Just How Bad Is Coloring Your Hair?

Who could forget the aspiring YouTuber whose curling iron tutorial went viral after the too-hot tool broke off a huge chunk of her hair. Sure, it was hilarious and got her a slot on Ellen, but the millions of views also help to prove that we all know that heat damage is very real — even if the young vlogger learned a little too late.

Heat damage is the reason many of us stow our flat irons and blow-dryers whenever possible, if only to spare our strands the split ends that can happen with even the slightest bit of overuse. Personally, it's one of the reasons why I chose to go natural, because like many men and women, my hair had suffered severe breakage after being sizzled into shape for years.

These days, the heat styling horror stories are a dime a dozen, but it turns out, there is another culprit that could be just as bad, and maybe even worse: hair color. Estimates on just how many of us color our hair are spotty, but data suggests it's going up dramatically, year by year. One stat says it was around a third of adult Americas back in 2005, while many studies say it's risen to 70% of us today — with some smaller samplings show that number could be even higher.

With a new hair color trend dropping with every internet page refresh — Think: rose gold, hygge, and mermaid hair — and bond-building products that promise to save your hair from damage becoming commonplace, it's certainly tempting to change your hue with your mood. But if you're suffering from thinning, breaking, shedding, or lackluster hair and have no hope for the future, cheer up, buttercup. A haircut might be your solution, but it can be a last resort if you take precaution and reverse your habits ahead of time.

Read on to diagnose your damage and learn how to make your color habit far more sustainable for the health of your hair.

First, it's important to understand the difference between a heat-damaged strand and a color-damaged one.

You know you're color damaged when...
Hair that still has its curl or wave pattern intact, but frizzes down the mid-shaft, is color-damaged, says Shirley Gordon, a Clairol color expert. Over-processed hair, which is usually blond or going through a color correction, has really weak ends, lacks elasticity, and can even shed more than normal. "Hair dyes have several chemicals that alter the hair shaft," Dr. Neil Sadick of Sadick Dermatology adds. "Ammonia, by elevating the hair pH, lifts the cuticle up to let the dye molecules in." Why is that bad? "Under normal conditions, the cuticle isn’t supposed to be lifted," he explains, "The longer it's lifted, the more damage it sustains."

Or is it heat damage?
On the other side of the spectrum, You're dealing with heat damaged hair when strands are stringy and straight. "Hair strands are made of protein, and excess heat not only breaks down this protein and irreversibly changes it, but also removes water and moisture from the hair shaft," says Dr. Sadick.

For the record, it's heat damaged hair (not colored) that can cause you to lose your curl pattern completely. "Unfortunately, once heat damages hair, the existing hairs are hard to repair and return to their original state as proteins are altered irreversibly," Dr. Sadick notes. "Like boiling an egg, you can’t reverse the process. Also, curlier hair is more fragile as every curling point along the strand is a potential point of breakage." Both Gordon and Dr. Sadick agree that you'd have to get a big chop to get your curls back to their virgin state.

Moral of the story? Hair that's become stringy and straighter is likely heat damaged. Hair that's become frizzier is likely color damaged. Although there are exceptions and combinations of damage, understanding the difference will help you lay off the right culprit until your hair recovers.

So what do you do now? Keep clicking to find out...
Tip: Don't Over Touch Up

One common mistake is over maintaining your color. When you're getting color touch-ups, your stylist should be conservative with the color, Gordon says. To avoid too many touch-ups, opt for rooting (that's when your colorist lightens your hair, then darkens your roots with a semi-permanent gloss to create a shadow), glossing, or getting a bayalaged sombré. Read more about those techniques here.
Tip: Pamper Your Hair

Colored hair deserves to be pampered the most. Dr. Sadick says to stock up on hair care that's moisturizing. "Look out for ingredients like jojoba and argan oil, and botanicals with nourishing properties," he notes. In addition to your washes at home, Gordon suggests bi-weekly treatments to restore the hair. Castor and coconut oil-packed treatments work wonders, or try slicking on Wella's Luxe Oil Reconstructive Elixir, a keratin-based oil, in the morning. "Just use a couple of pumps," says Gordon. "It's not going to make hair super-greasy. It's going to protect your hair mid-shaft and ends, the part that takes more of a beating. Oribe's Masque for Beautiful Color is a pricier option, but brings hair back to life with hydrating wild mango butter and keratin.

You can't go wrong with this tip, because it works for heat-damaged hair, too. Dr. Sadick says that hair masks and treatments are essential for keeping proteins in your follicles. "Look for products with water-soluble silicone, not silicone dimethicone," he says. "[It] protects the hair by sealing in the moisture and prevent frizzing and drying. Also avoid products with sulfates since they are harsh. Don't use brushes with plastic beads on the bristles, and opt for wide-tooth combs. "
If you're dealing with damage, try not to trip too hard. Gordon says that with proper maintenance, your hair can grow back in healthy eventually. One solution that's slightly less luxurious is vinegar, something that both Gordon and natural hair vloggers swear by. For example, NaturallyCurly says that the solution removes buildup and balances your pH levels.

And to mend heat damaged hair, you've just got to put down the dryer between visits. "If you're constantly baking your hair with heat, and round brushing it, it [could] fall out," Gordon warns. Tip: Those with natural, relaxed, and curly textures can wrap their hair at night to make sure it stays sleek, while soft, fabric scrunchies (yes, the ones from the '90s) will secure straight and wavy locks in a bun or loose braid to maintain styled hair without dents while you sleep.

"If hair doesn't get any healthier after two months, that's when I'd cut it," Gordon advises. "And I wouldn't recommend color for six months to a year after that."
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