How Not to Wreck Your Hair

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 04, 2012
3 min read

Your blow dryer, flat iron, and curling iron can make your hair look great.

But if you misuse those tools or have the wrong ones, your hair may look like it's ready for a lengthy stint in hair rehab.

Use this guide to brush up on how to style your hair at home as well as how to mend damaged hair.

Hair styling tools don't have to cost a fortune. But they do need basic features, says Mark Goodman, a master hair care professional.

Look for tools that offer different heat settings. "The cheaper ones have just one setting," says Goodman, who owns The Hair-Designers salon in Hilton Head, S.C.

Check to see if your tool displays heat temperatures. For instance, some hair irons can be dialed to a variety of heat settings, from 175 or so to nearly 400.

The 400-degree setting is "definitely too high" for personal use by someone who isn't a stylist, Goodman says.

Susan Thalken, owner of the hair salon Studio 8 in Hollywood, Calif., says that, if you can afford it, you should buy a professional blow dryer from a beauty supply store. She says professional dryers have a stronger air flow and more power.

Goodman's advice: Choose dryers with a nozzle attachment to target air flow and a diffuser to help distribute heat more evenly.

When you select a heat setting on your dryer or curling or straight iron, consider the thickness of your hair.

"The finer the hair, the lower the temperature," Goodman says. "For instance, a person with baby fine hair should use the lowest possible setting."

That doesn't mean if you have a thick mane you should opt for the highest setting, he adds. "We rarely," he says, "use an extremely high degree of heat."

Before you get a curling iron or a flat (straightening) iron, take your natural hair texture into account.

"It's better to work with your natural hair texture than against it," Thalken says.

There are hair products made to protect your hair from the heat of dryers, curling irons, or flat irons. Many of them use silicone as a protective coating for your hair.

When it comes to causing damage, "irons are worse than blow dryers," says Carolyn Jacob, MD, a Chicago dermatologist and associate clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University School of Medicine, Chicago.

To protect your hair while styling, work quickly.

"If you are using a curling or straight iron, you should probably not use it for more than three or four seconds [per section]," Jacobs says.

A little professional advice never hurts. Ask your hair stylist to go over how to style your hair, even if you've done it yourself for years.

The stylist may be able to show you shortcuts, or newer techniques. Set up a separate appointment, or ask in advance for some extra time at your next visit. That will give your stylist time to work with you.

If your hair suddenly begins to break off, feels rougher or kinkier, looks dull, shows split ends, or sticks up in places it never did before, it's probably damaged.

Jacob offers this advice: "If it's split and it shows, I'd cut it!"

But Goodman doesn't agree entirely, saying that good hair repair products may make that unnecessary.

Here are your other options:

Try at-home treatments. Products with oils and moisturizers are designed to repair heat-damaged hair, Thalken says.

If you hair is also chemically damaged (such as from over-coloring), Thalken suggests using hair repair products with protein to make it look better.

Get professional help. If do-it-yourself treatments don't work, consider more intensive salon repair treatments that can strengthen the hair so it's protected and looks smooth. Goodman says, "Some deep repair conditioners will not restore the hair's original structure. But they will imitate the original structure with proteins and help fill damaged areas." These products can also protect your hair from further damage.

Be patient. "If an inch on your ends is damaged, it may take two or three months to get your hair back to normal," says Goodman.

Once your hair is repaired, keep it healthy with the proper use of tools and a regular trim. For most people, Goodman says, that means heading back to the salon for a cut every 4 to 6 weeks.