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Hair Damage, Causes & Solutions

Have you ever done any of the following things to your hair:

  • Held the blow-dryer directly against your hair while styling?
  • Colored it at home, and then gone to a stylist to "fix" it without telling them about your do-it-yourself attempt?
  • Colored your permed hair, or permed your colored hair?
  • Left a relaxer on too long?
  • Gone several months without a haircut?

Top hairstylists say they see these mistakes frequently at their salons -- mistakes that can damage your hair and leave you in desperate need of an emergency fix in the stylist's chair.

Don’t Get Overheated

Many women like to "blow out" their hair at home by straightening and styling it with a brush and blow-dryer. But direct heat can actually burn your hair, says George Gonzalez, owner of George the Salon in Chicago and a former stylist for many of Oprah Winfrey’s celebrity guests. "People put the dryer directly against the hair because they think that’s the way to get it straight,” Gonzalez says. That can do real damage, especially with a metal brush. If it’s not too bad, you can repair the damage with conditioners. But once hair is too overstressed and chemically dried out from heat, there’s nothing to do but cut it and let new hair grow in."

Preventing damage is worth a little longer style time: Pull the blow dryer a bit away from the brush, and don’t let it touch the hair directly.

Flat irons can also overheat your hair, but Gonzalez says that most women move flat irons through their hair as opposed to holding them at one spot for long periods of time the way they do blow dryers. But you need to be mindful of over-ironing as well.

You can burn your hair or scalp with chemicals used in hair processing. That’s a common problem, says Andrew Alexis, MD, who directs the Skin of Color Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York. “I often see chemical relaxers left on too long -- to the point of burning or irritating the scalp.”

He advises people to have chemical processing applied by a trained professional who takes appropriate care to avoid injury to the scalp or excessive hair damage. Alexis suggests protecting the scalp with a petrolatum-based ointment, like petroleum jelly, that is applied before the relaxer, a step called “basing the scalp.”

Chemically treating hair and then exposing it to high heat -- such as with a curling iron -- inflicts a double whammy, Alexis says. “The hair is already weakened by the relaxer and then damaged further by the intense heat exposure. This can cause hair to break very easily. With this in mind, I advise my patients to minimize the intensity and frequency of thermal hair styling techniques and to use conditioning shampoos to protect and strengthen the hair.” Alexis says that hair loss from traction alopecia and scalp burns due to chemical relaxers would usually be temporary. But if the damage is long-standing or severe enough, it can be permanent.