oil from the hair. The outer layer of hair has a natural lipid barrier that is secreted by the sebaceous glands in the scalp. Washing reduces the barrier and breaks down proteins, making the hair dry and dull. In fact, Saeki says that overwashing causes the scalp to produce an excess of sebum, which can lead to an oily scalp. If you can, try and go three days between shampoos.
All types of color can create damage. White explains that the ammonia (it opens the cuticle) and peroxide (causes the color molecules to swell into the cortex and keep them there) do the most harm. “Peroxide and ammonia aren’t in vegetable dyes, semipermanent color and glosses, which is why they are more gentle.” Bleach, which is used to lighten hair, creates holes and tears in an effort to deposit the color. “Bleach and high-lift blonds are most damaging because of the amount of ammonia and high-volume peroxide that are needed to go light. But, it really depends on the health of your hair, its texture, strength of the lightener and processing time that together cause damage,” says celebrity colorist Kyle White.
Poorly fitted hair extensions can cause serious damage to the hair since they put tension and stress on the root of the hair. Warn says that adhering extensions to fragile hair and using too much glue can cause damage, too. “When they are removed incorrectly damage can be done.”
Similar to how the sun breaks down healthy skin, it does the same to healthy hair. UV rays emitted from the sun wear down keratin in the hair, causing it to become weak, dry and thirsty for moisture. “The hair becomes lighter, drier and more brittle in the sun, which are all signs of damage,” says Dr. Ahdout.
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