Protect and Repair Your Dry Hair

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 26, 2013
3 min read

Go ahead. Try a fun new hairdo. Take a dip in the pool or a vacation at the beach. But just as you'd slather on sunscreen to shield your skin, take steps to protect your hair.

Sun exposure, chlorine, and salt water can dry hair out. Heat-styling and chemical processing can lead to a string of bad hair days. But there are a lot of things you can do to keep your hair smooth and silky. Even if you've already got split ends and breaks, you can use damage-control tricks to make it look healthier.

"Prevention is key," says Eugene Toye, senior stylist at Rita Hazan Salon in New York. His clients include Sofia Vergara and Neil Patrick Harris.

These simple tips can go a long way toward staving off damage:

  • Shampoo. Choose a shampoo formulated for your hair type. Many shampoos have detergent-like ingredients called sulfates to remove excess dirt and oil, but these can damage hair. Look for formulas that say “sulfate free” and list dimethicone as an ingredient. It increases shine and manageability.
  • Moisturize. After every shampoo, use a conditioner designed for dry or damaged hair. Toye suggests also using regular at-home treatments like deep conditioners (also called protein packs). For mildly dry hair, you may need only one treatment a month. If your hair is very dry, use a deep conditioner once or even twice a week. Your stylist can tell you how often to use it.
  • Comb carefully. Dry, damaged hair is prone to breaking because it's so fragile. “Excessive pulling caused by using the wrong comb or brush is a main cause," says Debra Jaliman, MD, a dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. Toye suggests using a wide-toothed comb or a brush that's labeled specifically for detangling hair before getting in the shower. It's more difficult to detangle wet hair without pulling, he says.
  • Dry gently. Go easy on towel drying to prevent your dry hair from breaking. Instead of rubbing vigorously, Toye suggests squeezing out water softly -- as you would with a cashmere sweater.
  • Spare the heat. Limit heat styling to once a week, and use the lowest setting on blow dryers, flat irons, and curling irons. To buy extra time between heat stylings, Toye suggests using a dry shampoo. After applying styling products like gel or mousse and before using heat, put a thermal-protection spray or serum on your hair. “These act like a buffer that prevents heat damage," Toye says.

"Dry hair worsens with time because of accumulated abuse,” Toye says. The only real way to get rid of the damage is to cut off damaged hair.

If a dramatic chop isn't an option, use the prevention and protection techniques described above. They can improve the look and feel of damaged hair. There are a few other ways to make dreary hair look lively:

  • At home. In addition to conditioning after you shampoo, use deep conditioning treatments that contain ingredients like wheat proteins, amino acids, or panthenol. These will help make your hair softer, smoother, and shinier for a few days. Jaliman also suggests using a leave-in conditioner to add more moisture, if necessary.
  • At the salon. Keratin treatments are Toye’s preferred method of smoothing dry hair. They coat hair with keratin protein, usually with the help of heat. This helps smooth the hair cuticle, making your hair smooth and shiny for about four weeks. Don't expect miracles, though. “If your hair is slightly dry and frizzy, you’ll see a dramatic difference," Toye says. "But if it’s completely butchered, you won’t.”

It's important to know that the safety of keratin treatments has been questioned. Some may contain or release unsafe levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that has been linked to health problems, including cancer.

Thyroid conditions, eating disorders, and other health problems can cause severely dry hair. "See a dermatologist if you notice any sudden or dramatic changes," Jaliman says.