Almost everyone has some hair damage, from dryness and brittleness to split ends and breakage. The best way to tackle dry and damaged hair really depends on the cause and type of damage. Find the best fix for your hair with these pro tips on prevention and solutions from the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab experts and hair specialists.
Can you actually repair damaged hair?
“Once hair is split or broken, nothing can permanently fuse it back together,” explains Beauty Lab executive director Birnur Aral, Ph.D. “Products like split-end menders, leave-in conditioners and treatment masks can seal the outer layer of strands so they temporarily appear smoother and less frayed and feel softer, and help protect hair from further damage.” However, the only real long-term solution is by cutting your hair, to trim off damaged areas.
That said, conditioner is damaged hair’s best friend: Damaged hair is stripped of its protective outer layer, and conditioner helps replenish it with emollient ingredients like silicones and plant oils (such as coconut oil) and butters. “They coat wet hair so it’s easier to detangle, which can lead to less damage and make it silkier and more manageable,” Aral says.
For maximum benefits to prevent damage, use a rinse-off conditioner after every shampoo, plus a leave-in conditioner on damp hair. Swap in a deep conditioner or hair mask weekly: “These tend to contain higher concentrations of conditioning ingredients, making them thicker and heavier,” Aral explains.
For the best product picks, check out the GH Beauty Lab’s top-tested hair moisturizers and deep conditioners and masks for damaged hair below.
How to repair chemically damaged hair
When using hair color, chemicals such as ammonia have to be used to open your hair shaft, so the dye can be deposited. Ammonia-free formulas exist, but industry studies have found that they’re just as harmful (you have to use more and leave them on longer).
Your hair is damaged if after showering, your hair dries almost instantly. That shows just how porous those color chemicals have made it, says Katherine Polite, a colorist at Zano Salon in Chicago.
1. Use a moisture-rich hair dye
Many dyes, like the Beauty Lab’s recommended formulas below, are infused with conditioning ingredients to help protect and repair hair during the color process. For gray coverage, go with a semi- or demi-permanent formula — it’ll fade faster but is less harsh than a permanent dye. To highlight at home, avoid pull-through caps, which often result in damaging color overlap (go for a cap-less kit instead).
2. Only dye your roots
When possible, reapply dye to just the roots to minimize chemical exposure on the lengths, and “space dyeing hair 10 to 12 weeks apart at minimum,” says George Papanikolas, Matrix celebrity colorist in Los Angeles. Finally, major color changes can cause major harm (including hair breakage or even loss) when done wrong, so leave those to the pros.
How to repair broken hair and flyaways
The wrong tool or the wrong technique can tangle or, worse, tear your hair. You’re in trouble when you look in a mirror and see tiny hairs sticking up along your part and hairline. These aren’t “baby hairs” growing in, says Cheri McMaster, senior scientist for Pantene: they’re hairs that have broken. Here’s how to to stop that breakage in its tracks:
3. Invest in a good brush to prevent breakage
Bristles are the key to preventing breakage. They should be soft, smooth — avoid those with plastic balls on the ends — and spaced out, as on a comb. Wet Brush is designed specifically for wet hair: its thin, perfectly-spaced IntelliFlex bristles are flexible and specially designed to be firm enough to get through knots and tangles, yet soft enough to keep hair healthy and snag-free.
4. Don’t brush wet hair
H2O can exacerbate the issue: “Water exposure swells and stretches the hair’s shaft, which causes the shingle-like outer layer to lift, and adding stress from brushing in that state can cause it to break,” explains GH Beauty Lab senior chemist Sabina Wizemann.
Brush your hair before washing if possible, and if you have to detangle it wet, towel-dry so it no longer drips, apply a leave-in conditioner from roots to ends, and use a gentler wide-tooth comb or detangling brush to reduce friction. Work from the ends up in small sections to avoid ripping strands, she suggests.
How to repair damaged hair from heat
Blow-drying, flat-ironing and curling can all cause hair’s outer layer to lift up, releasing valuable moisture and leaving strands brittle, dry, and damaged. To tell if your hair is damaged, pull out a hair, run your fingernail from root to end (as if curling a ribbon), drop the strand into a glass of water — and see if it uncurls. If it doesn’t, your hair has lost elasticity, McMaster says.
5. Use heat protectant
Before drying or ironing your hair, McMaster says, use a heat protection hair spray or serum that contains silicones or polymers, which create a protective barrier over strands. “These stylers work by coating hair at the high temperatures of heat styling and shielding the surface of damaged strands, which can improve hair’s manageability, in turn resulting in reduced breakage,” Aral explains.
6. Make sure hair is dry before styling
Most importantly, “never blow-dry hair that hasn’t been towel- or air-dried partially first or use styling irons on hair that’s not totally dry, as that can cause any water inside to boil and the strand to rupture,” Wizemann warns. To avoid harmful friction, dry hair by wrapping your head in a small microfiber towel for a few minutes.
7. Replace old heat tools
Throw out any heat-styling tool that you’ve had for more than five years: The older the appliance, the higher the chance that the temperature gauge has gone kaput, says Beverly Hills celebrity stylist Cristophe. Use your blow-dryer’s nozzle attachment; it cuts down on cuticle ruffling.
Pick a flat iron that has ceramic plates: Since ceramic heats up evenly, it straightens hair faster and won’t stick to — or singe — any one spot.
How to repair environmental hair damage
Sun, water, chlorine — a day of fun outdoors can be hard on your hair. These essentials will help.
8. Shield hair from the sun
Cover hair with a hat to help shield it from the sun, which can damage hair at high levels of exposure, the Beauty Lab says. A tightly-woven hat can also help prevent sun burns and skin cancer on your scalp. (Bonus points if it has UPF protection, like the one below, which certifies that its fabric weave block’s UV rays.)
9. Coat hair in a “waterproofing” product
Before swimming, wet your hair with shower or tap water, then coat it with a leave-in or regular conditioner to form a barrier against the chemicals like chlorine in pool water, which can cause color stripping and breakage, Cristophe says. Plus, dousing hair in clean water means it can’t absorb as much chlorine to begin with.
April (she/her) is the beauty director at Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day, where she oversees all beauty content. She has over 15 years of experience under her belt, starting her career as an assistant beauty editor at GH in 2007, and working in the beauty departments of SELF and Fitness magazines.
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