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

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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, updated product formulations and hard-working hair towels, it’s no longer that simple.

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.”

Inside tip:

Celebrity hairstylist Clayton Hawkins labels going to bed with unbrushed or tangled wet hair as “a nightmare” and recipe for breakage, but offers this wake-up-with-waves tip: “As long as you properly detangle, you should be alright. A lot of my clients sleep in two or three braids if they have to go to bed with wet hair. That way they at least wake up with a heat-free wave when it dries.” Renee Cohan, stylist at New York’s Oscar Blandi Salon says if you absolutely, positively, have to go to bed with wet hair, you should put a towel on your pillow before resting your head—especially if it is very wet. “Plus, you don’t want the pillows to get a mildewy smell,” she says. “If your hair is long, you can put in a loose top knot with a scrunchy so there won’t be any pulling or snagging if you toss and turn.”

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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.

Cohan also stresses the importance of brushing correctly. “Most people don’t comb the conditioner through with a wide tooth comb or brush. So, when they take, they get out of the shower they have to rake through the hair. The best brushes are Janeke flat brush Epic professional brush—the best for your money on Amazon. The hair is more fragile when wet, so no fine tooth combs to get through the tangles. I always use Milbon blowout primer whether I’m blow drying or air drying. This helps with frizz and gives extra moisture to the hair.”

Inside tip:

In order to be strand-smart, Hawkins recommends investing in the right brush. “When your hair is wet, it is at its most fragile and vulnerable. Hair is porous—and colored or damaged hair is especially porous—so your hair is basically tripled in weight when it’s soaking wet. Mishandling or improper brushing of the hair that’s already holding on to so much weight will cause it to break off. That’s why it’s so important to detangle and gently brush either in the shower or right after. Investing in a quality wide-tooth comb [he likes Tangle Teezer’s Wide-Tooth Comb or their Ultimate Detangler] is crucial!”

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.”

Myth 6: Conditioner is not for the roots.

Hairstylist and trichologist Shab Reslan says this is one in-the-shower tip she keeps hearing that is false and, while it might have held truth in the past, modern-day formulations have made it passé. “Conditioner is most definitely for the roots! New formulations are designed to be lightweight and nourishing for the scalp, as well as the ends of the hair. It’s important to not skip over instructions anymore because new formulations and ingredients now being used in hair conditioners are really changing the application and timing process.”

Myth 7: A good blowout begins with wet hair.

An instance a little air-drying is good: “Most people are conditioned to blow-dry their hair wet after following their hairdresser’s protocol, however, allowing your hair to air dry for 30-40 minutes in order to eliminate excess moisture can yield a fuller and more voluminous blowout while also protecting your hair,” Reslan says, adding that blow-drying hair anywhere from 50-to-100-percent dry is much easier on it. “When you tackle your hair wet, you’re forced to give extra heat in order to dry the hair and may have to pass through the hair many more times. When you don’t force the hair dry and, technically, over-heat it, your blowout can produce a smooth finish and look even more voluminous, compared to starting with hair completely wet.”

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