How to Fix Damaged Hair (and when to cut it off)
Is your hair somewhat damaged or totally trashed? And, what can you do when it‘s true that you can’t mend split ends? Here’s the latest on hair that’s hurting, along the lines of prevent, correct and protect.
What Causes Hair Damage?
In 2006, a Regis salons survey found that 70% of U.S. women thought their hair was damaged; a September, 2012, Head & Shoulders survey found 57% thought so. That’s progress, at least. With healthy-looking hair at the forefront of fashion and technological improvements in products that really do work from the inside out, the only new danger is in spring’s love affair with the ubiquitous ponytail—every designer embraced it.
According to the Head & Shoulders survey, one of the leading causes of hair damage is putting hair in a tight ponytail. But really, it’s the chemical whammy that kills cuticles, and here’s why.
Damaged Hair for Smarties
Chemistry is cool: it explains why and how certain products can strengthen and hydrate hair, and why specific things damage it. Technically, hair is dead because once outside the body, its cells no longer divide. But it can be degraded, just like fabric that’s over-exposed to bleach.
What is hair? About 90% keratin protein, along water, lipids and melanin (color granules). The hair’s outermost cuticle layer has overlapping scales that lie flat if the hair is healthy. Sebum naturally coats it: That isn’t a bad thing; it’s a shine thing.
The cortex is largely keratin protein, which comprises coiled chains of amino acids. The chains are cross-linked, much like a ladder with rungs, only the links form different types of bonds, as opposed to one horizontal rung.
Bonds that Bind
- Hydrogen bonds are broken every time hair gets wet; then they reform. That’s why wet hair is fragile, and you can dry it into a new shape. Lack of moisture can reduce these bonds. They’re weak, but there are so many, they account for almost 1/3 of the hair’s strength, so you definitely want to shore them up.
- Another 1/3 of hair’s strength comes from weak salt bonds that depend on pH. Strong acidic or alkaline solutions break salt bonds.
- Disulfide bonds are the permanent bonds that get broken during chemical processes, like perming and relaxing. In perming, some but not all the bonds are reformed into a new shape. That’s what makes straight hair curly—it’s also why repeated perming creates mushy, spaghetti-like strands. Disulfide bonds are permanently broken during relaxing, to make the hair straight. (Some newer products like Surface Hair by Wayne Grund claim to loosen the bonds instead of breaking them.) Once these bonds are broken, the hair is naturally weaker.
Pigment granules also occur in the cortex; permanent coloring and bleaching change them through a chemical reaction that alters the hair’s color. The upshot: chemicals affect the shape, strength, elasticity and moisture level of your hair.
The medulla runs through the center and can even be absent—usually in very fine and blonde hair. Finally comes “intercellular cement,” lipids and proteins that join the cells in the cortex. You can’t see any of this, but R&D departments do when they test their product’s effect on hair by viewing it microscopically. L’Oreal patented the Ceramide in Kérastase, because it replicates intercellular cement, strengthening the hair.
The front line defense against damaged hair is simple: Don’t do what causes the damage in the first place. Then, correct what you can and protect against future damage. According to top hairstylists, the 5 most common causes of hair damage are:
1. Relaxing, Straightening and Texturizing/Perming
If you understood the chemistry lesson, then you get that chemical treatments weaken hair. Most relaxers use sodium hydroxide (lye) or a close chemical cousin—don’t be fooled by “no lye.” Japanese Thermal Straightening uses the same chemical permanent waves do, thioglycolate.
Chemically altered hair can be protected with TLC, but the real problem comes with the retouch. Overlapping between the new growth (roots) and the previously chemically treated hair results in compound damage. Even pros find it hard to avoid that fine line—home users always create overlap. Also, relaxers should be applied to the fragile hairline last, which home users seldom do.
Once hair has been chemically straightened (or texturized to either create or loosen curl), use moisturizing products daily, deep-condition weekly and dial down the heat when styling. If you see breakage or if your hair is lifeless, get a good haircut and up your hair’s moisture/protein balance with a customized, in-salon treatment like Mizani Custom Blend Conditioning or Redken Chemistry.
Straight Tip: Brazilian Keratin treatments don’t break bonds, they coat the hair with a fibrous latticework to hold it in place straight. Shampoos and conditioners with sulfates degrade the latticework faster.
2. Bleaching and Coloring
Hair lighteners and permanent color also act in the cortex. According to Suzie Bond, who owns Perfect 5th salon in Mooresville, NC, during lightening with bleach, the internal protein chains are broken down as the color lightens. Permanent color also lightens before it deposits a new shade, but not in as stressful a manner as bleach does.
“Repeated applications are what usually create trouble,” says Bond. “The protective cuticle gets opened with every application to allow the product into the cortex. The hair has no ability to close the cuticle back down on its own or repair itself.”
Repairing structural damage takes time and there are many hair care ingredients that can help, such as moisturizers, keratin protein and amino acids—if they penetrate to the cortex and seal the cuticle. Read product claims for both these benefits.
“To avoid damage when home-coloring, apply the color to the new growth only,” adds Bond. “Demi-permanent color also opens the cuticle. With repeated applications—say, over six—you could experience some damage from it, but not as much you’d get from permanent haircolor.”
To prevent problems, never over-bleach hair. Only retouch your roots, and correct dryness with leave-in conditioners. Avoid salt water and the sun’s UV rays. The latter can break down melanin and keratin as much as a gentle lightener can.
Color Flash: Never use bleach-based lighteners on relaxed hair—it will break. And don’t think “ammonia-free” permanent color is a panacea. If it is permanent and ammonia-free, it uses MEA, a chemical that’s similar to ammonia, which may not lighten as precisely.
3. Thermal Damage
Over heat-styling leads to dry, brittle hair with split ends. Or worse, a burned off cuticle. Why then do barely
20% of women use thermal protectors before heat styling?
“Think of the hair fiber as fabric; silk-like, healthy fine hair can take heat at 300-degrees, but corduroy-strong coarse hair can withstand 400-degrees,” says Eric Fisher, owner of Eric Fisher Salons and Academy in Wichita, KS. “I always protect the hair first with Aquage Beyond Shine and work it in with my fingers. Then, I keep the blow dryer moving.”
Direct air flow down strands, and be fast. When using thermal irons, test a small section first, slowly increasing the time the iron is held in place. You can and should take regular breaks from heat styling—get creative!
In the End: Damaged ends either split or come to a point, as opposed to appearing blunt. “When a woman doesn’t want to cut off more than half an inch, I show her how her hair at the ends should be as thick as it is in the middle,” notes Fisher. “The only solution to damaged ends is to cut them off.”
4. Too Heavy or Incorrectly Applied Hair Extensions
When Jennifer Aniston said hair extensions ruined her hair, women started removing them—something you should never do at home unless they clip in. Attachment systems are numerous and varied, but the newest, safest one uses flat tape bonding. The old track-and-sew method also minimizes damage—in “natural hair” salons, these extension styles are known as “protective,” because they protect hair that’s transitioning and has a fragile line between the previously relaxed hair and the curly new growth.
At the country’s premiere hair extension salon, Angelo David Salon in NYC, extensions are custom created for the individual, with the natural hair’s health in mind. Home care is critical to avoiding breakage, and Angelo sends clients home with special a hand out. The key: TLC! Use detanglers and comb gently. Always shampoo, condition and style in a downward direction. Avoid pulling and tugging.
Hair extensions that are too long or too heavy for fragile or fine hair can also cause breakage. Extensions should never be used on damaged or bleached hair.
On Going Faux: Have an experienced extensionist apply and remove extensions, and check your natural hair for breakage each time. Traction alopecia from too-tight braids or extensions destroys the follicle forever.
5. Mechanical Damage
Rubbing, pulling, tugging and brushing hair when it’s wet stretches it to the breaking point, creates spilt ends and roughs up the cuticle. Since most of this damage occurs at the ends or on top, Fisher advises blotting hair gently, then combing through sections with a large-toothed comb, working from the ends up.
Go slowly and use a leave-in detangler. Then, section off the top to dry last. Flat wrap the hair forward, then back, as you remove excess moisture before styling. When hair is 75-80% dry, apply styling products evenly from roots to ends by starting in back and working forward. Hair will be much easer to mange and style. “Women always start by putting products in the middle, even my wife does it,” laments Fisher.
The big brush off: According to Sam Villa, education artistic director for Redken 5th Avenue, when you hold a brush horizontally and brush downward, the rows of bristles turn little snarls into big, fat knots. Instead, hold the brush vertically at 45-degrees, angled downward. Fewer rows of bristles engage the hair and detangling is easier.
Best Shampoos For Damaged Hair
At Home: L’Oréal Paris Total Repair 5 with Pro-Keratine and Ceramide
In Salons: Suzie Bond recommends L’Oreal Professionnel Serie Expert Fiberceutic
Best Conditioners for Damaged Hair
In salons and online: Philip Kingsley Daily Damage Defense Conditioning Spray
In stores: Herbal Essences Hydralicious Reconditioning Conditioner for Dry/Damaged Hair
Best Duos: Kérastase Resistance Force Architecte shampoo and masque
ApHogee 2-Step Protein Treatment and Balanced Moisturizer
Home Remedies for Damaged Hair
You can slather on all the olive oil and egg whites you want, but they don’t penetrate to the hair’s cortex. Hot oil treatments are fine, but anything thick and moisturizing will smooth the cuticle. The questions are: will it wash out easily, and do you really want to smell like mayo or corn oil?
If you must: Shampoo with a clarifying shampoo and towel blot your hair. Then mix1 part protein conditioner, 1 part All-Nutrient Pure Oil or extra virgin olive oil and 1 part moisturizing conditioner. Apply to your hair as a mask and cover with a plastic bag, then a towel. This uses natural heat from the scalp to encourage product penetration. Wait 20 minutes, then rinse.