When the heat is on: Protecting your hair from heat damage

When the heat is on, your hair needs some time off

How you style your hair, along with the styling tools you use, can cause significant hair damage. No matter your hair type, excessive heat — from hairdryers, flat irons or curling irons — can be very damaging to the hair, causing your hair to look brittle, frizzy and lackluster or even fall out.

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What heat can do to your hair

Heat is a common source of hair damage, which produces a condition known as “bubble hair.” This occurs when the water in the hair, which makes the hair flexible, gets heated and turns into steam. Hair bubbles then occur on the hair shaft, creating a loss of cuticle. Signs of this form of hair damage include hair that smells burned, frizzy ends and hair that breaks easily.

“Dramatic temperature changes are hard on hair, and heat can, in a sense, cook the hair,” says dermatologist Zoe D Draelos, MD, FAAD, consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina. “Think of hair like a piece of steak — it starts out nice and soft and flexible. But when you cook it, the steak changes texture and becomes hard,” she says. “Similarly, hair transforms when exposed to heat over time, resulting in brittle hair that breaks easily. Protecting hair from too much heat is essential to maintaining healthy hair.”

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The bad news: Hair damaged by heat cannot be repaired, as the affected hair will need to be cut off and allowed to regrow as healthy hair. But the good news is that you can prevent high temperatures from harming your hair by following these tips from dermatologists.

12 ways to start protecting your hair from heat damage

Dr Draelos offered these tips for heat-damaged hair:

  1. Allow hair to air dry when possible.
  2. Hold hairdryers at least 6 inches (15cm) away from the scalp.
  3. Moderation is key when using heat on the hair. Use heat as little as necessary and for as short an application time as possible.
  4. When using a hairdryer, do not use the highest heat setting immediately. Start out on the lowest heat setting first, then gradually increase heat.
  5. To straighten hair with a ceramic iron, put a moist towel in the device to protect the hair from direct heat.
  6. Look for temperature-controlled devices to control the amount of direct heat to hair.
  7. Limit the time a hot comb or curling iron touches your hair.
  8. If you use a curling iron, only leave it in place for a second or two.
  9. Flat irons should be used on dry hair on a low or medium heat setting, no more often than every other day.
  10. Use heat styling tools infrequently, aiming for once a week — or even less often.
  11. Moisturizing the hair regularly will help the appearance of heat damaged hair to some degree, but it cannot repair the hair, so stopping the source of heat damage is essential.
  12. To counter the effects of heat, use a heat protectant before applying any form of heat to hair. These products are sprayed or applied directly on the hair, and contain protective polymers and silicones to insulate the hair cuticle from heat.
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