Hair doesn't heal.
Hair isn't alive, in the same way, that skin and other parts of your body are alive. Hair grows from the root, and as it grows, it ages. Hair that has been growing for a while will gradually accrue damage from heat, weather, chemicals, and physical damage. That damage can be smoothed over and partially repaired through treatments, but your hair will not heal on its own.
The natural "healing" process for hair is the hair cycle. The reason you're always losing small amounts of hair, but never seem to end up with less hair than you started, is the hair cycle. Once an individual strand of hair – or, more correctly, a hair follicle – reaches a point of its life cycle, it "dies" and starts over. The existing hair falls out, the hair follicle recovers, and new hair grows in its place. It's less like healing and more like replacing a broken part. It's all part of the natural hair cycle.
Damaged hair tangles, mats, and can become a minor hazard, which is why it falls out naturally. Your body replaces damaged hair – all hair, really – and doesn't bother spending energy to heal it. Hair doesn't heal.
However, you can help your hair recover.
One of the most common sources of hair damage is the sun. The anatomy of a strand of hair is like a wire or cord. The internal structure of a hair – the wire, in this analogy – is the important part of keeping it whole and healthy. The outer layer is the cuticle and is like the plastic/rubber covering on a cord. When that covering is damaged, it's easier to damage or break the wire inside.
The cuticle of a strand of hair is like scales on a snake. These scales are hard cells that overlap one another, forming a smooth layer that serves as armor to protect the internal core of the hair. Over time, these cells degrade, are damaged, or break down. The scales fray, stick up, make the hair rough, opening the core up to damage.
This damage can come from a variety of sources. Heat is the enemy of hair, destroying cuticle cells with ease. Harsh chemicals, especially those meant to bleach hair, do the same thing. It's why, after heat treatment, your hair looks lifeless.
The sun is even worse. Sunlight is heat, but it's also ultraviolet radiation. UV rays damage the pigment in hair, dulling its shine, while also damaging the cuticle. This is why your hair can look dull, thin, and lifeless after you've spent a day or two at the beach.
If the sun is the enemy of hair, what can you do to repair it?
An Ounce of Prevention
Have you ever heard the phrase "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? It means that preventing damage or problems in the first place is cheaper, faster, and all-around better than recovering from that damage.
The best thing you can do for your hair is to prevent sun damage in the first place. Any damage, really, but sun damage is some of the most common.
How can you do this?
- Physically block the sunlight from reaching your hair, with a scarf, wide-brimmed hat, or other hair covering.
- Time your excursions for times of day when solar radiation isn't high, like early or late in the day.
- Use a conditioner or other hair treatment that includes SPF ingredients to block the sun's rays.
Protecting your hair is the best way to keep it looking lively and vibrant, but it's not always possible. Moreover, what if you've already spent your time outside, and your hair is already sun-damaged? Can you recover, or do you simply have to wait for your hair cycle to replace the damaged strands?
The hair growth phase lasts an average of 3-5 years, so waiting for hair to replace itself is not the best option.
There is good news. The actual hair follicles are deep enough in your scalp that even getting a sunburned head doesn't damage them. As long as you treat your hair well, it will return to its vibrant state, sooner or later. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to restore damaged hair to a better appearance.
1. Use a UV-Filtering Hair Styling Product
The first thing you should do if you're worried about sun-damaged hair is to stop the problem from getting any worse.
As mentioned above, there are a handful of different ways you can help protect your hair from sun damage in the first place. Using an umbrella, for example, or otherwise blocking the sun from reaching your hair is important.
Look for a sun-blocking hair product you can add to your routine, especially before you go out in the sun for an extended period. There is a range of different hair care products with moisturizers and, more importantly, SPF sunblock as part of the composition. These usually work as a leave-in conditioner, though the exact mechanism varies based on different products.
Make sure to find a product that works on your kind of hair. People with thinner, less resilient hair will need a stronger protective layer. People with thicker hair may be more prone to the bleaching effect of the sun but won't have to worry quite as much about hair becoming brittle and breaking. Different hair products are formulated for different styles of hair, so look for one that works with the hair you have.
2. Use a Moisturizing Hair Mask
One of the ways that hair protects itself from damage is the natural oils produced in your scalp, that cascade down your hair and coat it as it grows. Of course, these natural oils are designed for protection, not for appearance, which is why your hair (when left alone too long) ends up looking greasy. These oils can also pick up dirt and grime from the environment, and no one likes dirty hair.
The average routine for cleaning your hair, using shampoo, strips those natural oils from your hair. To keep your hair from getting dry, brittle, or damaged by the environment, you need to replace those oils. Typically, this is done with a conditioner, but you can give it an emergency treatment with a hair mask. A hair mask is left in for a longer period, to infuse the hair with moisturizers and vitamins, helping to fill in gaps in the cuticle, smooth down fraying cells, and coat the whole thing in a protective layer.
A lot of different hair masks are available, including both commercial options and home remedies. It's not hugely important which ones you choose, beyond, as always, picking a mask that works best with your hair type. For example, a homemade egg mask works for many people but might be too heavy or too light for certain kinds of hair. Do a bit of research into your hair type, and you'll be able to find remedies specifically for you when you're done.
3. Use a Conditioner on Off Days
General advice is that you should be using some kind of conditioner every single day. Generally, you will have two or three different kinds in rotation.
First, you'll want to use a thorough, heavy-duty hair mask. Hair masks are good to use about once a week. It does depend on the composition of the mask, though, whether you use it more or less often. Generally, a mask won't have much benefit when used more than two or three times per week, however.
Second, you want to use a general conditioner nearly every day. You don't need to use it on days you use your hair mask, because the mask does the same job, just better. Think of the mask as repairing damage, and the general conditioner as helping to maintain your hair to prevent further damage.
Third, you can consider a fast leave-in conditioner on days when you don't have the time for a full wash-and-condition or a hair mask. We all lead busy lives, and we can't all dedicate time to hair care every day. Use a quick conditioner on days you can't do a full routine, and use the mask later to repair any damage that wasn't protected.
4. Use Less Shampoo
As mentioned above, one of the reasons hair is damaged is because it's exposed, and it gets exposed when people use shampoo to cleanse it. Unfortunately, shampoo is typically quite harsh with both stripping moisture/oils and with the use of harsh chemicals to deep clean.
One of the cardinal sins of hair care is over-washing. Over-washing can damage hair just as much as the sun can, and worse, it can make your hair more exposed to sun damage.
Be wary of any 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner. Often, these don't work quite the way you would want them to, and end up stripping oils but not infusing your hair with the moisturizing qualities you want them to.
Instead, use a normal shampoo tailored to your style of hair. Many people use a shampoo that is much harsher than their hair needs, just because many stores sell them as one-size-fits-all solutions to any hair issue. You'll want a tailored solution instead. Use the shampoo less often than you think – two or three times a week as a general rule of thumb, adjusting for your needs – and use a conditioner more frequently. A good conditioner is a secret to preventing and repairing hair damage.
5. Consider a Homemade Moisturizer
There are a lot of different ways you can help repair your hair using homemade remedies. If you're worried about chemicals, you don't trust commercial conditioners, or you just want to live that DIY lifestyle, you have a lot of choices. Some options include:
- A homemade egg mask, comprised of an egg and some oil, left in for about 20 minutes before being rinsed away.
- An avocado mask. Mix up some mashed avocado, which is rich in healthy oils and vitamins, with some egg, to make a mask.
- Use an apple cider vinegar rinse. ACV is a potent ingredient that has a lot of untapped health benefits you can try using as part of your rinse.
These are just a few of a wide array of different options available to you. Almost all of them include some form of oil (avocado, coconut oil, even butter) and some source of vitamins (usually eggs, but some other ingredients work as well). Feel free to explore, experiment, and come up with a formula that works for you.
6. Eat a Hair-Healthy Diet
Another way to help keep your hair healthy and resilient is to ensure that you're starting from a point of maximum health. If your hair is already struggling from your diet or your lifestyle, you're going to have a harder time protecting it from damage and restoring that damage later.
A key part of this is your diet. Certain vitamins and minerals are very important for the overall health of your hair.
- Protein is extremely important for the continued growth and health of your hair.
- Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is a critical component of scalp health.
- Zinc, which is used as part of the hair growth and repair cycle.
- Vitamin E, which has been proven to help accelerate and promote hair growth.
- Vitamin A, which can cause hair loss in both too high and too low amounts.
Luckily, we have a whole article dedicated to dietary adjustments you can do to help promote healthy hair. Give it a read; you're sure to find something you can change about your lifestyle!
While it's difficult to repair damaged hair, protecting it is easy, and there are a lot of treatments you can do to help it look better while it grows out and the damaged strands are replaced. It's a long and gradual process, but it's pretty much all you can do. We highly recommend protecting your hair from damage in the first place, as much as possible, for the best results.