By Stephanie Tweito Jacob
When you're trying to get everyone, including yourself, out the door on time, your hair is the last thing you want to think about. That's why it's important to keep it strong and healthy. Without damage and breakage, hair is easier to style and looks more naturally beautiful, even when all you have time for is a quick brushing.
It helps that hair is naturally strong, but it can only put up with so much. Over time, rough wear and tear and other assaults can damage and weaken its structure or cause breakage. Hair then becomes susceptible to frizz and is hard to control.
You can prevent or minimize the damage, however, by treating hair well from the inside and outside, says Liz Cunnane Phillips, a trichologist (hair expert) at Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic in New York City. Check out these pro strategies for making your hair as strong and healthy as it can be:
1. Eat plenty of protein and iron.
Hair is made of keratin, a type of protein. Getting enough in your daily diet encourages hair to grow stronger, says Phillips. Iron's role is to help carry oxygen to your follicles, which creates a healthy environment for hair growth, she says.
Lean red meat and poultry, plus eggs, are good sources of both nutrients. Phillips advises eating a serving of iron-rich protein at breakfast and lunch. "Hair follicles tend to be lowest in nutrients [earlier in the day] since you haven't eaten overnight," she says.
2. Concentrate cleansing on scalp and roots.
Regardless of the thickness or length of your hair, when you shampoo, focus your efforts on the scalp and roots. Start with about a dime-size amount of shampoo and apply to your scalp and roots, advises Louise O'Connor, celebrity hairstylist and owner of OC61 Salon & Spa in New York City. Gently massage it in; as suds run through, they clean the rest of your hair without drying it out.
3. Apply conditioner from the bottom up.
The ends are the oldest part of your hair, and that's where damage typically occurs first, says O'Connor. Conditioner helps hair resist the splits and breakage. Unfortunately, most women plop a dollop of conditioner on the crown of their head, leaving little or none for the ends, which need it most.
A better technique: Squirt conditioner into your palms and apply it to ends first. Then, work your way up strands to coat the upper sections.
4. Treat wet hair with care.
When hair is wet, it's in its most fragile state and is easily damaged. Try these tips to keep strands intact:
- Blot off excess water. Instead of vigorously towel drying, press the towel against hair. Rigorous rubbing can roughen and lift hair's outer layer, drying and weakening the strand, says Phillips.
- Avoid brushing. Brushes tend to tug and pull hair. A wide-tooth comb is gentler. Start combing 2 inches from the ends, then move up to the next 2 inches and so on until you get to your roots. This way, you don't catch and drag knots, a main cause of breakage.
5. Apply a heat shield.
Blow-drying may help hair look great, but it can also lead to its downfall. High heat from a blow-dryer can singe strands, says Phillips.
To protect hair, apply a light leave-in conditioning cream before you dry. It adds moisture and shine, plus sets up a heat barrier, says O'Connor. Coat palms with a dime-size dollop and finger-comb through, starting at the ends.
6. Mix up your ponytail placement.
A ponytail is a saving grace when you're in a rush. But if you wear a ponytail in the same spot every day, the pressure and pull where the elastic rests can eventually break strands in that area.
Vary the placement of your ponytail -- switching between high, medium and low -- to save hair the constant stress, says O'Connor. Also use seamless, fabric-coated bands, a scrunchie or a butterfly clip. "Exposed rubber literally cuts into hair," says Phillips.
7. Protect hair from the sun.
Skin isn't the only thing the sun burns. UV rays and extreme heat can dry out hair, leaving it weak and brittle, says Phillips.
The best remedy is avoidance. If you'll be outdoors for a long period, wear a hat or scarf. Not your style? Apply a UV-protecting hair cream or spray, says O'Connor. Look for that term, "UV shield" or "UV filter" on labels. These products contain similar ingredients as sunscreen that help filter or block damaging rays while delivering extra moisture.
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Stephanie Tweito Jacob is a freelance writer who specializes in beauty, fashion and health. She has held editorial positions at Allure, More and O, The Oprah Magazine.