Even though heat styling and coloring your hair is fun, both can result in an unwelcoming and not-so-fun side effect: hair breakage. That said, hot tools and highlights aren’t always responsible for harming your hair — simply brushing it too aggressively can take its toll on your strands as well. Whatever the cause, it helps to know how to repair hair breakage so you can restore it to its lustrous, healthy state.
The first thing to do? Figure out the source of your hair damage. “People forget that hair is elastic and needs to be treated carefully, especially when it’s chemically treated or wet,” Min Kim, celebrity hair colorist and L’Oreal Professionnel global artist, tells Bustle, adding that even ripping out topknots and ponytails are more common causes of weakened hair than one might think.
What’s more, there are two different types of hair damage: Mechanical damage comes from harsh physical treatment, such as brushing knots out too aggressively or wearing your hair up in tight styles too often, explains Franck Izquierdo, co-founder of IGK Hair Care. Chemical damage, on the other hand, is often the result of bleaching and/or dyeing hair, straightening treatments, and/or perms — any process during which a chemical is applied to the hair.
Breakage tends to happen mid-way down the hair shaft or close to the root, leaving those pieces significantly shorter than the rest of your lengths. If this sounds familiar, don’t fret: There is plenty you can do to repair your locks. Read on for what pros recommend if you’re looking to fix hair breakage.
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1. Be Gentle With Your Hair — Especially When It’s Wet
When your hair is wet, it’s at its most vulnerable state — and this calls for extra-gentle TLC. Avoid excess mechanical damage by carefully combing, brushing, and/or styling your hair, and be sure to remove styles gently. “Are you aggressively brushing your hair, especially when it's wet? Are you ripping out that topknot or ponytail? If you answered yes, you are doing your hair a disservice and more likely to see breakage and have brittle hair,” Min warns. Izquierdo also points to brushing wet hair as an unexpectedly common cause of hair breakage, and suggests only using a wide-tooth comb to gently detangle before drying.
It’s possible the way you’re towel-drying your hair could be sabotaging your strands, too. “Use a microfiber towel to blot hair dry hair before blow-drying,” says Dr. Iris Rubin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of SEEN Hair Care. “This helps reduce damage-inducing blow-dry time, and blotting the hair dry instead of rubbing the hair can help reduce breakage.” Similarly, Izquierdo advises to always make sure your hair is completely dry before using a flat iron or curling iron, as accidentally heat-styling wet hair can impair it even further.
2. Switch To Sulfate-Free Shampoo
The pros also recommend sticking to a shampoo that doesn’t contain any sulfates, aka a category of cleansing agents found in many formulas. Rubin says sulfates can strip your hair of its natural oils. “Sulfate-based shampoos can also cause color to fade,” she tells Bustle. Howard McLaren, co-founder and creative director of R+Co, echoes this, adding that harsh sulfates can weaken and harm the hair, leading to excess damage.
3. Wash Your Hair Less Often
You know how showering too often can dry out your skin in the wintertime? Such is the case for your hair as well — but this applies all year-round. “Sometimes people with oily hair tend to over-wash or use aggressive cleansers, which can cause the scalp to over-compensate with sebum production and exacerbate the issue,” McLaren tells Bustle, adding that washing too often — such as every day or even every other day — is an increasingly common cause of hair weakness and damage.
To combat this, Izquierdo suggests trying to go as long as you can between washes. “Give hair a break and allow your natural oils to produce,” he says.
4. Always Use Heat Protectant
Every hair pro says it’s incredibly important to protect your hair before heat styling. “Hot tools dry out hair, causing it to become brittle,” Kim tells Bustle. “A nourishing mask or thermal protectant are both easy to use options that protect your hair from thermal damage.”
5. Minimize Use Of Hot Tools
It can be difficult to completely avoid hot tools like blow-dryers, flat irons, or curling irons, which is why experts universally suggest limiting the use of these styling devices and turning down their temperatures whenever you do use them. “I recommend minimizing hot tool use when possible, and also lowering heat settings to the lowest effective setting,” Rubin tells Bustle.
When heat-styling, also be sure to keep moving and avoid repeatedly going over the same section of hair. “Don’t leave the tools on the hair for longer than necessary,” Izquierdo says. Of course, Izquierdo notes that your hair will benefit the most from a hot tool break entirely, even if it’s a short one — so try to let your hair air dry every once in a while.
6. Keep Hair Hydrated & Protected
Protecting your hair doesn’t end once you’ve finished styling: McLaren notes that protecting hair from environmental factors like pollution, free radicals, and UV exposure will help prevent damage in the long run, so turn to hair care products that contain UV protection.
Izquierdo also suggests protecting your hair’s ends with a hydrating serum or oil on a daily basis, as this will aid in combatting breakage, as well as applying a heavy duty repair mask once a week for a boost.
Dias, M.F. (2015). Hair Cosmetics: An Overview. International Journal of Trichology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4387693/
Lee, Y. (2011). Hair Shaft Damage from Heat and Drying Time of Hair Dryer. Annals of Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3229938/
Mhaskar, S. (2011). Hair breakage index: an alternative tool for damage assessment of human hair. J Cosmet Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21635848/
Min Kim, celebrity hair colorist and L’Oreal Professionnel global artist
Howard McLaren, co-founder and creative director of R+Co
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