The ABCs of Summer Hair Repair

If a summer of fun in the sun has wreaked havoc on your hair, fear not

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Most of us are quick to acknowledge the need to protect our skin from the rigors of summer heat and sun. But come Labor Day a quick glance in the mirror frequently lets us know what we forgot to protect -- our hair.

Indeed, a season of exposure to sun, salt water, and chlorine chemical residues -- not to mention a few extra chemical "sun" streaks for style -- can come together to wreak havoc on our tresses. By the end of the summer, experts say hair can become so dehydrated it looks and feels nearly fried.

"From a technical standpoint, there's a protective coating on hair called the hydrolipidic film; if you have dry hair, that film is broken down somewhat anyway, when you color it, it breaks down a little more -- but when you add sun, salt water, and chlorine, you can destroy the film altogether," says Melissa Baker, national training advisor for Rene Furterer hair care products in Paris.

The end result, says Baker, is that moisture located deep in the core of the hair shaft evaporates -- and in what seems like one "poof" your "pouf" can be gone.

"Hair looks, feels, acts, and actually is, crying out for moisture," says Baker.

That means hair not only has a dry look and feel, but can also be frizzy, unmanageable, have problems holding a curl or style, and even take longer to dry. In its worst form damage causes the ends of the hair to split, and breakage can begin.

"When hair dehydrates it becomes brittle and when it becomes brittle you get the broken split ends that go up the hair shaft and cause fuzziness and frizziness and sometimes breakage; it's a cumulative process," says celebrity hair care expert Peter Lamas.

Like skin, hair is comprised of proteins that need moisture to function. But, unlike skin which has its own supply of moisture from within, hair, says Lamas, is dead, so once the moisture is gone -- it's gone.

Problems are further complicated if we lighten or streak our hair. That's because our natural supply of oil resides in the pigment. Remove the color, says Lamas, and you strip out the oils.

"This leaves the hair wide open to the environment -- so not only are you pulling out the oils, which dries the hair, but you are also making it more vulnerable to the elements, which can cause even more dryness and eventually damage," Lamas tells WebMD.

Undoing the Damage

While damaging hair can come easy, repair can be frustratingly hard. Experts say that's because many of us turn to styling aids -- such as mousses and gels -- to force our damaged tresses to do what we want. And that can be a big mistake.

"If you are having problems with your hair -- it's frizzy or won't hold a curl or style -- it's natural to reach for more styling aids. But when hair is damaged, these products can make it look and feel worse," says stylist Juan Juan of J Beverly Hills Salon, and developer of J Beverly Hills hair products.

Instead says Juan, begin at the beginning -- by first replenishing hair with a salon-quality moisturizing shampoo and rinse-out conditioner. But, he says, don't consider yourself "finished" before adding a leave-in conditioner as well.

"Rinse-out conditioners do not deposit any protection on the hair -- in fact, if you leave any residue on your hair it can react with the elements and cause even more damage," Juan tells WebMD.

Conversely, he says, coating hair with a leave-in conditioner -- products that are usually sprayed on after washing or styling -- take protection and manageability to a whole new level.

"It coats the hair which helps seal in the moisture you replenished with your shampoo and conditioner, but it also seals out further effects of damaging elements, such as the sun or even air pollution," says Juan.

While this combo can often do the trick, if it doesn't, the next step is to incorporate a hair mask into your regimen. A relatively new term in the hair care industry, a mask for your tresses does somewhat the same thing as a facial masque does for your complexion. In short, it revitalizes and replenishes deep within the hair shaft.

"A mask is loaded with emollients and vitamins that will coat the hair and help close the cuticle," says Lamas. This, he says, lets you add moisture, and then trap it inside to help the hair look and feel better.

To properly use this treatment, experts say dampen hair with water, then coat the scalp and each strand with your mask. Wrap your hair in a towel or plastic cling wrap for up to one hour.

"What can be great for hair -- damaged or not -- is vigorous brushing, particularly with a natural bristle brush."

"The longer you can leave it on your hair, the better the result," says Juan. When you're done, shampoo and condition hair as you normally would.