Not all bad hair habits are created equal when it comes to damaged hair. Many people would confess to the occasional dalliance with the “hot” button on their hair dryer, but how does that compare with the occasional bleach job? Which causes more damage? We’ve ranked the most common hair no-nos, from the slightly sinful to the dangerously damaging.
Temporary Hair Color
Products like Level 1 rinses, washes, stains, and color-depositing shampoos cause virtually no damage to the hair. Since they do not contain chemicals that allow the color molecules to penetrate the hair shaft and interact with the hair’s natural pigments, they merely sit on top of the strands until they wash away, in about six to ten shampoos. Threat Level: Damage-Free!
In addition to being bad for skin, washing with hot water is a poor choice for hair. It rinses away natural protective oils and accelerates the fading process for colored hair. It’s a myth that a final rinse with cool water will close the hair’s cuticle, but using tepid water in general is much gentler on hair. Threat Level: 1 out of 10 (with 10 being the highest threat level)
Brushing When Wet
When hair is wet, it’s significantly weaker, and brushing it in this vulnerable condition leads to increased breakage. The individual strands can’t handle the tugging and tension, so they stretch until they snap. To detangle wet hair during or after the shower, gently use a wide-toothed comb, working from the ends upward. Better yet: use your fingers. Threat Level: 2 out of 10
Non-permanent Level 2 color, a popular at-home option, is generally safe for hair, but it’s not 100 percent gentle. Demi-permanent dyes (like Clairol’s Natural Instincts) contain no ammonia, but they still have a small amount of peroxide to open the hair cuticle and deposit the color molecules. Even though demi-permanent color cannot lighten hair, it still causes a small amount of damage, especially when compounded by other harsh styling practices. Threat Level: 3 out of 10
The principal chemical used in permanent waves, ammonium thioglycolate, actually loosens the bonds between the molecules of the hair shaft and allows the hair to take whatever shape it’s set in—in the case of perms, on rollers. While any chemical process causes some amount of damage, perms are considered one of the more reliable treatments, as long as the hair is healthy beforehand. Threat Level: 3 out of 10
Permanent Hair Color
Since permanent hair color involves significant amounts of peroxide and ammonia, it can cause significant amounts of damage, including dryness, breakage, and dullness. The most potentially damaging color transition is in lightening dark hair, which requires two separate processes, the removal of the original color and the depositing of the new color. After this much chemical meddling, hair is in a significantly weaker state than it was when it started. All bottle blonds should take care to condition their hair regularly and treat it gently. Threat Level: 4 out of 10
The occasional blast from a hair dryer won’t harm hair too much, but the heat from daily use of a blow dryer or flatiron causes hair to become extremely dry and brittle. Hair in this weakened condition is more susceptible to damage from other stressors, leading it to lose elasticity and break. For daily dryers, stylists recommend allowing hair to partially air-dry before blow-drying, or blow-drying it until it’s only about 80 percent dry and then allowing it to air-dry the rest of the way. Threat Level: 4 out of 10
Sporting the occasional ponytail is harmless, but the tension of constantly wearing extremely tight hairstyles can trigger a condition called traction alopecia, which can actually cause individual strands of hair to break off. Even if you’re not wearing severe hairstyles every day, repeated use of elastics, combs, or other implements can still cause hair to break. Signs of traction alopecia include scalp pain, thinning hair (especially in the front and back), and breakage near the hairline. African American women, who are more likely to wear extensions, weaves, or braids, are more susceptible to this condition. Luckily, if caught in time, traction alopecia is reversible. Threat Level: 6 out of 10
These curl-easing products use extremely harsh chemicals, including sodium hydroxide, a product found in drain cleaners. Relaxers work by penetrating the hair shaft and literally rearranging the structure of the molecules. While this technique may loosen curls, it also affects hair’s elasticity and strength. Let only a trained technician apply a relaxer; even if it’s done properly, hair is still left fragile and susceptible to damage. Threat Level: 7 out of 10
This straightening process uses chemicals similar to those in perms in order to rearrange hair’s molecular structure. But what makes this treatment particularly harsh is that in the second phase of the application, hair with the active chemical on it is brushed and blow-dried so that it sets in a new alignment. That’s a hair-hazard trifecta: chemicals, heat, and tension. Even when a qualified technician does it for you, this process has the potential to cause serious or catastrophic breakage. Many people find the treatment effective, but even healthy-looking hair is left fragile and extremely porous. Threat Level: 9 out of 10
Many of these hair damagers do their worst only in combination with other bad habits, such as regularly blow-drying dyed hair, or coloring hair that’s already been relaxed or thermally conditioned. The potential for damage also depends on the innate qualities of the hair itself. African Americans and people with curly, fine, color-treated, or coarse hair are especially susceptible to breakage and damage.
Human hair has more tensile strength than strands of nylon, but it’s not invincible, and it doesn’t take much to turn your tresses from beautiful to blah. Avoid these mane-mangling habits and treat your hair kindly and gently to ensure that it’s healthy, strong, and elastic enough to bend—not break.