Friday, May 18, 2012

Can I use heat regularly and maintain healthy hair? Part 1

Probably the most infamous enemy of healthy hair is excessive heat usage from styling tools. We all know that. We all believe it. Some of us have even sworn away our flat irons for good in an effort to create thriving hair.  With all that said,  the question I have is this:  "how can all of these women pictured below use heat on a regular basis and still maintain thick luxurious hair?" And, most importantly," how can we learn to do the same?"

In order to properly answer this most important question, one must first look at these women and seek out some commonalities.  From these common practices, we will grow and get better. But before we get fully into this post, I must make an important disclosure:
***The information below is meant to serve as a guide on how to use heat responsibly, it is not a license to use heat tools in an ineffective way. My heart just can't take looking at another head of heat damaged hair. I do not want to be responsible for the creation of such.***

Years ago, I visited this stylist who did a pretty decent job of creating the look of healthy hair.  My friend recommended her and I was eager to try her out for myself.  I sat in her chair as she shared her strategy of how she would do my hair that day.  My only input to the conversation was when I asked that she roller set my hair instead of blow drying.  Immediately, she declined my request stating that if my hair dried under the hooded dryer, my strands would not be fully sealed which could allow for breakage and other non-desirables.  That conversation never left me. 

I eventually left her when I found Dominican salons that would both roller set and blow dry.  It never failed, every time after a blow out my hair, bone straight, would virtually stop breaking and decrease shedding considerably for up to two weeks.  Even when Marie did my hair, I rocked the straight style for at least 2.5 weeks with limited shedding and breakage compared to when I normally do my own hair.  It seemed like each time I went to the salon for a straightening, my hair (temporarily) stopped showing visible signs of damage (breakage/shedding).  What's the connection here?

To understand this deeper, we must contemplate what occurs when we use a straightening tool.  Please keep in mind that most of what I will say is my interpretation of what I think takes place.  None of this is fact.  When one uses a flat iron, three forces come into play--heat, pressure, and tension.  These three factors when combined together, have an extraordinary ability to help seal the strand while creating the look of straight hair.  Sealing the strand can provide some great benefits when done right.

Potential Benefits
  •  The feeling of silkiness which reduces friction caused by manipulation.  From this, actions such as combing, detangling, and styling become easier because there is less resistance in the strand, which could lead to less tangles and breakage.
  • A sealed strand can better resist external factors such as humidity.  The hair strand expands when it comes in contact is excessive moisture.  As the strand expands, the cuticle layer is raises which creates a rough texture. The hair follicle, then is more susceptible for breakage. 
  • Sealing can also provide us the opportunity to reinforce the strand with nourishers that can strengthen the hair.
You might be thinking to yourself "that stuff you listed actually sounds pretty good for the hair."  So why am I hearing all the time that heat isn't good for the hair, and why does my hair feel damaged from my heat usage?

Those are great questions, my friend.  My response to you is this:  Heat is like a wild, ferocious animal that must be tamed and trained for domesticated use.  If not properly trained, the animal can turn on the owner at any moment, attacking unexpectedly, and viciously devouring him.  Knowing this, the animal owner must use extreme intention, focus, and caution whenever interacting with the animal because the consequences of failing to do so is just too great.

In the same way, careless, frequent use of heat tools on textured (chemically treated) hair is like someone frolicking in the cage of a hungry beast, expecting to come out unscathed. It's just not realistic.  On the other hand, if you study the routines of the lovely ladies mentioned above, you will find that they have some common practices to combat the harmful effects of heat.
  • Most, if not all of them, restricted heat usage to once or twice a week.  I remember the days, back in high school, when a curling iron was just as commonly used in daily styling as a comb.  This behavior equivalent to having a meaty steak in hand, and back turned, in the presence of a hungry beast.  It just can not happen!
  • The heat usage usually occurred in combination with the weekly wash routine.
  • They are intentional with the products they used whenever heat was involved.    
My theory is this.  When heat is used after the wash day process, you may be in a place where you can experience the potential benefits I described above. The hair is freshly washed, and conditioned to a desirable state. This makes for the perfect opportunity to properly manage the use of the a flat iron.   Then there's those of us who aren't as disciplined in the use of heat styling tools.  When we choose break out the flat iron after the initial wash day, we start to experience a certain level of diminishing return.  The idea of diminishing return is that the level of effectiveness (or benefit) will decline with continued use of the flat iron (especially if the use occurs between washes). 

I believe the beginning of mastery, with regards to regular use of heat, can occur once we start to shift our view of the intended use of the styling tool.  As a matter of fact, from this point on, I will no longer refer to a flat or curling iron as a styling tool.  Instead, let's call it a sealing tool.  If that's the case, we must think a bit deeper about this sealing process and how to do it effectively.  This topic requires it's own post which will be part II on the topic of effective use of heat.  Talk to you soon!

  1. It is actually a good question since I always use iron for my hair to make it look good every day. But, I really don't know the exact effect of using iron everyday..

  2. Loved this post, some very interesting points raised. I've also noticed I experience less shedding and breakage when I blow-dry and straighten as opposed to air drying.

  3. I definitely experience less breakage and shedding when my hair is straight, especially when it's done at the salon.

  4. great post, i have recently been considering better methods of heat styling that would yield less damage. i look forward to the rest of these posts!

  5. This is interesting especially since people act like heat is the devil. I have a pretty expensive flat iron that I use only 3-4 times a year because I have the fear of the heat beast. Curious to read Part II

  6. Once or twice a week? That's between 52 to 104 direct heat applications a year! I liken enduring direct heat to learning how to take a punch. It never feels good, but I guess some learn how to take it. I'd rather avoid the pain.

  7. i was just telling my husband this morning that i wasn't sure if getting my hair flat-ironed every 2 weeks at the salon (after a wash & deep condition) was going to end up hurting my hair in the long-run. this post has helped me to assess whether any hair issues i'm currently having can be traced to the direct heat...or other hair practices (like not moisturizing & sealing regularly!).

    thanks again!

  8. Loved this post. Excessive heat usage likened to a wild beast - classic! And very true. I use direct heat maybe once to twice a month, and only once I'm about 9-14 weeks post. Freshly relaxed hair does not need direct heat, just good wrapping :-) On the other hand, I NEVER simply air dry my hair. I roller set religiously since I was a little girl. Wash day equals rollerset and wrapping, which also leads to decreased breakage and shedding from a marked decrease in friction. Good for you, showing that heat is not the devil incarnate if good sense is employed. Looking forward to part II.

  9. Good post! This is a very interesting theory, I've read and re-read this post and I wonder why a roller set would not be as beneficial/sufficient? (as your stylist said) With a roller set you have 2 of the 3 techniques needed to "seal", heat and tension. Does the added pressure of the closed flat iron really make that much of a difference? I haven't used my Sedu flat iron regularly for nearly 3 years now, I air dry 90% of the time, but I do still have breakage and shedding. I am due to end my 13 week stretch next week and will probably experiment with more heat on this next go round. Hopefully part 2 will be available soon to provide some direction. Thanks!

  10. This was a very interesting post and has some great points. I realized that my hair experiences less shedding and breakage when it's been flat ironed. I can't wait to read part 2.

  11. Can't wait for part 2 of this post. I like the look of my hair so much more when it is flat ironed. I'm really tired of the roller set look, for me it looks old fashioned where as the flat iron gives my hair a smooth flowing look. I'm starting to experiment with more heat since I first read this post. Thanks

  12. You always cover some very important topics. Thanks a lot.

  13. Lee

    Great post! I blow dry/flat iron 2x weekly (after each wash & DC). No problems with breakage at all.