In the age of blowout bars, extreme dye jobs, and perms (yes, they’re back!), it’s not a question of if your hair is damaged but of how bad the situation really is. Before you start feeling hopeless because you’d sooner sell your soul than give up your flatiron, consider that even wrecked hair can be revived with a few sneaky little adjustments to your routine, according to scientists. Shinier, healthier-looking hair is just 11 tricks (and one roll of paper towels) away.
Get it wet less often.
Water makes hair swell from the inside, which forces the cuticle up. “When that happens over and over again, you get frizz and breakage,” says cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller. “Don’t wash your hair more than you have to. Whenever you can skip a day, that’s great.” Instead, embrace a dry shampoo that’s a hard-core oil and odor absorber. Living Proof Perfect Hair Day Dry Shampoo removes grease and sweat from your hair rather than just coating it with powder.
Stock your shower.
On those days when you do wash your hair, add a pre-shampoo—yep, that’s a thing now—to your routine. It works like a sealant, “smoothing the hair’s cuticle before it gets wet so there’s less damage,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, who recommends this for all hair types except fine. It also protects against friction from massaging in shampoo. “When your hair rubs together, the edges fray,” she explains. We like Nexxus Color Assure Pre-Wash Primer and Tresemmé Beauty-Full Volume Pre-Wash Conditioner.
Get smarter about your shampoo.
Don’t worry about sulfates or no sulfates. “We tested sulfates against other cleansers and didn’t see any difference in terms of damage or fading color,” says Schueller. “All shampoos have detergents that strip oil and color from hair.” And don’t even think of touching a clarifying formula since they’re meant to strip your hair of anything and everything. What you want is a shampoo that says “damage repairing” on the label and has proteins to strengthen hair (we like L’Oréal Paris Advanced Haircare Total Repair 5 Restoring Shampoo) or a cleansing conditioner, which has the lowest concentration of detergents. One word of warning to fans of hair spray, silicone serum, or mousse: You’ll need to alternate a cleansing conditioner (we like Purely Perfect Cleansing Creme) with regular shampoo. “Cleansing conditioners can’t remove all that product residue that makes hair less flexible and leads to breakage,” says Wilson.
Change the way you think about conditioner.
We all know they smooth frizz and make your hair softer and shinier. But if you own a blow-dryer or flatiron, you should also know that conditioners are critical to heat protection. “It’s just as important as heat-protectant spray, if not more, because conditioner is better at coating the hair,” says Wilson. Skim labels for ingredients that won’t rinse off—words with “methicone” or “polyquaternium” in them—or just get one of our favorites: Dove Quench Absolute Conditioner.Leave it on for at least five minutes, and then rinse with cool water. “This allows for more residual conditioner to be left on the hair,” she says.
Since heat is the worst thing for your hair, double down with a heat-protectant spray. But recognize that if it’s going to work, you’ve got to apply it the legit hairstylist way: Grab small sections of damp hair and mist each one up and down the length (two or three spritzes per section). When you’re finished, comb your hair to distribute the formula—heat protectants are pretty useless if they’re not applied all over, says Wilson, and getting there takes only a few seconds. Look for one that protects hair up to 450 degrees (it’ll say so on the label), like Style Sexy Hair 450 Degree Protect Heat Defense Hot Tool Spray, or Oscar Blandi Pronto Dry Styling Heat Protect Spray for second-day hair.
Move things along.
Anything that speeds up a blowout is good—less heat means less damage—so humor us with an experiment. Blot (don’t rub) your hair with a towel, then do the same with paper towels. You’ll be shocked at how much more water comes out of your hair and how it makes blowouts take half the time, says hairstylist Adir Abergel. Add a quick-dry spray and you’ll be watching the Today show again in no time. L’Oréal Paris Advanced Hairstyle Blow Dry It Quick Dry Primer Spray contains ingredients that wick water away from hair (isododecane) and protect against heat (silicones), says Schueller.
Save your old shirts.
We kid you not: Your cotton Madonna Virgin Tour tee is gentler on your hair than a Frette towel for drying. It’s why top hairstylists, including Mark Townsend, keep them on hand. “They don’t rough up the cuticle as much, so you don’t have to work as hard to smooth the hair and make it look healthy,” he says.
Cool your head.
If your hair feels hot after you blow-dry or flatiron it, that means it’s still frying. “If you remove a steak from the grill, it still continues to cook, and it’s the same thing with heat retention from a blow-dryer, flatiron, or curling iron,” says Wilson. Hit the cold-shot button on your dryer.
If you air-dry your hair overnight, you can minimize damage and free up time for snoozing, coffee, whatever in the morning. One trick that works for all hair types: Sleep with damp hair in two loose braids. “It smooths frizz, loosens curls, and gives straight hair beachy waves,” says hairstylist Mara Roszak.
Weekly scalp treatments make a bigger difference in the long run than you’d think. “Keeping the hair follicles clean prevents the blockage and inflammation that leads to thinning hair later in life,” says dermatologist Neil Sadick. Try Sachajuan Scalp Treatment with salicylic acid, which is better at cleaning the hair follicle than the cleansers in shampoo. If you’re pressed for time, “dandruff shampoos are great for cleaning the scalp, even if you don’t have dandruff,” says Sadick, who recommends Head & Shoulders Instant Relief Shampoo.
Boost the shine factor.
Sure, you could use shine sprays and serums, but they’re like fake boobs—they change things, but they don’t always look so natural. Dry oils, which contain the lightest silicones and oils, create the most believable shine. “They smooth the hair’s cuticle, which is the hallmark of healthy hair,” says Wilson. We like Serge Normant Meta Sheer Dry Oil Finishing Spray.