A Survival Guide To Chemical Haircuts

Soo Joo Park paginaged haircutPhoto: Gregory Pace/BEImages.
Big hair changes (like going platinum blonde or permanent straightening) mean big-time processes. Repeated applications of bleach, dyes, and straighteners can cause you to notice a few —okay, A LOT — of your hair piling up in the sink and the floor around you. This, friends, is breakage, and your newly uneven length and texture is known as "the chemical haircut."
With celebs, like model Soo Joo Park (top), chopping off hair after repeated dye jobs toasted their ends, we decided it was time for a guide on surviving and thriving after suffering chemical damage. We turned to Edward Tricomi, co-founder of Warren-Tricomi Salons, and Brad Wandrey, director of salon education and stylist for Cutler Salon, for tips on how to move on from an overprocessed mane.
What is a chemical haircut?
"Harsh chemicals from straightening treatments and coloring can cause severe breakage where the bonds in the hair are broken down to the point that the hair simply snaps off," says Tricomi. "There is an acceptable amount of wear and tear that the hair can take, but past that point your hair will just give up, making it necessary to cut off the dead, damaged hair."
What causes it?
"Overlapping is the main cause of most damage," says Wandrey, meaning previously processed hair is reprocessed along with untouched hair. "Every time you colour over previously coloured hair, it weakens it more and more, heightening your chances of breakage." Tricomi says this is common among actresses who drastically change their hair colour from role to role. "Going from blonde (which requires peroxide), to brown, to red and back to blonde again is brutal on the hair."
Also, processing hair too often or exceeding recommended treatment times can break your hair, which Tricomi says is common with at-home treatments, often with disastrous results. "You can get chemical burns which can affect the hair follicle and essentially burn both your hair and scalp," Tricomi warns. "In severe cases, you can actually get a form of alopecia, where the hair follicle is so damaged you can't grow hair there at all."
How do you know if you're bound for breakage?
"It’s hard to predict when (it) will occur, but if your normal breakage is getting worse, that’s a good sign," Tricomi adds. If you're playing around with at-home treatments, keep an eye on your hair texture. "The hair begins to look "mushy," like wet cotton candy," warns Wandrey.
How do you handle damage control?
Your first course of action is to stop what you're doing. "Wash the chemical from the hair immediately, followed by a thorough rinse and a protein-rich conditioning treatment," says Wandrey, who also recommends in-salon treatments (he recommends the Redken Chemistry System) to rebalance your pH and calm irritated hair cuticles. At home, Tricomi advises you slather on the conditioner. "Get your hands on great strengthening products that help to repair damaged hair," he advises. But, really, what's done is done. "If the core of the hair is really destroyed, nothing can bring it back to its original state."
What's the best recovery plan?
Stop messing with your hair. "Minimise how often you wash so natural oils can accumulate," advises Tricomi, who also says to eliminate all heat-styling products, especially if they contain alcohol. (In other words, drop the hairspray.) Vitamins (like biotin) also help to fortify strength and growth from the inside.
Also, you knew this was coming: You have to cut your hair. "Getting a haircut to remove any breakage is a must; the damaged ends are beyond repair at this point," says Wandrey. Your ability to bounce back depends on how quickly your hair grows as well as how well you treat it. "While you can use both at-home and salon treatments to try and build back strength, the only way to completely reverse the damage is to cut it and make sure to treat the new hair well," counsels Tricomi. Wandrey believes the haircut has a lot to do with growing your hair back. "After removing most of the damage with a haircut, the road to recovery shouldn't take long — about a month with regular treatments. Depending on the severity of the chemical damage and a very small amount being cut, it can take anywhere from six months to a year for the hair to fully recover."
What's the bottom line?
Know that if you process your hair, there's no getting out unscathed, but you don't have to expect it to destroy your hair. "Any time you do a straightening treatment or color your hair, you run the risk of causing hair breakage, and it's completely normal to see some of that occur," advises Tricomi. "However, 95% of the time, this won’t happen to an extreme extent, especially if you are working with a competent stylist who can determine if your hair can hold up against the chemicals." In other words, leave the big hair transformations in the hands of licensed professionals.

More from Hair

R29 Original Series