How to Save Your Dry, Damaged Hair

If you’re reading this your hair probably needs help—and we’re going to share straightforward advice from a professional stylist on how to repair your post-summer hair after it’s been subjected to the year’s most follicle-damaging season.

Why does your hair so desperately need attention after summer?

If you wear yours long, it’s likely been twisted up while still wet or whipped around in a convertible because you were having too much fun to care about the damage your footloose and fancy-free adventures were causing to those delicate strands.

Even if your summer was significantly less carefree or you wear a shorter style, you probably still used hot tools every day, which means those ends are due for some attention and nourishment.

Ready to start? First, we’re going to share how to give your hair a check-up to see what kind of condition it’s in.

Give Your Hair a Physical With the Elasticity Test

Hair is categorized by three characteristics: Porosity (how much moisture it can hold), elasticity (how quickly it breaks), and texture (how thick it is).

This equation takes into account the hair you were born with, plus what you've done to it, including chemical processing, color, and styling methods.

So, how do you determine the health of your hair? Start with an elasticity test!

First, make sure your hair is nice and wet, then select a single strand. With one hand, pinch it closer to your scalp. The purpose of this is to create an anchor so that you don’t pull the strand out at its root.

With your other hand, hold the end firmly between two fingers. Then, slowly create tension by pulling the end away.

How does your hair react? Is it brittle enough to quickly break, gummy to the touch, or does it return to its original state?

If it returns to its initial state, congratulations! You've got some healthy hair on that noggin. Here’s a breakdown on breakage for the rest of us:

If Your Strand Snaps or Feels Brittle, You’ve Got Dryness

All those hot days spent outside have an unfortunate side effect: dry, brittle hair. The good news is that you can keep the heat and daily styling from wreaking further havoc by giving your strands some extra TLC with a deep conditioning treatment.

Picking up a moisturizing product to fix dryness isn’t exactly revolutionary. But, according to Sierra Hinkle of Shades Color Bar and Hair Salon, there’s a trick:

“Many styling products that promise to smooth your hair or add shine include silicone, which can build up over time and create a barrier,” says Sierra. “The product build-up can even hang around after you use regular shampoo, and will prevent any moisturizing treatment from reaching your hair.”

Related: Salon Hair Products vs. Drugstore Cheapies: Are Professional-Quality Hair Products Worth The Price?

Sierra suggests that you use a shampoo formulated to remove product build-up, sometimes called clarifying shampoos, before deep conditioning so that you mask can effectively quench thirsty cuticles.

Don’t feel like purchasing another product? We feel you! There are two products likely already in your kitchen that can do the trick for cheap:  Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and apple cider vinegar (acetic acid).

How to Make a Clarifying Shampoo for Cheap

The procedure goes like this:

  1. Dilute three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a cup of water.
  2. Separate several tablespoons of baking soda, and bring that along in a shower-friendly container.
  3. Hop in the shower and get your hair nice and wet.
  4. Take the baking soda in your palm, then mix with enough water to make a gritty paste.
  5. Massage the paste into your hair as you would with regular shampoo. (Be careful not to get any into your eyes.)
  6. Wait a few minutes, then rinse.
  7. Pour the vinegar mixture over your head. (It helps to tilt back to avoid getting any in your eyes.)
  8. Wait a few minutes, then rinse.

Why does this combo work in place of a clarifying shampoo?

Sodium bicarbonate is a base (it has a pH of about 9 when dissolved in water) and lifts the hair follicle. It’s also a very mild abrasive, so you can physically scrub your hair with it to aid in cleansing.

The acetic acid found in vinegar, in addition to neutralizing any left behind baking soda, is also a chelating agent, meaning it can grab hold of minerals and product buildup, and prevent them from building up in your hair.

Next, take your moisturizing mask and follow the instructions. How to pick one? In our experience researching cosmetics, expensive doesn’t always mean better. And, since a moisturizing mask isn’t something that you’ll be using daily, pretty much anyone you like will do.

A final word of caution for fighting dryness? Natural oils like coconut oil are trendy cure-alls, and plenty of blogs suggest that they work to moisturize dry strands.

However, these molecules are too large to sink into the hair cuticle, and will just sit on top, making your hair feel slick. For effective moisturizing, we suggest sticking to products that have been specially formulated for the task at hand.

If Your Strand Feels Gummy, You’ve Got Damage

Back to our strand diagnosis! If, when pulled, your hair felt slightly less solid or gummy, it’s an indicator that the protein strands are structurally damaged.

Damaged hair is usually the result of bleaching (including highlights) or chemical processing. That’s because going lighter requires the application of chemical solutions to lift your hair’s cuticles, the shingle-like outer layer of hair, so color can be pulled from the cortex, where pigment remains.

Since gummy strands indicate the integrity of your hair’s cortex has been compromised, you’ll need more than moisture to get them back into shape.

The most efficient solution is a protein treatment. These designed to reinforce your hair shaft and restore strength are offered at most salons, and run between $15–$30. One stylist we spoke with mentioned that you could also find professional-grade protein treatments at a beauty supply store, such as Sally’s, and you can get the same benefits from applying them at home.

However, she cautioned that protein treatments are a semi-serious business. While it’s tempting to exceed the time stated on the package, leaving one on for too long can lead to stiff, brittle feeling hair. Instead, be sure to follow the instructions carefully.

Another thing to note is that protein treatments aren’t permanent—the results will wash out in about 12 weeks. You can reapply, but be gentle with damaged strands and stay away from additional chemical processes.

If You Notice Fraying, You’ve Got Split Ends

Do the last few inches of your hair look like an under-watered lawn? It’s not hard to wax poetic about how much we hate split ends, which always appear more frequently after hot, dry summer months.

Related: How to Prevent Split Ends – 10 Tips for Your Daily Routine

If you’ve already got tell-tale feathering at the tip of your hair, there’s no fix—split ends need to but cut off. As frustrating as it is to lose length, Sierra suggests that your best bet is to get your ends snipped as soon as possible to prevent the splits from traveling up your hair.

Whatever you do, don’t pull or snip the ends yourself. Pulling out hair strands can damage the follicle while snipping with the scissors you have at home will only cause another split, as they’re far too dull to create a clean cut.

From Shower to Styling: How to Care For Hair and Prevent Damage

Is your definition of going easy on your hair limited to skipping the hot tools every other day? It turns out that there’s a lot more to properly caring for your locks.

We asked Sierra for her insight on common mistakes clients make. Here are her tips on how to decrease breakage and damage:

1. Stop scrubbing your hair with a towel. Did you know that towels can damage your hair? Since wet hair is more susceptible to damage, even rubbing hair with one can rough up the cuticle, causing it to look frizzy or fluffy and potentially lead to more breakage.

2. Apply a leave-in conditioner. For those with medium to coarse hair, working a dime-size amount of leave-in conditioner from ends up to mid-shaft won’t only help detangle, the extra moisture can help prevent split ends—stretching the time between cuts.

3. Use only wide-tooth combs with wet hair. They help you loosely manage shower-fresh locks without causing breakage.

4. When you’re going to heat style, apply your thermal conditioner while hair is still wet. The ingredients in thermal protectors absorb into the hair shaft to nourish and create a barrier between your hair and hot tools, and blow dryers.

However, the product needs time to absorb into the hair. According to Sierra, applying a thermal protectant while your hair is still wet allows you to distribute it more evenly through strands and aids in absorption.

5. Make sure your hair is bone-dry before heat styling. Otherwise, moisture trapped inside the hair’s cuticle can reach boiling point—causing irreparable damage to the hair shaft.

6. Style with less heat, and in smaller sections. Sierra stressed that most of us turn our heated styling tools up far too high. Turn down the heat to a low or medium setting, then compensate for the lower temperature by selecting smaller sections for more efficient styling and less damage.

7. Learn to work with second-day hair. Washing every other day allows your hair time to repair with its natural oils.

8. Pick the right brush. For daily detangling, stick to a cushioned paddle brush with flexible bristles, which are less likely to snag strands.

Sierra’s final tip to prevent damage is to properly care for your hot tools with regular cleaning. “All that product buildup that you have to remove from your hair also affects your flat iron and curling wand,” she says.

“These polymers are essentially tiny bits of melted plastic which can adhere to your hair.”

According to Sierra, the best method when cleaning flat irons and curling wands is to use heat to your advantage: Plug in your tool to let it warm up, and then unplug it and let it cool for a few minutes.

Then, dampen a washcloth with some rubbing alcohol, and wipe the plates or wand clean while the tool is still warm—the heat will make it easier to clean, so you’re not picking and scraping at buildup that has cooled and hardened. Be sure to repeat once a month.

Read Next: How to Pick the Best Flat Iron for Your Hair Type & Budget

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.