Damaged Hair: Understanding, Preventing & Rehabilitating
So your hair is damaged. Have to cut it all of, right? Shave your head? Start from scratch? No, not if you're patient and diligent.
This article looks at what causes damaged hair, how to prevent and reduce damage, and how to rehabilitate hair that'
There are very few of us that come to LHC with 100% virgin hair that's been kept in protective updos, gently handled, oiled, and treated like the oft-cited and proverbial antique lace tablecloth.
A majority come here with hair that's in reasonable shape, and once a few things are changed as far as routine and products go, their hair is fantastic.
Then there's the rest of us. Hair that's tattered from dye, from the flat iron, from the blow dryer, from aggressive styling, from perming. Hair that is a constellation of white dots and each hair seems to end in the pale comet's tail of a split. It's been abused, it's broken, it feels like hay and the ends are like velcro. Before I came to LHC I had destroyed my hip-length hair with dye and abusive brushing. It crumbled to BSL and at that point. You can read the whole story here if you're interested.
You could cut it off, shave your head. There's people here that have done that and revel in the fresh start it offers. I didn't have the guts for that, and honestly, I wanted my long hair to stay, no matter how horrible it really was. I'd done it a disservice and upon coming to LHC it was time to pay my penance.
Understanding Healthy Hair
Before we look at damaged hair, let's look at healthy hair. Hair has something called a cuticle. It's a series of overlapping scale-like cells that run the length of the hair, sort of like scales on the tail of a dragon. The scales run downward, and so rubbing against them in the opposite direction (from the end of the hair towards the root) is more damaging than abrasion from the root to the end of the hair. We'll see this more later when we talk about back combing.
There's no such thing as damage-free hair, but this is probably as close as you're going to get, a hair from a newborn baby:
As an adult though, healthy hair probably looks a bit more like this:
Here you can see the scales of the hair as the overlap. The root of the hair is to the upper right of the photo, and the end to the lower left direction. Just from normal brushing, combing, washing and exposure to the elements, we can see that while the cuticle is still tight on the hair, there is some chipping and general wear and tear. Still, though, this is a pretty healthy hair.
Inside the cuticle is a fibrous mass called the cortex of the hair which contains long fibers of keratin. The cuticle is like armor, and healthy hair shines because the scales of that armor are all laid down and tight close together, giving a good surface for light to reflect off of. A damaged hair doesn't shine because the cuticle is lifted, making it a poor reflective surface. The job of the cuticle is to keep moisture and protein inside the hair, so onces that's gone, it's a pretty fast downward spiral. Once the cuticle has been damaged, the cortex starts to come apart as well, and here is where the actual structure of the hair tends to break down.
Here you can see the hair is so damaged that the cuticle scales are almost entirely missing, the cortex has been disrupted, and the keratin fibers are clearly visible.
Understanding Types of Damage and How to Reduce Them
Damaged hair is usually a disruption of either the cuticle and/or the cortex to one degree of another and there are several ways in which to inflict damage. Let's break down the types of damage one at a time.
Mechanical Damage is physical damage from the hair from a outside source. Your hair incurs a bit of this by just existing, by rubbing by neighboring hairs, by being exposed to wind and tangles. There's several sources of mechanical damage:
Styling Tools- My biggest culprit from this was my brush. I had one of those plastic brushes with little nubbies at the ends of the bristles. Everyone has one of those, right? Well, yeah, but maybe they shouldn't. Plastic combs and brushes in general have seams from plastic injection mold halves came together. You know how you can curl a ribbon on a gift with the edge of a scissors? Seams do the same thing to your hair. A good brush or comb has no seams. Also keep in mind that very damaged hair will not respond well to a boar bristle brush. There's just too much snagging and abrasion on the already tattered cuticle. Finger comb first, then use a wide toothed comb. Some hair types can get away with wooden brushes and the like, but for now, stick to fingers and a good wide tooth seamless comb (you can get these made in horn or wood or plastic, or you can even carefully sand off the seams on a current wide tooth plastic comb.)
Repetitive Handling& Hair Toys- Twisting your hair the same way, tying off a braid in the exact same place, putting a ponytail in at the nape every day, well, that's repetitive stress on your hair. Altering how you style your hair, and using non-damaging hair toys, such as hair sticks rather than elastics goes a long way to minimizing areas of repetitive stress.
Environmental/Day to Day Damage- Ever catch your hair under the strap of your backpack or purse? How about in the seat belt of your car? In your glasses? What about between your back and your desk chair? Each of these things causes a bit of damage at a time. In many instances they're inevitable, but keeping hair up and out of the way helps minimize a lot of these, and it's a pretty easy thing to do. Teacherbear has written a great article about gently handling your hair, so I suggest you take a look at that as well. Pile your hair on top of your head when you shower? Stop that. You're matting your hair and it'll take more to untangle it. Gently detangle before the shower, and leave your hair down your back. Apply shampoo only to the scalp, and conditioner from the ears down. There's more complicated washing methods, but this variation is an easy first step to make while you research others.
Just downright abuse- I used to RAKE through my hair with my aforementioned evil nubbie brush watching little bits of broken hair flutter downward. I'd never been taught to take my time with my hair at all. It wasn't until the one-two punch of too much dye AND the abusive brushing that it caught up with me, though. It's not just brushing, though. Think about backcombing for a minute. Remember the '80s? Spray the hell out of your hair, backcomb for volume and them spray some more? Here's why that's not a good idea:
This hair has been backcombed, meaning it was combed against the lay of the cuticle. Think of petting a cat backwards, against the fur. The cuticle of your hair gets raise just the same way as the fur, but doesn't go back down as easy. This can lead to chipped scales, or can pull them off entirely, exposing the cortex it was supposed to protect.
Dyes, perms, and even hair sprays, gels and mousses fall in this category, the former obviously being more damaging than the latter.
Dyes- There are two types of dyes, direct and oxidative. Most permanent chemical dyes are oxidative, while those like Feria, Manic Panic and henna are direct dyes. If you have old color you hate, you can dry removing an oxidative dye with a product like ColorFix, rather than just bleaching it out. Most direct dyes are best removed with an alkaline shampoo like baby power, and henna, well, heh, good luck with THAT one. Since most the boxes in the store are oxidative dyes, we'll sum up to say that they work by lifting the cuticle of the hair, removing the color from the cortex, depositing the new color and then (attempting to) lay the cortex back down. Depending on the strength of your hair you may be able to do several dyes before the cuticle just doesn't lay back down anymore, leaving the cortex exposed and weakened and prone to breaking. If you MUST continue to color, look into deposit only colors such as elumen hair color, or a toner from Sally's. Herbal coloring (see my other articles on henna and other herbal dyes) are also an option, but put a lot of long hard thought into henna, because you can't undo that once it's done. Bleach is a HUGE no-no, but you can always take a crack at natural lightening with honey. There's a mixed bag of results, but worth a try if you feel you have to lighten your hair a bit.
Perms/Chemical Straightening/Relaxing- Perms, by their nature, disrupt the structure of the hair: indeed, it has to do so for the perm to be successful. In order to change the shape of the hair, permanent waving agents first break the disulphide bonds that give the hair shaft its structure. The hair is then put into its new shape and 'neutralized'. We'll sum it up as altering the shape of the cortex, which you should know by now is a Bad Thing. Just like dying, the repeated chemical abuse lifts the cuticle and damages the cortex:
This is a hair that's seen a few too many perms. Note the uplifted cuticle and how it'll make like Velcro to surrounding hairs.
There's no natural way to give yourself a perm, however, you can do rag rolling, magnetic rollers, plopping, bun curls and braid waves. There's lots of information on how to do these techniques elsewhere on the site.
Chemical straightening, often called "relaxing" is the same procedure, just taking out the curl rather than adding it in. It still requires the breakdown of those disulphide bonds we mentioned earlier:
The sort of damage that results from chemical relaxants.
Styling Products- While obviously a lesser demon in the spectrum of hair evils, may mousses, sprays and gels contain alcohol or other drying agents. If your hair is already damaged, it's probably unruly, but you're only furthering the damage by trying to tame it with drying products. Then there's what happens when your hair starts to move with those products in in.
The first photo shows the hair held in place by hairspray, the second shows the shell left by the hairspray after the two hairs have been pulled apart. Note the impression of the cuticle scales left behind.
There are many natural alcohol-free gels and sprays out there. Even aloe gel (check to make sure there's no alcohol in it) straight, or diluted with water into a spray works well. A light oiling can also keep hair from being flyaway, but we'll get more into that later.
I know you love your flat iron and hair dryer. They make your damaged, frizzy, flyaway hair lay nice. But for damaged hair it's like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. You're not helping the problem, and in fact, you're making it worse. Even healthy hair cannot stand the abuses of heat damage long without showing significant wear and tear.
The main problem with heat appliances is that warmth, in general, opens the cuticle of the hair, which is why on a hot and humid day hair will frizz out to no end. The second problem with heat appliances is that often they are way too hot. Hot enough to actually physically BOIL the moisture within the hair, and that water, now steam, will try to escape the cortex of the hair, rupturing the cortex and the cuticle on the way out. Now take that uplifted cuticle, add steam escaping and compound it with the mechanical damage of the round brush with the hair dryer, or the abrasive action of the flat iron scraping along the hair (no matter how much "protective gel" you put on there, it still happens). Big problems:
Here is a case where the hair has been overheated to the point where the moisture inside has started to boil, permanently damaging both the cortex and the cuticle. Eventually the hair will break down and split, sometimes into a "white dot" which is just a split in the center of the hair. The second picture shows
a case of trichorrhexis nodosa (white dot), where the cortex was disrupted by an overheated hair dryer.
The problem with all these types of damage is that your hair is often exposed to more than one of them, and the trick is to minimize it as much as possible. There's often the argument of, "But my hair is shoulder length and looks great!" At shoulder length I'm sure it does. But keep in mind that your hair currently at shoulder will be at your waist, at tailbone, at classic or longer, three, five, seven or ten years from now. What you do now to your hair is only compounded by time, and by weathering. Unlike skin, hair doesn't heal. You can minimize the damage already done, but there's no putting those cuticle scales back on once they're gone. Period.
Rehabilitating Damaged Hair
It's a long hard road, but it can be done. The first thing that you have to admit to yourself is that some of your hair is, honestly, not salvageable. It'll have to go eventually, but perhaps not right away. You're on a long hair site, you want to grow your hair long, and cutting isn't that appealing. There's some workarounds, but in that includes come trimming. We'll get to that more in a bit first lets focus on taking care of the stuff that's still attached.
First of all you have to stop doing the things mentioned earlier. You don't have to go cold turkey, but I'd recommend it, as otherwise you're like a junkie, saying you'll quit after one more fix with the flat iron. There are other natural ways to try to get similar results such as crown wrapping or going for deep waves, and you can always just "put it up and forget about it" until its a bit longer and a bit more manageable.
So you've thrown our your blowdryer and you've acquired a wide tooth comb. You've started detangling gently with your fingers before brushing and combing and you no longer pile your hair atop your head when shampooing. These all go a lot further than you'd think, so we've already made good progress.
Now that you've stopped the abuse, you have to figure how how to rehabilitate what's on your head.
The first thing to do is clarify your hair. There may be existing product that is sealing moisture out of your hair (silicones are notorious for this). There's several method of clarifying including a good SLS shampoo, a clarifying shampoo, a chelating shampoo (which removes hard water mineral buildup) and things like baking soda and shampoo. A little digging about the site will turn up lots of methods. Do some reading and select one.
Once you have any coatings off your hair, you should find out what it's deficient in. Your hair may be lacking in protein, it may be lacking in moisture. It may have too much of one or the other. First check out Krin's Hair Diagnostic Tips to figure out what's up with your hair. This should help you identify which direction you need to move in for deep treatments, protein, moisture, or both. Along with this, you'll want to read Ursula's Standard Newbie Advice if you haven't already. It gives a great controlled methodology for testing things on your hair and recording what works and what doesn't.
Once you have the protein/moisture thing squared away, or at least know what direction you're heading in, you have to worry about two things primarily:
Keeping your Hair Moisturized- Damaged hair is notoriously dry because that cuticle isn't laying down nicely anymore. The raised cuticle lets moisture escape the hair, and so since your cuticle is now sort of gimpy, you have to go through a little extra effort to help it keep moisture inside.
A humecant is something that retards moisture loss, and in some cases, actually helps draw moisture into the hair. Honey is a great natural humecant, for example (the enzyme in honey that produces peroxide, can be destroyed by microwaving honey for 30 seconds to under 1 minute), if you are worried about getting lightening from a conditioning treatment. There are a great many treatments you can make with conditioners, honey, etc. One many people here have luck with is Snowy's Moisture Treatment (SMT), but even just a good soak in a cone-free conditioner does wonders for many.
No matter what you do to get moisture into your hair, the next step is to keep it there. You do this by using oils, butters, or silicones to create a moisture barrier and to help give the hair a little slip so it acts a bit less like velcro.
Oils, contrary to popular belief, do not impart moisture into the hair, they seal it inside. Silicones do a similar job, also smoothing over the rough cuticle. Some people have better luck with oils, others with silicone, and I'd check out the To Cone or Not to Cone Article to help you decide. For oiling please read Hedi's Oiling Tutorial for a basic overview and How To. It should be noted that while there are many oils available, coconut oil is the only one shown to both penetrate the hair and protect from protein loss. It's also cheap and easy to acquire (most health food stores or cooking stores have it), and may be a good first try.
Personally, I found that I didn't want to deal with the constant buildup and clarifying of silicone, but oils were making my damaged ends freak out and be crunchy. One theory on this is that oils grab onto the protein in the hair, and really damaged hair just doesn't have much for oils to grab onto. Shea butter is a natural emollient, which means that he helps the raised cells on skin and hair lay flat (see where this is going?). By using shea the upraised cuticle of the hair is smoothed down, and moisture is kept inside. You can either use shea straight as you would an oil, or you can use it in a blend like Fox's Shea Conditioning Cream. I make my own that involves, conditioner, shea, honey and a blend of oils.
To help control flyaways you can try a HALO rinse, or Kimberlily's Defrizz Spray.
You can also try some natural herbal treatments to help strengthen your hair. Cassia imparts a more temporary conditioning benefit, lasting about a month and on lighter hair you may see in increase of gold tones. Henna is fantastic for strength and conditioning (and lots of red coloring), however, and I can't say it enough, it is not coming out once you do it and your hair is stuck red. Give henna a lot of thought before going forward with it.
Other herbs, such as horsetail and yellow dock are also good for hair, and you can do a bit of research and make a bend of herbs. I've got one, and it's a nice treat for my hair on occasion. Also, ACV rinses (and other rinses) help seal the cuticle and help many with tangles. Herbal teas such as chamomile and hibiscus are also great natural conditioners, but may also impart some color. Please do your homework before putting anything on your head.
Here's an index of long-term care polls, including washing methods, oils, rinses, and more. It may help to see what have worked for most people and start with the tried and true stuff.
Some people can get away without trimming. I wasn't one of them, and odds are you aren't either. Damaged hair breed tangles, which breeds splits and breakage. Hair that is damaged is rougher and snags more easily.
Others will advocate for trimming once a year, but if your hair is as damaged as mine was, you need to do it more often to get the benefits of it. To illustrate, let's picture your damage hair as a thick, dry rope. The end of that rope is frayed and starting to unravel. Lets say our rope is 10 feet long, and it's damaged along the lower 8 feet from sun and water. It gets less damaged as you go up, but still, the vast majority of this rope is in shoddy shape.
No matter where you cut on really damaged area, lets say the last 6 feet of the rope, the end is going to fray and unravel. It unravels at the same rate no matter if you cut 1 foot from the end, or 3 feet from the end.
This is why I advocate frequent micro-trims for damaged hair. In my case, I gauged how much my hair grew a month (half an inch) and trimmed half that (a quarter inch). By frequently dusting (another term for microtrimming in which the amount taken off is so slight that the trimmings on the floor look like dust), the ends of our hair stay as clean as possible. We could cut an inch, but the hair that we're cutting into is still damaged, and so it'll be split all to hell long before you grow your hair back to where it was before the trim. Clean ends tangle less, they break less, and for the first time in a long time, even though you're trimming, your hair may start "growing."
I feel that this is the root of where the �you need to trim to grow your hair� myth comes in. My hair didn�t �grow� until I started trimming because the ends were staying clean until the next trim and not damaging each other more. I took half my growth per month off for 3 years (over 9 inches). This let me gain 9 inches in growth, but also kept the ends cleaner, reducing damage and breakage. Now, I'm able to space out the time between trims. I still have about 10 inches of chemical damage on the ends, the rest is now henna/cassia only. [ETA: My hair as of 7/10/09 no longer has dye damage on it! It did take me about 5 years to grow and cut it all out gradually, from BSL to tailbone]
A secondary result to this method is that the broken hair farther up could "catch up" to the ends and my hemline is thicker than it's ever been, and still continues to thicken.
If you're neither willing nor able to go to a salon often enough to get your ends dusted, find a willing friend who can cut a straight line. If you have to, have them do the old masking tape trick on the ends, where you tape the line and cut the hair just above the tape, letting you see the line first and check that it's straight. You can also try Feye's Self Trimming Method, which is very easy and effective.
Now if your hair was as damaged as mine, well, the ends are half your problem. There's going to be splits all up the length too. This is where Search & Destroy (S&D) comes into play. You'll find more detailed information on this on the boards, but the general idea is to get a good pair of hair shears (that are always only used JUST on your hair, see here for recommendations) and then sit in good lighting and trim the splits one at a time. Make sure your shears are sharp (or you'll end up just crushing the end of the hair) and that you trim the hair at a right angle to the shaft, about a quarter inch above the split. Try not to get obsessed with it. A little bit here and there goes a long way, and can even help you out in between your monthly trims. Stay away from razor cuts, as they may leave little tails on the end of the hair and leave a longer more open end, which really just means more room to fray.
But can't you glue split ends? No, despite that infomercial you saw for the special wonder hair serum made from unicorn tears and crushed pearls for only $79.99 per ounce, it's not happening. You can sort of fake it with some "split end serums" that will shellac the end together short term, but that hair is broken, just let it go. We're growing long hair here, keep your eye on the long term goal!
With the above method, I managed to grow out shattered BSL hair to healthy tailbone hair. It's been a few years since I started this trek, and I won't lie. It's frustrating. It's hard. It's long. But over time it works.
If you're the no-nonsense type that would sooner Pixie your hair and start fresh, I bow to your courage. If you're not ready to let go of your hair, no matter how damaged it is, this method may work for you.
For me, there was never a sacrifice in length. Through the entire process my hair was evolving, not only into something longer, but something *healthier.* One day though you'll realize that your hair is starting to feel nice. And another day you'll see it's starting to shine again. Some time from then you'll notice that the detangling comes easier and that you may be able to push that trim back a week. Treat each of these realizations as the victory that it is.
I'm not going to lie to you, depending on how long your hair was when you started and where you want to get to, it's going to take YEARS. But I can say firsthand, still on my journey to long healthy hair, that it's been utterly, completely, worth it.
Super damaged hair pictures are from this article by P&G. There's lots of good detailed information in there about how hair dye, perms and other hair processes work, as well as more photos of hair damage and disorders.