Years ago, sick of my dull brown hair and inspired by Kate Winslet’s auburn locks in Titanic, I decided to try some henna. Alas, the effect was more Little Orphan Annie than glamorous movie star, and I was crying before I’d even rinsed it out—which is how I ended up dyeing my hair blonde. Ignoring the label that warned people with hennaed hair not to use the product, I mixed up the hair-dye solution in my bathroom, worked it through my newly scarlet tresses, and waited. In no time, my mirrored image reflected a multi-hued halo of frizz with the consistency of straw.
My story may be extreme, but I’m certainly not the first whose quest for a new look left her crowning glory better suited to lining the floor of a barn. The hair products industry is huge—Americans spent billions on products and salon visits last year—and far too much of that money was spent damaging our hair in the very process of trying to beautify it.
Perming, straightening, and coloring are the top offenders, but harsh beauty care products and styling habits can also take their toll. “The biggest mistake I see is overprocessing,” says Jennifer Bahney, a trichologist (hair and scalp specialist) and founder of longhairlovers.com. “The most important thing people who want beautiful hair can do is to treat it gently.”
Hair is essentially a thin strand of dead protein and can take only a certain amount of abuse. Jerome Litt, a dermatologist at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University and author of Your Skin from A to Z, asks us to compare our hair to a cashmere sweater, then consider how that sweater would look after being washed, combed, colored, teased, straightened, curled, pulled, twisted and twirled—and then blasted with 1,500 watts of hot air. It’s easy to damage the cuticle, or outer layer of the hair, making it brittle and more likely to dry out and break.
Aging heads are especially vulnerable to harsh treatment. With time, our scalps produce less of the oily substance, called sebum, that coats the cuticle and keeps hair shiny and manageable. The hair growth cycle also slows, making hair thinner and finer. Add to this women’s changing hormone levels, which can also thin hair, and it’s not surprising so few of us reach our golden years with the same lustrous locks we had at age 25.
Still, there is a silver lining. You may be able to preserve, and even restore, some of your hair’s luster if you trade some of your chemical-heavy habits for something milder. For instance, if you’ve been using permanent hair color, consider experimenting with henna or other herbal dyes instead. If your hair is thinning, wash it with a thickening shampoo rather than resorting to a perm. Whether you’re coaxing your locks back from a disastrous chemical treatment or simply want to pamper them, a gentler touch will help. Here are several ways to give your hair a break.
Use a light touch
Remember when beauty experts advised brushing your hair 100 strokes a day? Forget it. Mechanical stresses such as back-combing, tight braids, ponytails, and even plain old brushing and combing can break and damage hair, so keep brushing to a minimum. Litt advises using firm rubber combs and pure-bristle brushes, and staying away from unyielding metal or plastic brushes and combs.
Give up harsh chemical treatments
They’re the most common source of hair damage. “Hair straighteners and perms are the two worst,” says Alex Khadavi, a Los Angeles dermatologist who specializes in treating hair loss. The culprit in these products is a class of chemicals called thioglycollates, which break the bonds that lock together proteins in the hair strand. If you can’t live without curls, pick products with buffered alkaline, which is slightly less harsh than pure alkaline, particularly if you have color-treated hair.
The more you color your hair, the higher chance you may damage it—and perhaps even your health. Dyes and bleaches contain ammonia and hydrogen peroxide that penetrate the cuticle and swell the hair strand. Initially, this process can add a glossy sheen to your locks. But repeated color treatments usually leave it dry and brittle. Worse, certain other chemicals in hair color, particularly the darker shades, have been linked to bladder cancer in some studies.
So what can you do?
If you’re using permanent dyes, swap them for natural or semipermanent ones, which contain lower amounts of chemicals. Or go with highlights rather than covering your whole head in dye; the less time your scalp is covered the better. The safest option, apart from sticking with your natural hair color, is to use vegetable-based rinses, which don’t penetrate the hair shaft. (The fact that one of them, henna, precipitated my own chemical disaster shouldn’t be held against it.) Unfortunately, there’s a trade-off: None of these gentler methods are as effective at covering gray.
Block the elements
Sun exposure can dry out hair as well as lighten colored hair and give it a brassy or faded look. To protect your tresses, look for a conditioner with UV protection such as zinc oxide; work it through your hair after shampooing, and leave in.
Most shampoos contain the detergent sodium lauryl sulfate, a known irritant, but the overwhelming majority of experts believe the chemical is safe for all but the most sensitive heads of hair. In any case, most of us wash out our shampoo long before it has a chance to irritate our scalps. But if you’d prefer to hedge your bets, you can choose from plenty of alternatives that clean up nicely. Aubrey Organics, Natures Gate, Jason’s Natural Cosmetics, Ecco Bella, and Avalon Natural Products are among the companies that make sodium lauryl sulfate-free products.
Generally, the drier your hair the less you should wash it. “Someone with oily hair can wash it every day, whereas someone with dry, color-treated hair should shampoo only two to four times a week,” says dermatologist Marianne O’Donoghue of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. For long hair, which tends to be more fragile at the ends, Bahney suggests shampooing just the scalp and letting the suds roll down.
Conditioning won’t undo damage. But it does tame static electricity, making hair easier to comb and less vulnerable to breakage and splitting. Bahney recommends conditioners containing panthenol, a B vitamin that smoothes the cuticle, and proteins, which bind water to the hair and help moisturize it.
Choose gentle styling products
Most drugstore brands of hair spray, mousses, and gels contain isopropyl alcohol, which can dry hair with long-term use. Opt instead for products with conditioning alcohols such as cetyl alcohol or cetearyl alcohol, or with gum arabic, gum tragacanth, and panthenol, which help hair strands stick together without sapping them of moisture. If you’re a regular user of styling products, try to prevent them from getting on your scalp–the alcohol and preservatives they contain can irritate the skin and may even cause temporary hair loss, according to Khadavi.
Blow cool air
Heat from blow-dryers damages the protein in hair strands. Set the blow-dryer on “cool” and keep the nozzle a good 12 inches from your hair. Also, try letting your hair air-dry every now and then. “The less you blow-dry the hair, and the less the intensity of the heat, the better,” says Khadavi.
Nourish your hair from the inside out
This mostly involves the same advice you’ve heard a million times before: Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, fish, healthy fats, and whole grains. If you’re looking to give your locks an extra boost, try taking biotin (also known as vitamin H) as well. Dermatologists say it can help by improving the quality of keratin proteins in the hair. Litt recommends 3 to 5 milligrams daily. Physician and author Andrew Weil also recommends taking the gamma-linoleic acid found in black currant oil or evening primrose oil to promote healthy skin and hair. Weil suggests taking 500 mg twice a day of one or the other for six to eight weeks.
Learn to relax
Although dull or thinning hair certainly isn’t the most serious side effect of stress, it is one symptom. “Stress causes levels of a natural steroid, cortisol, to rise in the body, and that can cause shedding,” says Khadavi. While severe stress, such as a death in the family, is the main culprit, even everyday annoyances may affect the health of your hair. Khadavi recommends exercise and meditation to help keep cortisol levels in check.