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Dead Hair: Your SOS Guide to Damage Control

BY Felicia Ler

In the realm of hair care, the words “dead hair” evoke as much fear, revulsion, and horror as does Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter saga. Strands that look like they’re on the verge of death often show worrying signs of dullness, frizz, dryness, split ends, not to mention an affinity for breakage. In that sense, when we say “dead hair,” what we really mean is damaged hair.

Before we go any further, we’d like to set one thing straight about the term “dead hair.” Technically speaking, the visible part of the hair shaft that protrudes out of your skin is made up of dead cells. As such, the hair you see on your head is dead. 

That said, when most of us refer to dead hair, what we’re really talking about is damaged hair, primarily because these worn-down strands look like they’re on their last breath. With that in mind — and for the purposes of this article — our discussion about reviving dead hair is all about preventing more damage to your tresses and improving their appearance as much as possible.

The good news is that you can improve the state of your hair. But restoring hair health isn’t an overnight process. Nor are there miracle hair products that can fix your distressed locks in just a few minutes.

Instead, be realistic and patient when working with damaged hair. Ahead, we identify the top three culprits of dead hair and what you can do about them to stop further damage in its tracks. We also divulge the exact steps your hair care routine should include when trying to revive lifeless-looking locks. 

Top 3 Culprits of Dead Hair and How to Tackle Them

There are numerous reasons why your hair can seem lifeless, from environmental factors to lifestyle habits. Let’s focus on the three most common causes to help you get a handle on minimizing hair damage.

You’ve Overdone It With Heat Styling

Heat, especially at extreme temperatures, is one of the most damaging culprits behind dead hair. Hot air raises the hair cuticle — the outer layer protecting the hair shaft — much more than it should. It also increases hair porosity, which is how well the fibers absorb and retain water.

The Journal of Cosmetic Science explains hot styling tools (read: flat irons, curling irons, and blow-dryers, to name a few) significantly damage hair protein (keratin), especially at temperatures above 392 Fahrenheit (200°C).

Thermal heat also degrades your mane’s ability to retain water, spelling disaster in the form of dry, brittle hair. As if that’s not alarming enough, the journal warns that combing heat-styled hair inevitably leads to more breakage. Yikes!

Damage control 101:

  • Air-dry or towel-dry your hair as much as possible instead of blow-drying. Curly and coily hair types may want to try the plopping method for voluminous, frizz-free curls.
  • Go for no-heat hairstyles like Bantu knots (for natural hair types) and spraying damp hair with dry shampoo or mousse for textured-looking locks.
  • Always use a heat protectant before exposing your tresses to any hot tools.
  • Hold the blow-dryer at least six inches away from your locks in a continuous motion.
  • Partially blow-dry for a volumizing effect, then air-dry the rest of the way to limit time spent under the heat.
  • Use haircare products specifically for heat damage. Add the “replenish hair” and “thermal protection” hair goals to your next shipment when customizing with Function of Beauty.

You’ve Had One Too Many Chemical Treatments 

Chasing after the next Instagram-worthy selfie or TikTok beauty trend may have your locks in a pastel pink shade this week, then sporting an entirely different hue the next. Whatever the reason is for dyeing, bleaching, perming, and straightening your hair, the verdict is the same: they all contribute to hair damage.

First up, hair dyes are chock-full of harsh chemicals that can wreck the hair shaft beyond hope. For example, permanent dyes often contain hydrogen peroxide that swells and lifts the cuticle to allow dye pigments to enter the shaft and change your natural hair color. In the process, the fibers suffer from oxidative damage, resulting in dead-looking hair.

If hair dyes steadily steer you toward straw-like, lifeless locks, then bleach will put you on the fast track. At the microscopic level, bleach leaches away hair proteins, progressively weakening your tresses. It also disrupts your natural hair structure by converting cysteine disulfide bonds to cysteic acid.

Overall, expect substantial damage to the entirety of your hair shafts (aka the cuticle and cortex layers). As you can imagine, dry hair, brittleness, and flyaways are often part of the package with bleaching.

Last but not least, chemical perms and straighteners are also highly damaging to hair. For example, straightening your curly hair inevitably destroys the protein bonds holding your natural curl type together.

Damage control 101:

  • Avoid permanent dyes and bleach as much as you can — opt for temporary or semi-permanent dyes that are less harsh on your hair to limit and prevent further wreckage. Embrace your natural hair type and forgo straightening and perms if possible.
  • Always keep a two-week window in between chemical treatments (or as specified by your hairstylist or colorist). For example, if you want to color and curl hair, schedule your perm at least two weeks before your dye job. If you’ve just bleached your hair, it’s best to hold off on any other chemical treatments to avoid ravaging your locks even more.
  • Stay away from heat styling until your stylist gives you the go-ahead. For perms, go one step further and avoid any tight hair accessories and vigorous hair brushing.
  • Hydrate chemically treated hair with moisturizing products like a deep conditioner and hair mask (more on that later).
  • Minimize the need for touch-ups with the right hair products. For example, Function of Beauty’s customizable haircare range offers hair goals like “color protection” and “curl definition” to help maintain your new ‘do for as long as possible.

Your Shower Water Is to Blame

If you haven’t subjected your tresses to heat- and chemical-induced hair styling yet still have drab-looking locks, you may want to look elsewhere for the culprit of your dead hair — namely, the hard water that may be lurking in your shower.

ICYDK, hard shower water contains high levels of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and metals. The icky buildup it leaves on your scalp and hair fibers flatten your mane and causes frizzy hair that’s dry and brittle.

Damage control 101:

  • Install a filter in your shower to clear out the unwanted minerals.
  • Use a clarifying and nourishing shampoo. For instance, you can add the “soothe scalp” and “nourish roots” hair goals to your Function of Beauty shampoo to help reduce buildup and make your hair look healthier.

No matter if your dead hair is due to one of these three culprits or something else, adhering to the hair-healthy best practices listed above can help with damage control. To continue leveling up the vitality of your locks, review your haircare routine to see if you need to make any adjustments (see next section).

Hair Care Routine: How to Revive Dead Hair (as Much as Humanly Possible)

dead hair

When trying to get as close to your healthy hair goals as possible, you’ll want to look closely at your haircare routine, specifically the products you use and the order in which you apply them to your tresses. Here’s how to get it right.

Pair the Right Shampoo and Conditioner

When shampooing and conditioning, make sure you’ve picked the right products for your exact hair needs. For instance, if you’ve just gone blonde and notice frizz, flyaways, and a dry scalp, a purple shampoo with natural oils can help you maintain your new hue for as long as you can while keeping your mane well-moisturized. Look for hair products free of sulfates and parabens to avoid drying out your strands even more.

Dab on a Leave-in Conditioner

Depending on the severity of the damage done to your tresses, your basic conditioner may not be enough to replenish your hair’s moisture. For an extra dose of hydration, dab on a lightweight leave-in conditioner. Apply it on dry or wet hair, then go about your day per usual. Choose one with moisturizing ingredients like argan oil, jojoba oil, almond oil, and coconut oil.

If you’re new to the concept of leave-in conditioners, our handy guide dishes the juicy details on how to use a leave-in.

Seal It With Hair Serum 

Yes, a leave-in can do wonders for dead hair, but to really seal in the moisture (especially for high porosity hair), you should apply a hair serum afterward.

Check out Function of Beauty’s award-winning silicone-based hair serum that can:

  • Reduce frizz
  • Increase shine
  • Improve detangling — use a wide-toothed comb when working in the serum to detangle your knots more smoothly

As a bonus, our hair serum doubles as a heat protectant to shield your strands from temperatures up to 400 degrees.

Apply a Hair Mask at Least Once a Week

For the times when your tuckered-out tresses need extra devotion, say no more and reach for a hair mask. A deep conditioning treatment, the hair mask is more than capable of tackling all the signs of dead hair: frizz, dullness, dryness, breakage, and split ends.

Leave it on your strands for an extended amount of time to allow the hydrating ingredients to bypass the cuticle and help revitalize the hair shaft from the inside out. You can even use it in place of your daily conditioner.

P.S. Check out our in-depth guide on how to use a hair mask to help breathe life back into your locks.

Dead Hair No More

Dead hair may seem like an oxymoron — hair is made up of dead cells, after all — but it’s no joke if it’s your mane we’re talking about. In the name of trending hairstyles (or just to feel cute for date night), doing things like heat styling and chemical treatments can damage your fibers, sometimes to an irreversible extent.

Following the above-mentioned best practices, coupled with regular trims to snip off split ends, can help prevent your hair from reaching its breaking point (literally).

On top of that, a haircare routine targeted towards moisturizing and nourishing your fibers can help ward off further damage and enhance their appearance. For help revamping your routine, take our hair quiz to find the right products custom-made for you.

If you’re still struggling with dead hair at this point, it may be time to chop off the damaged parts as a last resort. After all, short hairstyles like bobs and lobs will always be on-trend.