How Healthy Is Your Hair?

Hair sending out distress signals? Here's how to read the signs -- and resuscitate your tresses

Think of hair care like childrearing: you can do damage via neglect or by loving it too much. Even routine care like brushing and shampooing can leave tresses in a post-traumatic state. Here, the telltale signs that your hair is in serious need of therapy, and how to help it flourish without sparing your blow-dryer or brush.

From Lively to Dreary
Once the life of the party, your hair is now dull, dull, dull. What gives? According to Liz Cunnane-Phillips, trichologist (hair and scalp scientist) at Philip Kingsley Trichological Centre in New York, NY, sheen is the reflection of light. The outermost layer of hair, called the cuticle, looks like roof shingles or tree bark. In healthy hair, the shingles lay flat. This kind of smooth canvas reflects the most light, giving off that glossy shine. "When hair is damaged, the cuticles lift up and start to peel, and you're not going to get a nice reflection," says Cunnane-Phillips. The result: hair that looks like damaged goods.

Hair fix: While no product can repair hair, you can fake your wake to more lustrous locks. Choose a product, such as White Sands The Cure 24/7 Hair Cell Renewal, that seals frayed cuticles. Or, add shine with a clear gloss treatment, like Frederic Fekkai Salon Glaze Clear Shine Rinse.

Long Hair Breaks
The longer your hair, the more prone it is to breakage. Think about it: on average, your hair grows half an inch each month. By the time your hair makes its way to your shoulders and beyond, it's three or four years old. In that time, your hair has been exposed to every damaging element a few times over. According to Teca Gillespie, hair care scientist at Proctor and Gamble, this is where split ends come from. "Not only are split ends not nice to look at, they can cause more damage by unraveling the whole hair. It's very similar to pulling on a loose string on a sweater," she says. If your hair length is uneven at the end, rather than straight across, you've got serious breakage, explains Dr. Paradi Mirmirani, a dermatologist in Vallejo, CA. who specializes in hair. At that point, the only solution is to cut it loose.

Hair fix: Forget quantity and think quality: there's no point in having long hair if it looks mangled. Trim those tresses every six weeks.

All Tangled Up
Do you wake up in the morning with a nest of snarls on your head? Tangled tresses are a dead giveaway that your head is in desperate need of hydration. "Curly hair tends to get tangled very quickly, and if it's not properly conditioned, those tangles can become knots which a brush can break off," says Gillespie. Fine hair that's damaged can clump together as well.

Hair fix: "Products that coat the hair allow strands to repel each other and not act as glue," says Cunnane-Phillips. Choose a leave-in protectant based on your hair's weight -- the finer your hair, the lighter the product should be, so it won't weigh your mane down. She recommends the Philip Kingsley Preen Cream.

Breaking Point
Try this quick test: Wrap a single hair around your finger a few times. Now give it a good but gentle tug. Did your hair stand its ground or snap under pressure? Healthy hair is strong and elastic. The one caveat: ultra-fine hair. "Very thin hair has little structural integrity and can break very easily," says Gillespie. Whether your hair is damaged or delicate, protecting against breakage is key. "The bottom line is, you don't want to lose a hair for any reason," says Cunnane-Phillips. "It's a very strong fiber, but it's not without its breaking point." If your hairbrush and shower drain contain enough hair for an army of voodoo dolls, that's another sign that your hair has called it quits.

Hair fix: Any styling that pulls hard on the hair can hurt the scalp or cause hair loss. Luckily, you don't have to swear off your styling tools. Just know when to apply the brakes. "It's the last one or two swipes of the iron or the last one or two pulls of the brush, where you're not going to change the look that you've created, but you're inflicting a lot more trauma," explains Cunnane-Phillips.

Frizzy When Humid
When it's foggy, rainy or humid, your hair grows to twice its size and looks as though you stuck your finger in an electrical socket. When dry, damaged hair is exposed to humidity, it sucks up the moisture, causing strands to plump up and the peeling cuticles stick out even further. Chemical processes like coloring, straightening and perming can make hair especially susceptible, says Gillespie, because they remove naturally occurring lipids that keep strands smooth and intact.

Hair fix: Use shampoo and conditioner for chemically treated hair. "These products should contain conditioning ingredients which mimic the layer that the chemical process took off," she explains. If that's not enough, style with an anti-frizz smoothing cream. If your hair is fine, choose water-based solutions to prevent limp locks.

More Damage Control
Got all the signs of mistreated hair? Don't distress. Try these hair care tips to keep your hair healthy and damage-free.

Wash and glow: According to Cunnane-Phillips, a healthy scalp is the foundation of healthy hair. To that end, she recommends washing your hair more rather than less -- up to once a day. "The scalp is more active than our facial tissue, and if you're using products, they're sitting on there. The scalp is getting busy and itchy," she says. The key to frequent shampooing: do it gently. Avoid vigorous scrubbing, excessive rinsing and washing with heavy-duty cleansers.

Give hair the brush-off: Brushing for brushing's sake is not good for your hair. The act of brushing causes friction and leads to wear and tear. Gently use a wide-toothed comb to detangle, and think less is more when it comes to styling, says Cunnane-Phillips. Natural bristles and anything with a sharp edge is a no-no, she says. Opt for a vented rubber or plastic brush when blow-drying. Metal brushes will heat up and burn hair.

Think deep thoughts: Apply a deep conditioning mask like Moroccanoil Intense Hydrating Mask to your mane once a week. If your hair is easily weighed down, opt for oil treatments. Those with flaky, dry scalp or dandruff may benefit from a weekly scalp mask or treatment.

Feed your hair: What you put in your mouth is just as important as what you put on your scalp. According to Cunnane-Phillips, hair is the second-most prolific system in the body. But, because it's non-essential, meaning we don't need it to live, other bodily functions that are necessarily for survival will use up the resources from your diet first. If there aren't enough nutrients to go around, your hair will suffer. A diet that's rich in protein, iron, B-complex vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids can help keep your crowning glory glorious. A balanced Mediterranean-style diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and whole grains will supply all the nutrients you need for strong, silky hair.

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