Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself and been absolutely floored by the visible damage you can see, wondering just how long that hair damage went unnoticed? For better or wrose, this is pretty common, and that’s because hair-culture has developed an almost transactional relationship with hair damage in order to achieve certain colors, textures, and looks. We know that a number of the things we do to our hair are damaging, but we do them anyway because they often give us the look we want in the moment.
In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of what causes the most damage to your strands and how to spot that damage, which hair types are most prone to damage and why, and a number of hair damage treatments to prevent, lessen, and repair your luscious locks. Let’s dive in.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM: THE STRUCTURE OF HAIR
Before learning about hair damage, we need to walk through the structure of a single shaft of hair to better understand which part of it can be affected by various treatments.
Each strand of hair can be broken into three parts:
- The protective outer layer called the cuticle,
- The thick middle layer that stores pigment called the cortex
- An innermost layer called the medulla — which people with thin hair often don’t even have.
Healthy, hydrated strands of hair have a smooth, closed cuticle. Closed cuticles are shiny, since the pores are closed and they all reflect light in the same direction. Healthy, closed cuticles are also soft to the touched and less tangled, as strands don’t tangle with one another. Damaged cuticles have lifted scales that make them rough, dull, and prone to tangles with other strands. Damaged shafts are also more vulnerable to even more damage, because they are open and therefore leave the cortex at risk.
WHAT CAUSES HAIR DAMAGE?
There are many factors that contribute to hair damage.
The most common causes of hair damage include:
- Overprocessing: Overprocessing is the umbrella term for hair that has been damaged from color and bleach, chemical relaxers, and heat styling. While we will discuss the effects of all of these actions on hair, it is important to know that damage can be caused in other ways too.
Coloring and bleaching: Most people know that coloring your hair causes dryness and damage, but do they really know why that is? Let’s go beyond the surface level to learn exactly how hair dye works, what ingredients are found within it, and how these ingredients damage the hair.
Hair dye is developed when various chemicals are combined and react to produce a color. According to an article in The Atlantic, “Hairdressers are not applying pigments (at least not in the case of permanent hair dye); they are applying a mixture of chemicals to initiate dye formation.” These chemicals include ammonia, the bleaching agent hydrogen peroxide, and para-phenylenediamine or PPD. Our natural hair color comes from varying concentrations of melanin, the same pigment that determines the color of our skin. In the dying process, peroxide interacts with melanin to destroy its natural color, while also reacting with PPD to bind the color to the hair permanently. Ammonia helps to strengthen this bond by raising the pH level of our hair, which lifts the cuticles of individual hair strands to allow for deeper penetration. It’s specifically important to note that bleached hair, specifically, is more porous which makes it even more vulnerable to breakage, heat-styling, sun damage, and pollution.
- Chemical relaxers: Relaxers are treatments used by people with tight, kinky, or extremely curly hair to chemically alter the structure of the hair fiber in order to straighten it out. Relaxers work by breaking disulfide bonds within each strand in order to permanently alter the curl pattern of each individual strand of hair. Relaxing stretches out the thick, middle part of the hair fiber called the cortex, which removes any elasticity and leaves strands at an increased risk for breakage-related hair damage.
- Heat styling: With the capacity of many tools to reach up to 400°F (200°C), it’s easy to be tempted to turn up the heat in order to get the best results in the least amount of time.
In an interview with Stylecaster, GHD heat tools Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Tim Moore, advises those that use their tools at max heat to turn the dial down, “you’ll burn the fat lipids in your hair and cause frizz.” Not only does heat styling cause frizz as well as contribute to color fade, but it can affect the internal structure of your strands causing damage to the middle layer of the hair fiber.
As the Naturally Curly blog explains, “Water molecules inside the middle fiber, both free and bound to keratin proteins, provide critical support to the structure and properties of hair.” Heat evaporation can change the internal protein structure and change the properties of individual hair strands.
This can change your curl patterns, cause frizz, and result in hair that is less bouncy and more prone to breakage. The tactile feel of hair can become less pleasant too, having a straw-like texture. This sort of damage is pretty common with routine blow-drying.
For these reasons, it’s important to use heat tools cautiously, intentionally, and always apply a thermal protectant cream beforehand. If this sounds like you, we recommend Dressed Up.
- Hair elastics, ponytails, and tight styles: It might not come as a surprise that hair ties and tight hairstyles stress out your strands and can lead to breakage, which is why we recommend switching up your styles often!
If you need your hair off your face for work, fitness, etc. pulling your hair back in different ways prevents a single portion of your hair from experiencing repeated stress. We also have a range of hair styling products to help you achieve your favorite everyday looks.
Another tip: try to avoid putting wet hair into a ponytail. Damp hair is heavier and can stretch and weaken the strands hanging from the pony.
- Towel drying: Speaking of wet hair, you should avoid trying your hair with a towel at all costs! A truth that our curly girls have known for years, the coarse texture of cotton or terry towels roughs up the hair shaft, leading to damaged, weakened strands, split ends, and frizz. Try switching to a microfiber towel, or an old t-shirt, instead.
- Using shampoo: If you know Hairstory, you know we are staunchly against shampoo. This is because shampoo contains detergents, which are super abrasive.
Is shampoo bad for your hair? Well, shampoos overclean. While they do remove impurities, they also strip away the good, natural oils our scalp produces in order to protect our skin and hair.
After shampooing, hair is stripped dry and increasingly vulnerable to damage; therefore we condition to replace that moisture.Essentially conditioners mimic the natural barrier that was washed away in the first place!
It doesn’t stop there - because our natural oils were washed away, our scalp thinks it needs to work hard to bring it back. This si where greasy hair comes often comes from, sending us back to the shower for another shampoo session. This creates a vicious cycle of dry hair that grows more and more damaged with each wash.
WHAT DOES DAMAGED HAIR LOOK LIKE?
Depending on the type of damage your hair is experiencing, you may get some insight to the root of the problem. Regardless, here are telltale signs that your strands are in need of some TLC:
- Split ends, flyaways, or frizz: Damaged hair is at greater risk for breaking. Depending on where the break occurs along the shaft, you may experience these symptoms.
- Lifeless curls, no snapback: When hair has trouble retaining its natural shape, it means many of the keratin bonds in the individual strands have most likely been weakened or broken.
- Dry, brittle strands or hair that feels like straw: Healthy hair should feel moisturized.
- Color fade: Fading is a sign of porosity. When the shaft has too many holes from lots of damage, there is nothing for hair dye to hold onto, so it forms a very weak, vulnerable bond.
- Tangles: According to RICHFEEL, the national hair and scalp center of India, “when hair is dry and damaged, the cuticle is raised and remains open. These open layers get snagged up with each other, causing tangles and knots in your hair. The more damaged the cuticle, the worse the tangles!”
- Lack of shine: Dull hair lacks the moisture needed to reflect light and shine on.
- Easily soaked hair: Does your hair soak up a lot of product or air-dry extremely fast after a shower? This means it is porous (aka thirsty) and in need of moisture!
HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR HAIR IS DAMAGED
It might not be overly obvious if your hair is damaged while looking at the entire head. Take a single strand of hair between your fingers. Is it smooth or bumpy? Bumpy strands mean the hair cuticle is open due to lack of moisture. This makes hair vulnerable to more damage as the middle part of the shaft is exposed. You should also check to see if there is a difference between thickness at the root of the strand versus the end.
ARE CERTAIN HAIR TYPES MORE PRONE TO DAMAGE THAN OTHERS?
Thin hair and textured hair have the greatest risk of hair damage. Thin strands fragile and often do not have a medulla, which is the middle layer present in thicker strands. This makes the hair more vulnerable to stretching and breaking. Generally speaking, the more texture a person’s hair has, the greater the risk for damage. This is because hair shafts are made from different chemical bonds that determine individual hair texture. “Hydrogen bonds are bonds that form between water molecules and are responsible for hair curling as it dries. When hair is wet, the hydrogen bonds are broken. As it dries, the bonds reform, as do the curls.” Because these bonds are weak, they are prone to permanent damage.
HOW TO TREAT DAMAGED HAIR
Just because your hair is damaged, doesn’t mean it can’t be repaired. If you haven’t already ditched your drying shampoo and conditioner for a New Wash hair cleanser, that should be your first step! New Wash doesn’t strip your scalp of its natural protective barrier like shampoo, so your hair can return to a state of moisturized equilibrium. Looking to treat damaged split ends? Get a trim! Can split ends be repaired? Unfortunately not. The only way to rid your hair of split ends, and prevent them from continuing to split up the shaft, is by cutting the hair above the damage.
A few more ways to repair damaged hair seem to come directly from grandma’s handbook. We encourage you to look to the pantry, as well as the past.
According to today.com, a great way to help out your hair is your diet. “Meat, fish, beans, and soy will arm the body to make keratin, a fibrous protein that builds hair and nails. While omega-3 fats, found in fish, walnuts and flaxseed, help make hair shine,” says Dr. Apple Bodemer, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
Thinking of picking up some biotin supplements? Currently, there is no clear evidence that vitamin B will give you thick, luscious hair, “some people swear by it, while others notice no difference.” Another practice that has been around for thousands of years is hair oiling. Learning how to use hair oil by massaging them into your scalp helps to mimic the natural sebum your body is used to. According to Vogue, applying oil strengthens the hair, protects it from heat damage, stimulates growth, and hydrates hair to prevent frizz.
HOW TO PREVENT HAIR DAMAGE
Some of the most common things you can do to prevent heat damage include:
- No longer coloring your hair or using chemical relaxers
- Heat-styling less frequently and at a lower temperature
- Applying thermal protective creams and hair styling oils
- Using New Wash over shampoo and conditioner
If you are looking to repair or prevent damage, we hope this article has provided insight about where damage may be coming from, and habits you can change to prevent, lessen, or repair it!