How to Repair Damaged Hair Properly
Damaged hair is common amongst people who dye their hair often or use heated styling tools. Every time you subject your hair to any form of chemical treatment, damage occurs to both the surface of the hair shaft and the deeper structure within.
Extensive lightening and perming treatments cause the most damage overall, but even minor dye jobs can lead to unnoticeable damage that gradually builds up and becomes more problematic with each successive treatment.
Damage to your hair may seem like cause for alarm and stress, but it doesn't mean you have to necessarily cut it off and start again. You can reverse even a serious disaster and keep your favorite style by knowing why the damage occurs, and being able to use the right products and care routine to repair damaged hair back to good condition.
What Causes Damage?
The damage that occurs to your hair when you subject it to a chemical treatment is a result of the hair's structural integrity being compromised. When the structure of the hair shaft is compromised, it can snap or form split ends more readily.
Hair needs a solid foundation, and the building block of your hair is a protein called keratin. Bleach and perming solutions damage your hair by primarily breaking down the bonds between the amino acids in the hair's keratin structure.
In the case of permanent hair dye and lightening preparations, this damage is an unintended side effect of the oxidation reaction and the alkaline environment needed to drive the chemical reaction to lighten the hair. Perming and relaxing treatments, however, aim to intentionally break bonds in your hair and reset them to change your hair's texture.
Whilst these new bonds lead to curlier or straighter hair depending on the way the solution is used, they are weaker than the natural bonds that were reset. The very nature of current hair treatments means you can't color or texturize your hair permanently without causing at least a little damage.
You can't always avoid causing damage to your hair in the first place, but there are a few tips you can follow that will help to minimize it and keep your hair in better condition.
- Avoid overlapping dye or bleach on top of hair that has been previously treated. Only the regrowth should be processed when you maintain your current color.
- For previously dyed hair that has faded, revitalize your color with a semi-permanent dye, temporary rinse, or using a colored shampoo. This will reverse fading without causing further damage.
- Don't bleach hair that has been permed or relaxed, and vice versa, don't perm or relax hair that has been bleached. Consider alternative ways to curl or straighten your hair.
Types of Hair Damage
In order to repair damaged hair, it's necessary to address the specific type of damage that has occurred. Primarily, this damage consists of:
- Damage to the hair cortex
- Damage to the cuticle
- Stripping of the hair's natural oils
What's the Difference?
Most chemical treatments leave your hair feeling dry, rough, and brittle. This isn't necessarily actual damage to the hair structure, but it does leave the hair more prone to snapping and splitting because the hair lacks the necessary moisture to maintain adequate flexibility and elasticity.
If you've just bleached your hair and it feels terrible, this is normal to some degree because the natural oils that moisturize your hair have been stripped out by the alkaline pH of the bleaching solution, drying it out more than would ever naturally occur through washing. Before you panic and decide your hair is ruined, allow it to rest.
Condition your hair thoroughly with a deep conditioner and don't wash it again for a few days. In most cases, as the oil begins to build up again, your hair will begin to return back to normal and you'll see that it wasn't very damaged at all. If however, you're suffering breakages and split ends that won't respond to conditioning, this is a tell-tale sign that your hair has actually been compromised, and you'll need to address this with more a targeted treatment to repair damaged hair.
Structural Damage to Hair
When the condition of your hair deteriorates, it has either suffered damage to the cuticles that line the surface of the hair shaft, or the cortex which lies inside the shaft and gives the hair its form and strength.
Damage to the cuticles is superficial and manageable, mainly causing moisture problems, a rougher texture, and porosity, whilst damage to the cortex causes your hair to break easily, and fall apart when subjected to stretching or pulling. As this kind of damage within the cortex is due to broken disulfide bonds, it can also cause your hair to lose natural curls or waves to some extent and this is a telltale sign that your hair isn't in the best condition anymore.
The same processes that cause damage to the cortex also tend to damage the cuticles, so typically you'll notice some degree of both if the amount of damage has become significant.
Hair is rough, feels brittle, may break, and doesn't style properly
Reverses with conditoning
If hair is properly conditioned yet breaks, suspect damage to the hair cortex
Structural repair with protein treatments
Porous hair sucks up hair dye, but fades rapidly. It doesn't hold moisture and suffers from extreme humidity.
Smoothing serums, porosity equalizer, leave-in conditioners
The cuticles of your hair are the windows into the deeper structure of the cortex, holding moisture where it's needed and protecting your hair from the environment. When the cuticles are damaged, the hair loses moisture easily and will suffer more readily in situations of low or high humidity. In this state, the hair is said to be porous.
What Is Porous Hair?
Porous hair can occur naturally to an extent in some people, but for the most part it is a result of damage to the cuticles. If your hair is porous, the best indication is that it absorbs hair dye really well, yet fades unexpectedly fast. This is because the cuticles are meant to seal the inside of the hair tightly against the outside environment and damaged cuticles no longer perform this function.
Cuticle damage can also cause your hair to feel dry and rough, and it will be more prone to split ends and frizz. This occurs because the damaged outer layer can be jagged and doesn't smooth down over the hair surface the way it would in healthy hair.
Repairing Damage to the Hair Cuticles
Hair cuticles can't be replaced once broken down, but the symptoms can be controlled relatively easily. To combat dryness, always condition your hair after you've shampooed it, and follow this up with a dab of leave-in conditioner for more stubborn dryness. Adequate conditioning is all that's required to cut down a lot of the frizz and prevent brittleness that can lead to snapping.
Protecting your hair from the environment is also a simple matter, and can be accomplished with the use of smoothing serums. A good smoothing serum will coat the hair shaft, trapping moisture and locking it in where it's required. When a smoothing serum has been applied, the hair shaft is coated and forms a barrier and humidity isn't able to drastically affect your hair. It functions a little like an artificial cuticle to keep the hair looking and feeling its best by maintaining the correct moisture balance.
Finally, when you dye hair that has suffered cuticle damage, the porosity often leads to uneven results. To prevent this, always treat your hair with a porosity equalizing product before you apply any dye. Porosity equalizers are designed to fill gaps in the structure of your hair, saving you from having sections of porous hair that turn out darker than the rest of your new hair color.
If your hair sucks up hair dye yet fades quickly, often feels dry, and reacts badly to humidity, it's likely you're dealing with porous hair. Hair that is porous requires a good conditioner, and a smoothing serum to lock in moisture and protect it from the environment.
Damage to the hair cuticle is superficial and rarely causes a serious problem, but the same can't be said when there is damage to the hair cortex. This damage is structural and the integrity of the hair suffers. Hair that has sustained damage to the cortex breaks easily, forms split-ends, frizzes up readily, and doesn't hold up to styling.
How to Tell If Your Hair Is Damaged
You'll likely know if you have structural damage because you'll notice how easily your hair tends to break, and hair that was previously smooth can look like a frizzy mess. One of the easiest ways to determine whether structural damage has occurred is to examine it whilst wet.
Hair is at its weakest when wet, and hair that has been damaged will snap or even stretch apart when handled. If your hair feels strangely fragile when wet, there is damage to the hair structure. Very damaged hair may even seem to melt under pressure and this is a bad sign but often still fixable.
Repairing Structural Damage to Hair
To repair damaged hair when the cortex is compromised, the protein in your hair needs to be strengthened. No amount of conditioning will help relieve the problem because conditioners only act to relieve dryness. Hot oil treatments, moisturizing masques, and most 'repair treatments' are useless for this purpose if all they do is condition the hair. Hair like this will only respond to a protein treatment.
Protein treatments work to replace the damaged protein in your hair structure. It is this damaged protein that leads to its fragile state. Products like Joico K-Pac Reconstructor and Redken CAT treatment will noticeably improve damaged hair even with a single use, and this effect builds up over time.
For the best results, use a protein treatment that actually includes amino acids, rather than whole protein. In particular, the amino acid arginine is one of the most effective substances for improving the strength and condition of your hair. When arginine comes into contact with the damaged protein in your hair, it bonds to the hair structure to reinforce it and increase the structural integrity.
If all else fails and you believe your hair is beyond saving, keratin treatments are a last line of offense. Your hair is made of keratin protein, and keratin treatments restore hair using hydrolyzed keratin to create new bonds in the hair. These treatments help to replace the damaged protein and repair damaged hair to its former condition. They can even be used to straighten hair without the damage of a relaxing solution.
Keratin treatments are a great way to repair damaged hair and they can even be used to straighten hair that is naturally curly without causing damage. Many hairdressers offer this treatment, and you can even apply a keratin treatment in the comfort of your own home for little cost.
How to Apply a Keratin Treatment
Most keratin treatment products are designed to be dried into shampooed hair and then straightened or curled at high heat to set the hair into a desired shape. Whilst you can definitely use it to perform this function and repair your hair at the same time, there are also slightly modified products designed to have less of an effect on your hair's texture whilst preserving the hair repair benefits of the treatment.
To apply a standard keratin treatment, you need to shampoo your hair twice with a clarifying shampoo to strip out minerals and oils that might otherwise impact the treatment. Then the treatment is applied to towel-dried hair and blow-dried using the concentrator nozzle and a brush to focus the heat downwards from root to ends and smooth out the hair.
If you have curly or wavy hair and want to maintain or improve this texture, you can use a diffuser attachment on your blowdryer instead and dry it that way. Alternatively, you can just add controlled texture using a straightener or curling iron in the next step.
Setting a Keratin Treatment
After applying a keratin treatment and drying it into your hair, the process isn't entirely finished yet. The treatment needs to be set into the hair at high heat using a styling device capable of reaching 230° Celsius.
Use this tool to either slowly and flawlessly straighten or curl your hair the way you want it to look, then leave this style in your hair for two days before you wash your hair again because the new bonds that are formed by the process continue to form over this time. After that, you can wash the product out and style your hair as usual.
Benefits and Drawbacks of a Keratin Hair Treatment
Keratin treatments can save even heavily damaged hair most of the time but they do require a lot of work to apply and don't last forever. As such, they need to be maintained with repeat applications approximately every two months to maintain texture in your hair, but a lot of the damage restoring benefits from a single treatment will continue to remain even months after one treatment.
Olaplex was launched after I originally wrote this article and built a quick, steady following. It's now used in salons across the world and the manufacturer has a patent for the product's active ingredient addressing how it works, as well as the positive reports of millions of people who have had it used during their coloring treatments.
How Does It Work?
The Olaplex line, as well as other similar products that have released in recent times. contain an ingredient that caps onto broken bonds within the hair and protects these bonds from bleach or dye during chemical treatments so that the hair doesn't become damaged in the first place.
Whilst this is incredibly beneficial to use during any color service, it's important to note that it's going to be a less helpful product if you already have damage because it's better at stopping damage from occurring than it is at repairing existing damage, although it will work for that purpose too.
Repairing Damaged Hair With Olaplex
If you already have damage then—besides using a product like this whenever you color or lighten your hair in the future—you can use as a standalone treatment to repair damaged hair at home. Olaplex No.3
This product has a lot of the benefits of the No.1 and No.2 that are used during chemical treatments, although those variants are stronger because they address the moment when the damage is happening directly. The entire line is more expensive than other products though owing to its success and the hype surrounding it so keep that in mind if you're on a budget.
- How to Use Hair Serums
Hair smoothing serums have a multitude of benefits. Find out what they are and how to use them.
- Caring for Dyed Hair
Dyed hair needs specialized care to keep it looking and feeling its best. Find out how to care for dyed hair and maintain your new color.
- How to Choose a Shampoo
If your hair is damaged, it helps to use the right shampoo. Find out how to choose a shampoo that will benefit your hair.
If you need to repair damaged hair, the most important thing to remember is that it's not the end of the world. In most cases, you can reverse damage to your hair, or at least alleviate it to the point that it isn't a significant problem.
Do you have a question about how to repair damaged hair, or need help using protein treatments or other products? Leave a comment for tailored advice.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Maffew James