Damaged hair? Here's the signs to look for and how to repair damaged hair and split ends

Damaged hair? What it looks like and how to repair damaged hair at home

11th August 2023 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

If you have damaged hair, split ends, or you’re suffering from breakage, don’t despair! Here’s what causes hair damage and how to repair it  


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Signs of damaged hair

The science of hair

How heat and chemicals damages hair

How to repair damaged hair

Hair is so much more than just a style statement.

For many people, it forms a part of their identity and the condition of someone’s hair can reveal a lot about their overall wellbeing.

Not to mention the fact that it’s subjected to a swathe of stressors, from heat styling and colour treatments to sun exposure, leaving it dry, damaged and brittle.

If you have excess frizz, split ends or your hair isn’t holding its style like it used to, you may have damaged hair.

In this guide, we explain the signs to look for if you think you have damaged hair, the science of hair and how heat and chemicals damage your hair, as well as how to repair damaged hair to leave it looking its best.

Editor’s Note: Having damaged our hair through heat styling and bleach, the only thing that truly made a difference was the K18 hair mask. This isn’t an advert, we’re just huge fans. The downside is that it’s really expensive but in our opinion, it really works.

Damaged hair: Signs to look for

Loreal Elvive Wonder Water review does it workmamabella | mamabella

Damaged hair can look different depending on the severity of the damage. However, common signs of damaged hair include:

  • Split ends: These are the most common sign of damaged hair are split ends. They appear as small, forked sections at the ends of the hair shaft. Split ends can make your hair look dull and lifeless, and they can also make it more prone to breakage.
  • Brittle hair: Brittle hair breaks easily and often has a dry, wiry texture. It may also be difficult to brush or style and won’t hold a curl, for instance.
  • Dry hair: Dry hair lacks moisture and can be easily damaged. It may appear dull and lifeless, and it may be prone to frizz. Dry hair is often caused by overwashing, heat styling, and environmental factors such as sun exposure and chlorine.
  • Lack of shine/dullness: Healthy hair typically has a natural shine. Damaged hair may instead appear dull and lifeless. This is because the cuticles, which are the outer layer of the hair shaft, have been damaged and are no longer smooth.
  • Frizz and flyaways: Frizz is caused by the hair’s cuticles becoming raised and uneven. This can happen due to a number of factors, including heat styling, chemical treatments, sun exposure and chlorine. Frizz can make your hair look unkempt and difficult to manage. Read more in our guide to the science of frizzy hair.
  • Breakage: This is a serious sign of damage. It occurs when the hair shaft is weakened and breaks. Breakage can be caused by a number of factors, including heat styling, chemical treatments, and excessive brushing. Breakage can make your hair look thin and unhealthy.

The science of hair

Every cell in our body contains protein, and proteins are made up of long chains of building blocks called amino acids. In order for our bodies to repair cells and make new ones, we need to eat a diet rich in protein.

This is why protein is so important for growing children and pregnant women. It’s why gym bros rely on it so much to help fuel the growth of their muscles during training, and it’s why protein is linked with strong hair.

Two of the most important amino acids that build the proteins in our cells are called methionine and cysteine, and these amino acids contain sulfur. Hence, sulfur is one of the most important compounds for a well-functioning body and thus lies at the very heart of healthy hair.

The science and structure of hair and why it gets damagedmamabella | mamabella

Each strand of hair is made up of three layers:

  • Cuticle: The cuticle is the outermost layer of the hair. It acts as a protective barrier and is made up of overlapping scales that lie flat or open depending on what condition your hair is in.
  • Cortex: The cortex is the middle layer of the hair and is what gives it its strength, colour, and texture.
  • Medulla: The medulla is the innermost layer of the hair. It’s not always present and its exact purpose is unknown.

The health of a person’s hair largely comes from the cortex. Inside the cortex are chains of a protein called keratin that are interwoven and twisted around each other.

These chains are held together by the chemical equivalent of rungs and poles on a ladder, and this relies on something called disulfide bonds.

Disulfide bonds aren’t just found in hair. They’re found in all protein molecules and their job is to connect two sulfur atoms together. In particular, they create the bond between the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine. When two cysteine molecules come close together, and the sulfur atoms interact, they create a strong bond between them.

“Imagine a rope. It isn’t one single fibre, but rather the interweaving of many, many much smaller strands,” explains hair repair brand K18. “On its own, one small string can’t support much weight; but when combined with dozens of others into a rope or cable, it can support a lot of weight. Hair is structured the same way.”

Why do heat and chemicals damage the hair?

Disulfide bonds and hair damageOlaplex

When hair is exposed to heat, bleach, chlorine, the sun, or harsh chemicals, the disulfide bonds holding the keratin chains together break. This causes the two once-connected sulfur molecules to become “free.”

When this happens two potential things can happen. Either, one of the single sulfur molecules joins up with a single oxygen molecule to form a perfect pair (in this instance, no damage takes place), or a reaction takes place that creates what’s known as a sulfate group.

In this instance, the single sulfur hydrogen molecule joins up with three oxygen molecules. This results in the sulfate becoming what’s none as protonated which leads to the production of Cysteic acid. Cysteic acid then “eats” the protein out of the hair causing it to become weak and damaged.

How to repair damaged hair

woman holding and looking at split ends of her damaged hair. Separated dry ends, hair care problemGetty Images/iStockphoto

There is no quick fix to repairing damaged hair sadly, other than chopping it all off and starting again.

The most important way to get stronger, healthier hair is by looking after your scalp. This helps create the best environment for hair to grow in.

However, there are also a number of treatments and things you can do to help improve your hair’s health and get it looking stronger and shinier.

These include:

  • Get a trim
  • Use gentle shampoo and conditioner for dry and damaged hair
  • Invest in a leave-in conditioner or hair repair treatment
  • Try hair oiling
  • Avoid overwashing
  • Limit heat styling
  • Avoid chemical treatments
  • Treat your hair to a deep-conditioning mask
  • Buy a wide-tooth comb
  • Protect your hair from the sun
  • Minimise tight hairstyles
  • Eat more protein and get more vitamins

Get a trim

The quickest and most effective way to repair damaged hair is by getting a haircut. This will remove the split ends and any damaged sections.  Regular trims every 6-8 weeks will prevent further splitting and promote healthier growth.

It should be noted that it’s not possible to repair split ends with treatments or masks. The only way to get rid of them and prevent them from causing further damage is to cut them off.

Treatments, oils, masks, and conditioners that promise to get rid of split ends don’t actually repair them. They instead make them appear smoother and less noticeable. This can give the illusion of being repaired but they’re still there.

Use gentle shampoo and conditioner

How to use rosemary oil for hair and make it at homeShutterstock

Opt for sulfate-free shampoos where possible, and look for conditioners that are formulated specifically for dry and damaged hair. Most hair care products will explain which hair type they’re for on the bottle but if they don’t, look for ingredients such as keratin, argan oil, and shea butter to nourish and strengthen your strands.

Clarifying shampoos are great for damaged hair because they clean the scalp and strands without using harsh chemicals and typically without drying the hair out further.

mamabella recommends: Pureology Hydrate Shampoo (£21); OGX Biotin & Collagen pH Balanced Shampoo (£6.99); Hairstory New Wash; Olaplex No. 5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner24); Kerastase Resistance Fondant Extentioniste (£24.80)

Invest in a leave-in conditioner or hair repair treatment

K18 vs OIaplex review treatmentsmamabella | mamabella

In addition to applying a conditioner each time you wash your hair, we recommend investing in a leave-in conditioned as well as hair repair treatments.

The best leave-in conditioner we’ve used is the Olaplex No 6 Bond Smoother, while the best hair repair treatment is the K18 hair mask. You can read more about why the K18 mask is so good in our: K18 vs Olaplex guide.

mamabella recommends: Olaplex No 6 Bond Smoother (£26); K18 hair mask (£25); Noughty Thirst Aid Spray (£6.99)R+Co HIGH DIVE Moisture + Shine Crème (£24.50)

Treat your hair to a deep-conditioning mask

At least once a week, apply a deep conditioning mask treatment to your hair. Deep conditioners are typically thicker than standard conditioners and are designed to provide extra moisture and repair damaged areas.

Some treatments can be left on overnight but we recommend you invest in a silk turban or similar to avoid a slimy residue on your pillows.

mamabella recommends: Give Me Hair Mask (£15); The Body Shop Banana Truly Nourishing Hair Mask (£12); Christophe Robin Regenerating Mask (£50)

Try hair oiling

Rosemary oil for hair growth and hair lossShutterstock

The #hairoiling hashtag has more than 785 million views on TikTok alone and influencers everywhere swear by hair oiling when it comes to improving the condition of their hair.

Rosemary oil, for instance, has been linked with promoting hair growth, while castor oil helps smooth and soften the hair leaving it looking healthy and shiny. You can also buy oil blends that help boost circulation to the scalp and improve the condition and strength of your hair.

One of our faves is from Hair Veda because it only uses organic, natural ingredients that are vegan and cruelty-free. You can get more recommendations in our best hair oil guide.

Avoid overwashing

Washing your hair too frequently can strip away natural oils, leading to dryness. Aim to wash your hair every 2-3 days or as needed.

Limit Heat Styling

Dyson hair dryer gentle air dryer attachmentDyson

Try to reduce or minimise how often you use heat-styling such as straighteners, curling wands, and hair dryers. If you must use them, apply a heat protectant spray to reduce damage.

Avoid Chemical Treatments

If your hair is damaged because of bleach or chlorine, avoid adding any further chemical treatments to your hair. This includes bleach, hair dyes, and perming or relaxing solutions. All of these weaken the hair structure and lead to further damage.

Overbleaching your hair causes it to become springy when it’s wet and this causes it to snap off easily.

Use a Wide-Tooth Comb and minimise tight hairstyles

Cricket Ultra Smooth comb for curly hairCricket

When detangling, use a wide-tooth comb to minimise breakage and avoid tugging on knots. This is particularly important when your hair is wet because wet hair is more fragile.

Avoid brushing or combing your hair vigorously and gently detangle from the ends upwards. Try not to put your hair up while it’s wet, too, to avoid it getting damaged. Or use a silk scrunchie and tie it up loosely.

Similarly, avoid tight ponytails, braids, and hair extensions that can strain and damage your hair over time.

WANT MORE? The best hairbrushes for thick, fine and curly hairHow to clean a hairbrush – and why it could improve your hair

Protect Your Hair from the Sun

A recent study found that while most of us protect our skin from the sun, only 18% of us do the same for our hair, despite the long-term effects it can have.

In fact, nearly half (42%) of people said they didn’t even know that the sun could be damaging to your hair and when asked if they knew if their hair can burn like their skin can, two-thirds (65%) said no.

UVA and UVB rays damage the cuticles in the hair, leading to thinning, broken or split ends, dryness, discolouration, and frizziness.

“The waves emitted by the sun can cause huge damage to your hair,” said Anabel Kingsley, Trichologist at Philip Kingsley. “To help, I would suggest using a protective hair product, a hat, or a scarf to ensure your hair and scalp are protected and that you don’t fall victim to breakage, hair loss, or burning.”

Eat more protein and get more vitamins

A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein can contribute to stronger, healthier hair growth. Foods like nuts, eggs, fish, and leafy greens are all good for your hair.

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