While the latest hairstyles and hair colors may look great, dermatologists warn that many women are subjecting their hair to harsh chemicals and heated styling devices that, in turn, can damage the hair. Over time, lustrous hair can look lackluster, become brittle and require a complete hair care overhaul to improve hair health and appearance.
Speaking today at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, MD, FAAD, consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, N.C., discussed the most common sources of hair damage and tips to reverse damage and maintain healthy, lustrous hair.
"One of the most common misconceptions about hair is that it is alive, when in fact hair is nonliving and does not heal itself once it is injured," said Dr. Draelos. "For this reason, once the hair is damaged it cannot heal itself except through new hair growth at the scalp. Women need to understand that the very things that they do to hair to make it appear beautiful, such as using hair dyes, perms and products that straighten the hair, will eventually end up damaging the hair's structure and ultimately affect its appearance."
Getting to the Root of Chemical Hair Damage
When hair is damaged, the protective lipid layer of fat on the outside of the cuticle – responsible for making the hair shiny – is removed. Chemical damage is one of the most common culprits of hair damage, as processed hair loses its natural moisturizers. The result is dried-out, frizzy hair that does not hold its style and accounts for the hair's dull appearance.
"Many products have been developed to counter the effects of over-processed hair, and regular moisturizing is a must for women with visible signs of hair damage," said Dr. Draelos.
Dr. Draelos offered these tips to combat chemical damage:
- Use conditioning shampoos and conditioners regularly to improve the appearance of frizzy hair. 2-in-1 shampoos that remove oil from the scalp, clean the hair, then condition the hair in the rinse phase also are good choices.
- Look for products containing dimethicone, which is available in shampoos, conditioners, sprays and creams. This ingredient has been shown to decrease static electricity, increase shine and improve manageability.
- Try newly introduced hair serums, which are applied by a few drops on the hands and rubbed through the length of the hair (but should not be applied directly to the scalp).
- Stop dyeing your hair and opt for hair's natural hair color instead.
- If you must dye your hair, stay "on shade" – or dye the hair within three color shades of its natural color. Dyeing hair darker, rather than lighter, also is generally better.
When the Heat is On, Hair Needs Some Time Off
Heat damage is another common source of hair damage, which produces a condition known as bubble hair. This occurs when the water in the hair, which makes the hair flexible, gets heated and turns into steam. Hair bubbles then occur on the hair shaft, creating a loss of cuticle. Signs of this form of hair damage include hair that smells burned, frizzy ends and hair that breaks easily.
"Dramatic temperature changes are hard on hair, and heat can, in a sense, cook the hair," said Dr. Draelos. "Think of hair like a piece of steak – it starts out nice and soft and flexible. But when you cook it, the steak changes texture and becomes hard. Similarly, hair transforms when exposed to heat over time, resulting in brittle hair that breaks easily. Protecting hair from too much heat is essential to maintaining healthy hair."
Hair damaged by heat cannot be repaired, as the affected hair will need to be cut off and allowed to regrow as healthy hair.
Dr. Draelos offered these tips for heat damaged hair:
- Allow hair to air dry, when possible.
- When using a hairdryer, do not use the highest heat setting immediately. Start out on the lowest heat setting first, then gradually increase heat.
- To straighten hair with a ceramic iron, put a moist towel in the device to protect the hair from direct heat.
- Look for temperature-controlled devices to control the amount of direct heat to hair.
- Moisturizing the hair regularly will help the appearance of heat damaged hair to some degree, but stopping the source of heat damage is essential.
Straightening Hair Comes at a Price
While ceramic flat irons are quite popular with women seeking sleek, straight hair, another procedure that uses chemicals in combination with heat to straighten or rearrange the hair's natural bonds is known as keratin hair straightening. Typically performed in salons, keratin hair straightening uses gluteraldehyde or formeldahyde rather than lye – a stronger bond breaker also used for hair straightening but which is even more damaging – combed through the hair to make it straight.
After one of the chemical solutions is applied to the hair, a keratin protein conditioner is put on the hair to make it less brittle. With this procedure, hair must be kept dry and not bent or manipulated for several days after the process.
For women considering keratin hair straightening, Dr. Draelos offered these suggestions:
- Avoid this procedure if you have tightly kinked hair, as it will not work in rearranging the natural hair bonds.
- To minimize hair damage and loss, extend the time between treatments.
- When washing hair, use a generous amount of conditioner to make hair less brittle.
- If hair becomes frizzy and brittle, stop the procedure and let new hair growth replace damaged hair.
TLC for Healthy Hair
To keep healthy hair looking its best, Dr. Draelos also provided the following tips:
- The less you do to your hair, the better. Avoid over-styling or processing hair.
- Be sure to wash the scalp, which is where the oil is, and then let shampoo run through the hair. Shampoo is meant to clean the scalp primarily and can damage the hair if overused.
- Let how oily your scalp is determine how often you wash your hair. If your scalp is oily, wash hair more frequently than if the scalp was drier.
- Conditioner should be used on the ends of the hair, not on the scalp, for best results.
- Pick a shampoo and conditioner based on your hair shape, such as curly or straight, and your hair condition, such as damaged, fine, or frizzy. These products don't need to be expensive to work well for your hair.
- Wear a hat to protect hair from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
"It is best to choose a hairstyle closest to your hair's natural structure and color as possible, which will minimize hair damage," added Dr. Draelos. "Be sure to consult your dermatologist for any questions about styling products, concerns about the appearance of your hair, or unexplained hair loss."
American Academy of Dermatology