Going way back, I always saw my mom and the attention she gave to her looks: She'd blow dry, curl and hairspray the hell out of her hair every single day, even if she wasn't planning to leave the house, was headed to the hospital for surgery, planned to work in the yard all day, etc. She applied makeup with the same steadfast reliability as well. Never a day without being beautiful. As for me, I haphazardly tried different hairstyles (it was the 80's and 90's, so spiral perms and teased hair were still in) and didn't find a good fit with any of that jazz. My hair wasn't much of a fan of holding curl back then, and it really hasn't changed a lick.
In high school, my mom (a corporate accountant) became part-owner of an Aveda salon in my hometown as an investment, so I got all products at cost and 1/2 priced services. (Any girl would love that!) Not surprisingly, I had my hair highlighted and dyed professionally from the time I turned 15 years old, and I used great quality products for a long time. In college, my mom sold her stake in the salon when she moved across the state, so I was on my own, but still addicted to Aveda hair care and went to pricey Aveda salons near my college and in the town where my parents then lived. That was around the time when I became more experimental with my hair color and it was often some combination of blonde, red or brown with different colors (or combinations of colors) of highlights. At one point, I was so over-highlighted that my hair was virtually blonde. People who know me now find this quite amusing. (Apparently I don't strike anyone as a vivacious blonde type.)
Throughout those years, I heat-styled my hair regularly with my arsenal of hot rollers, curling irons, flat irons and blow dryers. My hair was always beaten into submission by these tools, but ironically, they only made the condition of my hair worse. I was also using styling products loaded with alcohol, which (again) ravaged my hair, and soon my mop of hair became increasingly frizzy, messy and brittle. So much so, in fact, that my mom had a habit of reminding me how "wild" my hair was nearly every time I saw her. (Thanks for the love, Mom!) The combination of chemical treatments, an over-abundance of styling products and heat styling really tortured my tresses.
Sadly, I've found just about every way imaginable to damage my hair, short of lighting it on fire.
However I've learned my lessons by trial and error, and now I'm here to share them. If you, too, are a member of the Damaged Hair Club, here are 13 things you can do to bring your hair back to shiny, bouncy, fabulous life.
1. Just say NO to extensive heat styling. This may sound unrealistic to some who can't function without their hair dryers or flat irons, but hear me out. When you stop using crazy hot, drying heat on your strands, fresh, uncompromised hair grows in it's place, and this hair is usually more manageable and smooth. If you can't live without heat styling every day, using a thermal protectant will improve the health of your hair dramatically. I like Aveda Brilliant Damage Control, which protects against heat and adds loads of shine, as well as Chi 44 Iron Guard Heat Protectant spray. Spray these products on damp hair, and heat style as usual. When I hear that someone blows their hair dry, followed by flat-ironing it and finally curling it, following up with a healthy dose of alcohol-laced hairspray, then they wonder why their hair is a mess, I tell them it's no secret--Their hair is being tortured! Healthy hair doesn't require you to use 3 heat styling tools every day to achieve a decent look. Yes, some hair product and a bit of heat styling are the norm for most of us, but cutting back will help improve the health of your hair.
2. Choose wisely when coloring your hair. Coloring your hair frequently damages your hair, even if you use great products. Hair dyes strip your hair of its lipid coating each time you use it, and those lipids are what keep your hair, soft, shiny and strong. That's why frequent dying causes hair to become dry, brittle and prone to breakage, which also makes hair more resistant to holding curl or straightening from other heat styling tools. It's a vicious cycle! Fortunately, you have several ways of dealing with this. First, you can dye your hair less frequently. Second, only dye your roots rather than all hair every 2nd or 3rd visit to the salon. Finally, you can just go au natural and stop dying it at all, I chose to go au natural a number of years ago just to stop the madness. To minimize the issues with my highlights growing out, I dyed my hair a color close to my natural shade so the highlights would be less noticeable as they grew out. If you MUST color, consider scaling back on frequency or choosing more gentle products (i.e. semi-permanent or henna dyes).
3. Protect hair from the sun. I cannot stress this enough now that summer is here! If you're going to be spending a length of time in direct sun, there are steps you can take to keep your hair healthy. Wear hats, scarves or bandanas over your hair. Use strengthening products, daily if you spend a lot of time in the sun. Use a great UV and heat protectants for sun exposure (I like Fekkai's Soleil line). If you wear your hair in a ponytail in direct sun for long stretches of time, the heat and sun will break down those protective lipids and could cause your hair to snap, especially right where your hair elastic sits. Not cool. (I speak from experience on this one.)
4. Make pool chemicals your enemy. I grew up spending my summers in the pool, and also swim whenever I have a chance now that I'm an adult. I've found that my hair has often smelled like chlorine and broke easily after swimming, since I didn't wash the chemicals out until hours later in some cases. The sound of my hair snapping has stuck with me to this day, and it's like nails on a chalkboard! One very simple and cheap way of protecting your hair is to simply spray it with tap or spring water from a small spray bottle right before you get in the pool or hot tub. And when I say "spray it", I mean hose it down, get it sopping wet so the fresh water absorbs into your hair before the pool water and their associated chemicals have a chance to do so. It makes a HUGE difference, as the chemicals won't infiltrate your hair and break down the protective lipids.
5. Beware of hard water! Have you ever noticed your hair smelling like a copper penny? I did when I was in college, and a friend of mine who was a hair stylist said, "Oh, that's because you have hard water and the minerals in that water can build-up on hair and damage it. That's why your hair breaks easily." Sally Beauty Supply had a great treatment by Ion (Effective Care treatment in a foil pouch) that I used a lot while living in the dorms, and it helped ensure that our un-softened water wasn't destroying my hair. Soft water does help with some damage control from minerals. Well water is the worst for your hair as it's typically full of minerals, as evidenced by sinks and tubs stained a lovely coppery, orange color. Also, ask a blonde who has lived in a home with well water about what that does to his/her hair color. No bueno. City water is typically softened a bit already by the time if reaches your house, so that's helpful. Water softeners are also helpful with either water type, but they use other additives to create softer water (i.e. salt) which can dry out your hair. In either case, city or softened well water are your best bets to keep your hair healthy.
6. Exercise caution with wet hair. We've all heard not to brush wet hair, as it can cause breakage. (Again, with that hair snapping sound in my head... *shudders*) However, that cautionary statement was built off of old plastic bristle brushes, which were not exactly gentle on wet hair. Wet hair stretches and will eventually break when brushed with the old style brushes, harsh pulling, etc. With the invention of the Wet Brush, however, we needn't worry any longer. These brushes are gentle on wet hair, and I haven't noticed any increase in breakage since I began using one a year ago. If you're still scared of the brush, a wide-tooth comb works great on wet hair, too. Wet brushes cost less than $10 and a good wide-tooth comb only costs a few dollars at Target or Sally's. If you have troubled tresses, it can also be helpful to use a detangling spray or leave-in conditioner (I like It's A 10 Miracle Leave-In Product) before attempting to de-snarl your hair with one of these tools.
7. Use good quality hair products. I know, I know, you probably think I'm saying this because I've used many salon quality products in the past. However, this is not the case. After college when I was out on my own, I wasn't earning much money, so I purchased the cheapest hair products at Walmart. We're talking White Rain shampoo and conditioner at a buck and change apiece. While it was effective for my pocketbook, it only made my hair more brittle, dry and unmanageable. I started using better products as my salary increased, and my hair's condition improved. Products that are sulfate-free and have minimal or no alcohol are typically most gentle for troubled strands, but you really do get what you pay for with many hair products. Right now, L'Oreal has the Ever line of sulfate-free products that I really enjoy, and the price points are great.
8. Befriend hair oils. A great way to smooth and soothe damaged hair is using hair oils, like those with argan oil. I have oily hair, so I always thought hair oils would only make my head look like an oil slick. Not the case! I've used a number of hair oils, and find that they coat and protect my hair well while softening and adding tons of shine. So far, I've liked Moroccanoil and Bumble & Bumble Hairdresser's Invisible Oil best, but John Frieda makes a very affordable and effective hair oil, too. Finding products that tame fly-aways and moisturize dry hair well without making my hair look greasy has been a big win.
9. Hair elastic hell. Hair elastics can be brutal on dry, damaged hair, and help seal the deal on any possible breakage that is looming on fragile strands. Using coated, metal-free (AKA snag-free) hair elastics helps tremendously, as does using the newer ribbon-style knotted hair elastics. The ribbon-style elastics claim not to leave a dent in your hair, but I have news: They do! However, they are made of softer, wider material than a traditional coated hair elastic, which disperses the pressure of the band over a wider section of your hair, meaning that the chance for breakage is dramatically reduced and the dent is less noticeable. Yay! Don't ever use uncoated elastics or plain rubber bands in your hair. No matter how healthy your hair is, you're asking for trouble, and that trouble is called broken, messed up hair. Yuck.
10. Maintain a regular haircut schedule. Whether you get a full haircut or just a trim, getting haircuts regularly (every 6-8 weeks, depending on length and style) actually helps promote healthier hair. You're not only trimming off the frizziest parts of the hair and any split ends, but trimming those split ends off helps prevent individual hair strands from continuing to split up the strand, making hair an even frizzier mess. This ensures that you also keep healthy hair from root to tip, and you'll notice a difference in how well it holds its hairstyle and it's manageability.
11. Dry hair gently. Aside from skipping or minimizing hair dryer use, don't over-do your post shower hair drying by rubbing a rough towel over your tresses too vigorously or for too long. Simply squeeze excess water out of hair and wrap in a lightweight towel, such one made by Aquis, which absorbs water from the hair without the bulk or rough texture of a traditional towel. In this method, there's no rubbing involved, and I've been doing it now for years. I recently heard that others sometimes wrap their hair in an old t-shirt, but that only works well if your hair isn't long and if the t-shirt is thick and 100% cotton.
12. Invest in good quality hair brushes. Mark my words: Crappy brushes will destroy your hair. While someone may debate that they've been using the same dollar store brushes for years and their hair is "just fine", there's a reason why some hair brushes cost big bucks and people swear by them as their hair saviors (ahem, Mason Pearson). Good quality brushes will have flexible tines to minimize breakage, and those tines are typically made of materials like nylon or boar hair. Good brushes should last you for 10 or more years with regular cleaning and careful use--Yes, really! I have an Aveda paddle brush that I've owned for 11 years and it's still in great condition. Brushes with tines or bristles that fall out of the base, have bristle/tine tips that fall off exposing rough ends or have tines that break are usually signs of poor quality brushes. However, money isn't always the sign of a good quality brush. While I've found that good quality brushes typically cost a little more, the Wet Brush is fabulous AND inexpensive, with its flexible tines that keep your hair from breaking.
13. Special treatments. Just like your facial skin needs an occasional treatment, so does your hair. There are two special treatments for my hair that I swear by. The first is using a deep conditioner once per week. There are many wonderful deep conditioners out there at various price points. On the higher end, I like Redken Smooth Lock Butter Silk Rinse-Out Treatment and Macadamia Deep Repair Masque. However, I find myself always going back to my favorite budget-friendly drugstore alternative, Aussie 3 Minute Miracle deep conditioner (any of the varieties will do). The second treatment I love is to use a clarifying shampoo. I use this periodically if I feel a build up of hair product and/or sweat. Please note that this type of shampoo is only for occasional use and truly does strip all oils, build-up and gunk out of your strands. Since it will get your hair squeaky clean, always follow up with a deep conditioner. Treatment oils are popular now, and I've even seen hair exfoliators, like one sold by Oscar Blandi! I can't wait to try that one. I have a feeling that it's just a creamier version of a clarifying shampoo, though. In general, treatments can be really helpful in revitalizing your hair, even if it's generally healthy. It brings wonderful bounce and shine back to your hair, and who doesn't love that?
Some of you may have noticed that none of these involve natural remedies. I'm not a fan of slathering olive oil, avocado or mayonnaise on my hair, and honestly, those I know who have tried such things never had anything good to say about them.
Overall, reversing hair damage can take time and care. Knowing your hair type, scalp type and any issues will help you to choose the best possible options to care for your tresses. Using scalp treatment products can also improve the health and appearance of your hair, as solving scalp/root issue, will ultimately lead to improved hair quality in new growth.