Sometimes, people with straight hair want to curl it. Sometimes, people with curly hair want to straighten it. In both cases, one of the most effective ways to do it is with heat. Heat treatments with a curling iron or flat iron can tame hair quite well.
The problem is, this application of heat isn't entirely safe. Oh, disregarding the risk of burns from a hot iron, heat treatments damage hair. Performing the treatment once might not be so bad, but more frequent treatments – such as those necessary to maintain an appearance over time – can leave hair frizzy, dry, thin, and damaged.
What Happens with Hair Damage
What is heat actually doing to your hair? If you've seen this video before, you may have some idea of what extreme heat can do. Of course, that's only likely to happen if you leave the heat in for far too long, and it's not the kind of damage we're talking about today. Obviously, yes, burning off your hair is damaging. It's also not something you can repair.
High heat, from curling or straightening irons and even from blow dryers, can damage the hair in a variety of different ways.
First, it dehydrates the hair. Moisture is a big part of what keeps hair lustrous and resilient. If you've ever finished drying your hair and had is feel like straw, this is what's happening.
Do you know the anatomy of hair? It's not just strands of keratin or whatever. Hair has different layers, and each of those layers gives it part of its texture and resilience.
The application of high enough heat, in particular from irons, can even flash-boil the water in your hair. You wouldn't even really notice this, since the amount of water is so minimal, but it's important. This flash-boil leaves voids and gaps in the harder outer layer of the hair, the cuticle.
These gaps, cracks, and voids aren't noticeable on the naked eye, but they are visible under a microscope. This damage will eventually lead to the hair breaking, either entirely or in the form of a split end.
Beyond this, heat treatments also damage hair by basically cooking the proteins present in the hair. This damages them, and causes your hair to lose its structure. This is in part the desired outcome for hair straightening, but it does mean that hair will lose its natural curl to at least some extent each time it is treated.
Since this also removes natural oils, it makes your hair less resistant to other external forces. Exposure to harsh chemicals after a heat treatment – like a bleach before a hair dye – becomes even more damaging than normal.
If you've already dyed your hair, or if you have a naturally dark or vibrant red-colored hair, heat treatments will also damage the pigments that give it its color. This is less noticeable with blonde and light colored hair, but with darker hair and dyed hair, it causes fading.
Repairing Hair Damage
You can take some steps to repair damaged hair, but they aren't always going to be effective. Once your hair has been damaged enough that the cuticle is shredded, that damage can't be reversed.
At this point, you have two options: you can try to cover up the damage with some aggressive restorative treatments, or you can simply implement the Big Chop. The Big Chop, of course, is exactly what it sounds like. Cut off the damaged hair and wait for healthier hair to grow back out in its place.
It's important to stress this point: damaged hair can't be healed. Hair doesn't naturally heal, and the damage done to it on a microscopic level can't be undone. However, there are a couple of critical points you should know.
- Some items you can include in your diet can help make your hair more resilient and resistant to damage.
- Some treatments you can apply to your hair can likewise have a protective effect to make it more resistant to damage.
- Heat does not guarantee damage. You can use lower heat for less time and still treat your hair without damage.
- Some treatments for damaged hair can make your hair look better. They don't heal the hair, but they do make it look healthier.
So what can you do? What are your options?
First, let's take a look at treatments that make your damaged hair look healthier. Treatments here take advantage of the damage you've done to your hair to infuse it with the nutrients and oils that were destroyed in the heat.
These treatments are usually called protein treatments or protein masks. They moisturize, they add oils, and they're infused with biotin and amino acids that help restore flexibility and luster.
There are two ways you can get these kinds of protein treatments: at a salon or with DIY products. Every salon will likely have their own variation on a protein treatment for damaged hair. You'll have to call or visit your local salon to see what they offer, how it works, and whether or not they've priced it stupidly high.
As for DIY treatments, there are a lot of options available. Rather than recommend any specific products ourselves, here are a few lists of the best products as ranked by other companies.
- The Top 9 Protein Treatments from Cosmopolitan
- The 12 Best Protein Treatments as Ranked by Health Magazine
- The 8 Top Protein Treatments from Naturally Curly
There's only a little bit of overlap between these articles, which just goes to show you that there are a lot of products out there, and that they all work more or less the same. We recommend finding one that works for you, while also striving to minimize the damage you do to your hair.
The second kind of product we'd recommend is the product that protects your hair from damage. Since you can't heal damage that has already been done, you're just hiding it with the products above. However, you can infuse your hair, both inside and out, with protective oils and proteins to help prevent that heat damage in the first place.
One option is to mix up a hair mask at home. Egg-based hair masks are some of the healthiest options you can find using all natural ingredients. The natural proteins found in eggs are able to infuse your hair and protect it from damage, both from direct heat application and from incidental weather and other environmental effects. The oil you mix with the eggs helps moisturize and further protect your hair, and other ingredients you add can just add more value.
Coconut oil is probably the single best oil you can use for a hair mask if you want to prevent future damage and rejuvenate previously damaged hair. Coconut oil molecules are small enough to make it through the cuticle layer, which means it can help moisturize and revitalize your hair. You can even just use the stuff pure, warmed into a liquid, if you like.
There are also a lot of pre-mixed options available for purchase at your local salon, in grocery stores, or online. Look for revitalizing and restorative conditioners and shampoos, particularly leave-in conditioners for maximum protection. Be sure to read the ingredients and look for something with healthy, organic ingredients rather than synthetic compounds that might not be doing anything for you.
As far as dietary options are concerned, it all comes down to protein and vitamins. Pretty much every food you can eat that is rich in protein and biotin will be a good choice.
These choices are lead up with eggs, as you might expect. Eggs are the magic food when it comes to hair. They're packed with everything your hair needs to grow thick and healthy, including biotin, which is the primary ingredient in hair-focused supplements.
Berries are another good option for their vitamin content. Your body uses vitamin C specifically to synthesize collagen, which is used in hair to keep it supple and strong. It can also help prevent some causes of hair loss.
Spinach, as well as a range of other leafy greens, contain high levels of vitamin A. Vitamin A is used for a lot of different purposes, but one of them is the production of sebum. Sebum is the waxy, oily substance that coats your skin and hair to protect it from damage.
Fatty fish is another option, primarily salmon and herring. These fish give you tons of Omega-3s, which you can get from fish oil capsules if you prefer. This fatty acid is used in hair growth and is a healthy addition to your diet for a range of reasons.
And, of course, you can always get a vitamin supplement that contains all of these and more, in proportions meant to be used in conjunction with one another. Maintaining a healthy diet is hard, but a supplement can help a lot.
Change Your Habits
The best way to repair hair is to simply let it grow out. You can either deal with it gradually, by letting your damaged hair grow and break off or be trimmed away gradually, or you can do a dramatic chop and start from square one. Which option you pick is up to you.
The real solution is held in a change of habits. We have a few recommendations here.
- If your hair damage comes from chemicals you use to straighten or curl your hair, consider trying different chemicals, or use light heat instead. Heat is, after all, effective, even if it can be damaging if you use it improperly.
- If your hair damage comes from heat, try using less heat for less time. Try to only use as much as you need to achieve your desired effect, and nothing more. The more you use, the more likely you are to cause damage.
- If you blow-dry your hair and it's causing damage, try to either turn down the heat on your dryer or make sure you're using it from a greater distance. Too many people use a dryer from right up close, where the heat is highest and most concentrated, almost guaranteeing hair damage.
- Consider replacing heating irons if they damage your hair. High-end tools are much better at regulating heat and maintaining a safe, consistent temperature. It's an investment, for sure, but it's worthwhile to keep your hair healthy.
- Look for less harsh or more natural dyes for your hair. Dyes and bleaches do a a lot of damage as well, so if you minimize the damage done by chemicals, you'll be better off.
- Establish eating and treating patterns that help prevent damage. That means eating healthy supplements and food full of biotin so your body can make stronger hair.
- Let it fade. The more often you treat your dyed hair, particularly if it's an extreme color rather than a minor color adjustment, the more damage you're doing. Sometimes it's better to let it fade than to keep touching it up every few weeks.
What you do with your hair is up to you, and one of the brilliant things about hair is that it grows back. Damaging it can only be detrimental for so long before you have fresh hair to work with again. So eat right, treat right, and live your best life.