7 bad habits that will damage your hair

7 bad habits that will damage your hair

I spend a lot of time talking about hair growth and the health of hair follicles, but I don’t often talk about the hair shaft, and it’s time that I did. 

While it’s true that the hair shaft (the part of the hair strand you see) is not ‘alive’ or ‘growing’, the way you treat your hair can have a profound effect on how healthy, full, and thick your hair looks, and everything counts, especially if you’re dealing with hair loss. 

So, today I’ll go over 7 common bad habits that are damaging your hair and – most importantly – why.

1. The Permanent Set

Permanent solutions, such as perms and Brazilian blowouts, target hair’s disulfide bonds and permanently alter the wave pattern. Permanent solutions mean permanent damage.

There are 3 chemical bonds in hair that we manipulate to change how it looks. 

  • Disulfide bonds between the sulfur molecules in sulfur containing amino acids (amino acids = the building blocks of all proteins). Disulfide bonds are strong and permanent and are responsible for holding natural wave shapes.  
  • Hydrogen bonds that occur between the hydrogen molecules in the keratin proteins (the main protein that makes up hair) and are responsible for holding the strong alpha-helix keratin protein coils pattern in place (the fold pattern that’s specific to hair keratin). Hydrogen bonds are temporary and broken by water and heat (showering, heat tools, and high humidity). 
  • Salt bonds/bridges form between the positive and negative ends of amino acid (keratin protein) chains. Like hydrogen bonds, they’re temporary, and disrupted by rapid changes in PH. 

Permanent hair styling methods target the hair’s permanent disulfide bonds to alter the natural texture and wave pattern permanently. Though the shape of the hair dictates texture, it’s the disulfide bonds that maintain it. To change hair texture permanently, you need to break these sulfur-based bonds. Perms and relaxing solutions use alkaline chemicals (sodium hydroxide (“lye”) or guanidine, lithium, or potassium hydroxide (“no-lye”)), whereas Brazilian blowouts use formaldehyde and heat.

Permanent hair styling can have a big impact on how hair looks – straightening curly hair, curling straight hair – but it’s not without a cost. Sulfur is released when the keratin disulfide bonds are altered. To do that, the sulfur containing amino acid, cysteine, is destroyed (the reasons people smell sulfur when these styling methods are used). Once the cysteine amino acids go up in proverbial sulfur (as opposed to smoke – don’t worry, that’s coming up), that’s it – it’s gone. 

Altering the permanent chemical structure of your hair on a molecular level is just about the most damaging thing you can do to it (hence it landing at the top of this list). Because hair wave pattern is dictated by hair shaft shape, these processes need to be repeated as hair grows. Over time, you can destroy the building blocks of your hair’s keratin protein. 

How to avoid damage? You can embrace your natural texture (the healthiest option) or choose a less damaging (ie: less permanent) method to change hair texture and wave. 

But even less permanent styling methods still carry some risk…

2. Heat Styling 

Anyone who has ever used a hair dryer knows that heat tools can do wonders for making hair behave the way we want it to. Most people also know that too much heat styling is damaging – but not necessarily why. It all has to do with the second kind of chemical bond we mentioned above, hydrogen bonds. 

Heat is less damaging than permanent methods, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk free. You still run the risk of chemically altering the very structure of your hair. 

Hydrogen bonds are quite strong and responsible for holding a lot of your hair’s natural texture in place. In a quirk of nature, they’re also temporary. Water famously disrupts hydrogen bonds in hair, erasing the wave pattern temporarily. Each and every water molecule is an expert at hydrogen bonding, capable of hydrogen bonding with three other water molecules at once. When hair gets wet, water molecules are more than happy to step in and break the hydrogen bonds keeping your wave pattern in place. When hair dries out? The hydrogen bonds are re-established – sometimes in a new pattern depending on how the damp hair was handled. 

Heat can also disrupt hydrogen bonds. Kinetic energy from heat causes the hydrogen bonds to vibrate and break. When the hair cools, hydrogen bonds reset in the new desired style and shape. 

Because water also disrupts these hydrogen bonds, these new heat-formed styles ‘wash out’ quickly as soon as you shower, letting hair reset back to its natural state. 

So, if the bonds you’re disrupting are temporary, and the styles wash out with water, what’s the big deal with heat? 

Daily use of heat will eventually (and permanently) change the shape of your hair’s keratin for the worse, converting the strong alpha-keratin coiled helices that make up your hair to much weaker beta-keratin sheets – as these deeper structures of hair’s protein building blocks are held together by – you guessed it – hydrogen bonds. 

There’s also the risk of burning. Healthy hair burns at around 450˚F, but already damaged hair burns at lower temperatures. The result of constant heat styling is weakened hair, decreased elasticity, and a lot more breakage. 

The solution? Use heat less frequently at the lowest temperature you need. If your style requires daily heat and you’re concerned about the damage, consider changing your style and working with your natural texture. 


3. Dyes and Highlighting

There’s no way around it. Extreme colours mean extreme damage.

Like permanent styling, altering the colour of hair requires permanently changing the disulfide bonds, this time through oxidation (the loss of electrons). It’s this degradation of amino acids and loss of the disulfide bonds in the hair shaft that are responsible for irreversible color change. The new bonds that form in their place are weaker and the cuticle (which protects the hair shaft from external elements) is left more porous and open. The result is dryer, brittle hair. 

So how to minimize damage? Embracing your natural colour is the easiest – grey is fashionable now. Temporary dyes (which wash off) are also less damaging and choosing a shade close to your natural hue (or highlights) can make it easier to go longer between colouring.

And remember – extreme colors (and extreme colour changes) equal extreme damage. 


4. Hairstyles

Though hairstyles won’t alter chemical bonds, some styles (braids, ponytails, weaves, and extensions) can put a lot of traction on hair, and this tension can absolutely cause the hair shaft to break. The biggest risk is traction alopecia – which can sometimes cause scarring and permanent hair loss, but constant friction is also a concern, as it can erode the keratin scales that form the protective hair cuticle.  

If you’re someone who puts a lot of tension on your hair, consider giving your hair a ‘break’ (pun intended). An experienced hairstylist who works frequently with your hairstyle can usually help you with best practices to decrease damage. 

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5. Styling Products

Is your vanity full of the newest and latest hair products? Your products could be causing unwanted damage. The chemicals in some styling products (alcohol, detergents, heavy waxes, and oils) can dry out the hair, damaging the outer layer (the cuticle) over time.

Product build-up can also potentially put wear on your hair cuticle and your scalp. In extreme cases, product build-up can clog follicles leading to inflammation and infection, and that can cause hair loss. 

We recommend going easy on hair products, thoroughly washing them out, and checking ingredients lists regularly. 


6. Using the Wrong Brush 

Yes, using the wrong hairbrush for your type and texture can damage your hair. If you’re using the wrong brush, chances are you’re exposing your hair to more friction and tension than necessary, and tension and friction lead to a damaged cuticle (noticing a pattern of mechanical damage to the hair shaft cuticle?)


What’s the right brush?

  • Curly hair fares best with flat boar brushes - it doesn’t disrupt the curls and can help distribute oils. 
  • Straight hair types do well with boar and nylon bristles. 
  • Some curl types are recommended to finger comb or wide comb only

 Using the wrong brush for your hair type? You could be unknowingly piling on damage to your hair’s cuticle needlessly.


7. Toweling Hair Dry

Though people love to towel dry their hair after a shower, it’s really not a best practice.

Damp hair is fragile – when hair swells, its strength (from hydrogen bonds) and elasticity are compromised and it’s more prone to damage from mechanical force. Friction from a cotton towel can also harm the cuticle keratin scales. It’s not the kind of damage you’ll notice right away but over time you’ll be left with hair that breaks more easily and has more split ends. 

Instead of using a towel to dry hair? Try wrapping your hair with a t-shirt, and if you do need to use a towel try gently squeezing to keep damage to a minimum.


Final Note

The theme with taking care of your hair is (unsurprisingly) doing as little as possible on the styling front and treating the shafts like you would delicate fabrics. If you do style your hair and use some of the methods mentioned above, it’s not a bad idea to take inventory, and figure out whether there’s a bad habit in your routine you can live without. 

Remember, natural hair texture is beautiful, and it really is the healthiest way to go. 


For hair products that will help your hair health, visit feelconfident.com and sign up for updates to stay informed on our upcoming Feel Confident Haircare line.  



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