Can You Revive Heat-Damaged Hair? Here's What the Experts Say
Gliding a flat iron through or using a curling iron on your hair are just a couple of heat-based ways to style it. But the higher and more frequent the heat, the more likely hair damage becomes. If your strands feel particularly fried, nursing them back to health can feel impossible. While this issue is (somewhat) reversible, prevention is still the best course of action—which is why we tapped several professionals in the hair industry to share a few expert-approved ways to prevent heat damage entirely (or remedy it if it has already occurred). Ahead, how to get your hair back on track.
Identifying Heat Damage
In order to care for heat-damaged hair, you need to be able to first identify it. According to Pekela Riley—the founder of Salon PK and True & Pure Extensions, a global artistic director, and the diverse strategy specialist at Ulta Beauty—thin and straggly ends and sections are telltale signs. Inconsistent texture is another symptom, she notes. The damage, however, might be more obvious than that: "Hair that has been damaged by heat is dull and may even have bands where the curling iron or flat iron has touched the hair," says Alicia Bailey, a hair texture expert and global education manager at Design Essentials. "The hair has been scorched and is usually dry and brittle and has an evident appearance of split ends."
"The body, including our hair, naturally strives for equilibrium," offers Sandra Snell, the founder and president of Thermal Hair Care. "Heat tools, however, rapidly evaporate the hair's moisture content, interrupting this balancing act." Since these tools quickly strip away moisture, the hair's protein structure changes—especially for those with textured hair. Snell explains that people with tighter curl patterns will often see excessive frizz, less bounce, and breakage, to name a few. Riley adds that hair is at an even higher chance of damage if it is chemically treated—like with dye or a relaxer. "Chemically treated hair is more porous and can be readily damaged because it doesn't have the protection of the cuticle layer," she explains.
Your hair type should ultimately inform the way you use hot tools in general. "Considering whether the hair is fine, medium, or coarse, it is imperative to use the proper temperature based upon hair type, texture, and condition to avoid potential problems," Bailey shares. "A rule of thumb I like to use is if the hair is fine, medium, or color treated, use 300 to 340 degrees. I also try not to use more than one to two passes of the flat iron or curling iron per section or curl." And if your hair is thick or coarse? Stay between 340 and 400 degrees to ensure the hair doesn't burn or sustain any damage.
Repairing Your Hair
While getting a cut is an instant way to eliminate heat damage, it is possible to revive your hair ahead of this step. It all starts by alternating regularly between moisturizers and protein treatments. Those with tight curl patterns, however, should focus on the former, notes Riley. "Often what's highlighted with textured hair is moisture, but the hair structure is made of protein. With heat damage, you have to supplement with more protein-based treatments," she says.
Snell also says deep conditioning one to two times each week, while limiting any use of heat, will help revive all hair types. She recommends a moisture-rich conditioner filled with coconut oil, avocado, or aloe vera—like PURA D'OR Intense Therapy Conditioner ($25, amazon.com) or BIOLAGE Conditioning Balm ($25, ulta.com). Using a hooded dryer or a deep conditioning heat cap—like the Thermal Hair Care Hot Head ($29.95, thermalhaircare.com)—will nourish hair, too.
If your ends still look damaged, book an appointment with a professional to take a look. "It is always recommended to see your hairstylist when one sees split ends, breakage, or any other noticeable damage to the hair," Bailey says. "Since the stylist is a licensed professional, he or she is trained to assess the severity of the problem and able to offer the best solutions." But first, do your homework. Snell recommends committing to your reparative hair care routine by using one to two home treatments per week for four weeks. If at this point you aren't noticing any positive changes, she suggests calling your hairstylist.
Preventing Heat Damage
"It is important to use a high-quality leave-in conditioner—such as Shea Moisture Strengthen & Restore Leave-In Conditioner ($8.24, sallybeauty.com) or OUAI Leave-In Conditioner ($26, sephora.com)—which will help the hair's moisture balance," Snell says of avoiding damage in the first place. In addition to this step, you will want to keep styling tools' temperatures low (including your hair dryer) as much as possible after you have shampooed and conditioned. Using heat protectants is just as important. "Always use products designed to protect the hair when straightening, like the Design Essentials Agave & Lavender Blow Dry & Silk Press Collection ($40, designessentials.com)," Bailey says. A strengthening protectant—such as the Design Essentials Thermal Strengthening Serum ($21, designessentials.com)—will be most helpful for those with chemically treated hair.
Whatever the state of your strands, keeping up with your regimen will take you far. And this is particularly true for those with tight curl patterns. "Heat protection doesn't happen when we get the style, but how we maintain the style," Riley says. "So, you need essentials like a bonnet, flexi rods, or rollers, and a silk pillow for nighttime maintenance to set those curls mechanically at night so you won't have to style thermally in the morning."