Most of us are quick to acknowledge the need to protect our skin from the rigors of summer heat and sun. But come Labor Day a quick glance in the mirror frequently lets us know what we forgot to protect -- our hair.
Indeed, a season of exposure to sun, salt water, and chlorine chemical residues -- not to mention a few extra chemical "sun" streaks for style -- can come together to wreak havoc on our tresses. By the end of the summer, experts say hair can become so dehydrated it looks and feels nearly fried.
"From a technical standpoint, there's a protective coating on hair called the hydrolipidic film; if you have dry hair, that film is broken down somewhat anyway, when you color it, it breaks down a little more -- but when you add sun, salt water, and chlorine, you can destroy the film altogether," says Melissa Baker, national training advisor for Rene Furterer hair care products in Paris.
The end result, says Baker, is that moisture located deep in the core of the hair shaft evaporates -- and in what seems like one "poof" your "pouf" can be gone.
"Hair looks, feels, acts, and actually is, crying out for moisture," says Baker.
That means hair not only has a dry look and feel, but can also be frizzy, unmanageable, have problems holding a curl or style, and even take longer to dry. In its worst form damage causes the ends of the hair to split, and breakage can begin.
"When hair dehydrates it becomes brittle and when it becomes brittle you get the broken split ends that go up the hair shaft and cause fuzziness and frizziness and sometimes breakage; it's a cumulative process," says celebrity hair care expert Peter Lamas.
Like skin, hair is comprised of proteins that need moisture to function. But, unlike skin which has its own supply of moisture from within, hair, says Lamas, is dead, so once the moisture is gone -- it's gone.
Problems are further complicated if we lighten or streak our hair. That's because our natural supply of oil resides in the pigment. Remove the color, says Lamas, and you strip out the oils.
"This leaves the hair wide open to the environment -- so not only are you pulling out the oils, which dries the hair, but you are also making it more vulnerable to the elements, which can cause even more dryness and eventually damage," Lamas tells WebMD.
Undoing the Damage
While damaging hair can come easy, repair can be frustratingly hard. Experts say that's because many of us turn to styling aids -- such as mousses and gels -- to force our damaged tresses to do what we want. And that can be a big mistake.
"If you are having problems with your hair -- it's frizzy or won't hold a curl or style -- it's natural to reach for more styling aids. But when hair is damaged, these products can make it look and feel worse," says stylist Juan Juan of J Beverly Hills Salon, and developer of J Beverly Hills hair products.
Instead says Juan, begin at the beginning -- by first replenishing hair with a salon-quality moisturizing shampoo and rinse-out conditioner. But, he says, don't consider yourself "finished" before adding a leave-in conditioner as well.
"Rinse-out conditioners do not deposit any protection on the hair -- in fact, if you leave any residue on your hair it can react with the elements and cause even more damage," Juan tells WebMD.
Conversely, he says, coating hair with a leave-in conditioner -- products that are usually sprayed on after washing or styling -- take protection and manageability to a whole new level.
"It coats the hair which helps seal in the moisture you replenished with your shampoo and conditioner, but it also seals out further effects of damaging elements, such as the sun or even air pollution," says Juan.
While this combo can often do the trick, if it doesn't, the next step is to incorporate a hair mask into your regimen. A relatively new term in the hair care industry, a mask for your tresses does somewhat the same thing as a facial masque does for your complexion. In short, it revitalizes and replenishes deep within the hair shaft.
"A mask is loaded with emollients and vitamins that will coat the hair and help close the cuticle," says Lamas. This, he says, lets you add moisture, and then trap it inside to help the hair look and feel better.
To properly use this treatment, experts say dampen hair with water, then coat the scalp and each strand with your mask. Wrap your hair in a towel or plastic cling wrap for up to one hour.
"The longer you can leave it on your hair, the better the result," says Juan. When you're done, shampoo and condition hair as you normally would.
"The mask step is essential if you want to keep coloring hair that is somewhat damaged; if you use the mask the day before coloring or highlighting you are less likely to harm your hair," says Juan.
Mother Nature Had Great Hair!
When it comes to choosing your hair care products, many experts now say that nature offers the best ingredients for hair repair.
"If it's chemicals that are damaging your hair, it makes sense to turn away from chemicals if you are trying to compensate for that damage," says Lamas. And, he practices what he preaches. When forming his own line of natural hair care products, Lamas says he shunned chemical ingredients and relied almost entirely on botanicals and natural oils.
"Chemical shampoo ingredients like propylene glycol, sodium laurels, ammonium laurels, and paraben get stored in your hair," says Lamas. And that, he says is one reason why even hair that receives minimal assaults can seem beat up and fragile.
"The formulas of some shampoos are so similar to dishwashing liquid, it's frightening," says Lamas.
Of course not everyone agrees that chemicals are bad for the hair. Juan says that leave-in conditioners containing chemical ingredients such as silicone will help coat the hair, repel damaging elements, and are actually good for your hair.
Meanwhile, Baker says the best products are those that successfully marry nature and science.
"It's true that some of the best hair care ingredients are found in nature but you have to get them to penetrate the hair so they can do their job," she says.
Either way, if your hair is damaged, our experts agree that some of the best natural ingredients you can look for include soy proteins, egg lecithin, wheat germ oil, carthum oil, safflower oil, rice and wheat proteins, as well as vitamins like B5 (panthenol); and also botanicals such as chamomile, comfrey, and goldenseal.
The Way You Do the Things You Do
When it comes to styling your hair, what you use, in term of tools, as well as how you use them also matters. The golden rule of thumb: The more damaged your hair, the less heat you should apply.
"The hotter the tool, the more you can damage your hair, since heat forces the cuticle to split open," says Lamas. If you want to blow dry, he says, use the medium or cool setting to keep the outside layer as smooth as possible.
Heated rollers, and curling and flat irons can do equal damage. If you find your hair is taking longer to curl, or won't hold your style for very long, then it's a clear sign you are using too much heat.
If you must set your style, Lamas says mesh rollers are best, and "always use end papers to protect the hair." Rollers to avoid, he says, are the self-stick loop-and-tape variety, which increase the risk of breakage.
What can be great for hair -- damaged or not -- is vigorous brushing, particularly with a natural bristle brush. While any kind of hairbrush will help distribute oils from the scalp to the ends where it's most needed, those with natural bristles can grab the oils more effectively and distribute them faster and easier.
"A lot of women avoid vigorous brushing because they fear hair loss, but actually brushing can be good as it helps stimulate the scalp," says Baker. If your scalp is also dry, she says, you can still brush, just do it more gently and use a brush with soft bristles.
While there's no question that you can make even the most damaged hair look and feel a whole lot better, our experts also say that for many women the real answer is a great haircut -- particularly if your hair has suffered heavy summer wear and tear.
"There is nothing you can really do to repair damaged hair -- it's all about masking the damage; and sometimes, if that damage is severe enough, you are better off going into the fall/winter season with a terrific new haircut, which can help you achieve a healthy, sexy head of hair a lot sooner," says Juan.
Once you've achieved that, experts say make yourself a promise to go into the next summer season with hair protection: Rinse hair as soon as it's exposed to salt water or chlorine, avoid direct sunlight on your hair, and use leave-in conditioners, shampoos, and styling aids with sun protection whenever you are outdoors.
SOURCES: Melissa Baker, national training manager; and spokesperson, Renee Furterer hair care products, Paris, and Los Angeles. Peter Lamas, celebrity hairdresser, http://www.lamasbeauty.com/magazine/; and creator, Lamas Beauty and Hair Care Products, Los Angeles. Juan Juan, owner, J Beverly Hills salon, http://www.jbeverlyhills.com/, and J Beverly Hills hair care products, Beverly Hills, Calif.