“Brittle hair can be a combination of dry, dull, frizzy, broken, split-ended, shedding and lackluster hair. In a way, it parallels dry skin in that there is a spectrum of presentations, from mildly dull to full blown breakage and hair loss,” says Dr. Francesca Fusco, a Manhattan dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology and Assistant Attending Physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
So, what brought on this brittle hair mess? There are a few serious medical causes, such as malnutrition, hypothyroidism and having a biotin deficiency. If your brittle hair is chronically awful, your first course of action should be to check in with your doctor.
But the most common culprits of crispy, fragile hair are excessive exposure to UV rays, heat styling, chlorine, and chemical processes, like dyes and bleaches. Guilty as charged? Then a few tweaks to your styling routine could quickly get you back on track to healthy, shiny and strong healthy hair. “Hair is not living, so it can’t heal itself once it’s damaged. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve it by using the right products to add shine and strength,” says Fusco.
First, cut down on heat styling. “Heat damage is a huge culprit. I’m seeing increasing numbers of women with damaged hair as a result of regular styling routines that include using a blow dryer, flat iron and/or a curling iron. Hair dryers that heat up to over 175°C and curling irons applied for one minute or longer at 125°C can induce water bubbles inside your hair, damaging the shaft. Extreme heat essentially cooks your hair,” says Fusco. This terrifying condition is known as "bubble hair" —it makes strands feel rough to the touch and keeps them from sliding off each other in a uniform way, aka, no more bounce.
Make sure your hot tools have temperature controls and stick within the low to medium settings. Also, be sure to use a heat-protecting styling aid to buffer the damage caused by hot tools. In fact, try skipping a day or two of heat styling entirely each week to give your haystack a much-needed rest.
Next, switch to using moisture-replenishing shampoos, conditioners and styling products. The newest formulas actually deliver hefty doses of hydration without making your hair feel greasy or gunky. (See our editor’s picks below). “You have to use conditioner every time you shampoo,” says Fusco. If you’re scared that it’ll weigh down your hair, then just apply it to your ends, which are usually the most brittle. Look for styling aids that contain shine-enhancing and hair-softening oils, like sunflower, soybean, argan and sweet almond oils. “They’re wonderful at increasing shine and also benefiting the scalp,” explains Fusco. A weekly intensive moisture-boosting hair mask or scalp treatment will also help rejuvenate fragile, weak hair.
Post-shower, resist the urge to rip through tangles, which can seriously destroy your weakened strands. "Use a wide-tooth comb to detangle. Start at your ends and work your way up to prevent tearing through big knots," advises celebrity hairstylist Adir Abergel, who works with Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried and Isla Fisher.
Finally, avoid tight hairstyles and metal hair accessories which could stress and tear your already fragile hair. “Use very soft hair ties and well padded ponytail bands,” advises Fusco. Also, keep a humidifier in rooms that are highly air-conditioned or overly heated, both of which deplete air and hair of moisture.