You might think you're doing everything right by your hair—using masks weekly or applying leave-in conditioners as needed—but if your mane still feels brittle, dull, or just not as lustrous as you think it should be, something might be up. The culprit may very well be the damage your hair accrues on a daily basis. We reached out to Anabel Kingsley, consulting trichologist at Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic, and dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe to finally set the record straight about how you could be hurting your hair (without knowing!) every single day.
Getty / Todor Tsvetkov
Problem: Your diet isn't optimal for hair health.
A rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a varied, unprocessed diet is important for healthy hair. But there are a few main ingredients that really count. "Biotin is key," Dr. Bowe says. "It's a form of vitamin B that builds healthy tissues including strong hair and nails. Biotin deficiency can show up as brittle hair or even hair loss." You can find biotin in foods like egg yolks, avocado, beans, and mushrooms, she notes.
Protein is also important, since it's what your hair is actually made of, Kingsley explains. "Amino acids (or proteins) are the building blocks of your strands, and they give hair strength and structure," she explains. "Add a palm-sized portion of protein to your breakfast and lunch. Great options are eggs, oily fish, shellfish, lean meat, low-fat cottage cheese, quinoa, tofu, and almonds." Kingsley also recommends adding complex carbohydrates into your diet ("These provide energy, and as hair cells are the second-fastest growing cells your body makes, they need a lot of it!"), Iron, she says, is also essential. "Deficiency is one of the most common causes of hair not being able to grow past a certain length," she says, and recommends getting it through red meat (you can find it in plants like spinach but is harder for the body to absorb). Don't eat meat? Try a supplement, instead.
Problem: Your hair is water fatigued.
What is water fatigue, you ask? "When hair gets wet, it becomes waterlogged," Dr. Bowe says. "It stretches and swells, leading to damage and breakage. You notice week after week that your hair is getting frizzier, more damaged, and even more visibly dull. So, you start using heavier products like conditioners and masks and leave-on products that basically act like superficial band-aids. They coat the hair with heavy products that give it a glossy shine, but the hair beneath is far from healthy."
Luckily, there's a fix. Dr. Bowe says less water exposure and faster drying will lead to healthier hair. To combat water damage, she recommends protecting hair with pre-wash protective sprays, using gentle shampoos and conditioners that won't lather too much (lots of lathering usually translates to stripping and damage), and drying with a soft, microfiber towel that isn't coarse. (Coarse towels can also lead to frizz and breakage.) A protective leave-in conditioner will also help. Try the Aquis Prime System ($99, aquis.com), a kit that contains everything you need to prevent water fatigue.
Problem: You're too liberal with your use of heat tools.
"When you apply high heat and hold your hair dryer right next to your hair, or keep blasting away at your hair when it has already been dried and set, damage can occur," Kingsley says. "Instead, if you use a low to medium heat setting, hold your hair dryer about 12 inches away from your hair, and turn your dryer off when your hair is just dry, you actually will not cause much damage at all."
As for flat irons? Kingsley says they can literally scorch hair: "They can get as hot as the temperature that sugar caramelizes at. They can also cause 'bubble hair,' which are tiny air bubbles that form within the hair shaft when moisture expands too rapidly." They look like little white dots on your hair and feel like tiny bumps that usually form on the mid-lengths and ends. Her rule of thumb? "If it's too hot to hold against your skin, do not put it on your hair!"
Problem: You're too rough with your hair.
Wearing your hair in tight, high topknots, brushing it while wet, and vigorously shampooing are all things that can lead to hair damage. "Placing too much traction on your hair can cause breakage," Kingsley says. "In extreme cases, where tension is also placed on the hair follicle, hairs can be pulled out. Over time, this can lead to permanent hair loss (called traction alopecia)." Tie your hair back with fabric-covered elastics, and wear low, loose ponytails and braids. When your hair is wet, do not use a brush to detangle. "Instead, use a comb with medium- to wide- spaced teeth. Start at your ends and gradually work your way up," Kingsley says.
And when you shampoo, tread carefully. "You can cause damage when you shampoo if you are too rough, or pile your hair on top of your head," Kingsley says. "This can create terrible tangles and subsequent breakage. Use a firm, but gentle kneading action on your scalp. Let your hair fall behind you—do not scrunch or roughly rub it. The suds that run through your lengths will be enough to cleanse them."
Problem: Your hair color is to blame.
This is one source of hair damage you may have been able to guess. "Permanent color, which requires the use of strong alkaline chemicals and solutions, is always damaging to a certain extent," Kingsley says. "The lighter you go, the more damaging the color will be." One way to prevent damage, she says, is to choose a color that your hair can more easily handle. (Ask your hairstylist for advice, if needed.)
Additionally, you can try to leave at least 10 weeks between permanent color appointments, and in between, strengthen and hydrate with a weekly pre-shampoo conditioning treatment. "I recommend our Elasticizer ($28, philipkingsley.com), which was originally formulated for Audrey Hepburn," Kingsley says. "It plumps the hair shaft with moisture and smooths the outer cuticle, creating shine, body, and increasing strength."
Problem: You're not protecting from ultraviolet rays.
"UV rays can alter and damage the structure of your hair," Kinglsey says. "In fact, they have a similar impact on hair as bleach. This is why hair becomes lighter in the sun." But damage doesn't stop at the appearance of those beachy hues: Ultraviolet rays create free radicals, which can weaken your hair, she explains. To help prevent damage, Kingsley recommends either protecting with a leave-in conditioner that contains a UV shield or wearing a hat when you're in the sun.