Even if you’re trying to lose inches from your middle, chances are you never want to hear the word thin in reference to your hair. But if you’ve been shedding more than usual, it’s not too late save your strands.
“Many aspects of our lifestyle—from what we eat to how we style our hair—affect the strength of hair fibers,” says Alan Baumann, MD, a Boca Raton-based hair transplant surgeon and physician specializing in hair loss. And that’s good news: Thicker hair is just about making a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle. Here, the 10 worst strand saboteurs, and how to get them out of your routine for good.
1. Taking steamy showers
Hot water dehydrates strands (just like skin), leading to dry, brittle hair that’s more prone to snap and fall out, explains Ryan Welter, MD, a Boston-based hair transplant surgeon. “Not only are you washing your hair’s protective oils down the drain, but the heat throws your scalp’s pores into overdrive to keep up with oil production, which can damage the root and lead to additional shedding.”
Save your strands: Take the temp down a few degrees. “Opt for a warm shower, and try to rinse hair with the coolest temperature possible.”
2. Using hot styling tools
Scorching temps damage the proteins that make up your hair and its protective cuticle. “Once the cuticle is damaged, the moisture balance is disrupted and your hair is more prone to breakage,” says Dr. Bauman.
Save your strands: Limit your hot tool usage—even your blowdryer—to two or three times a week, and start with the coolest setting possible. Always apply a heat-protection spray, which creates a thermal barrier to reduce friction.
3. Crash dieting
Starving yourself forces the body to direct its energy (the little it has) towards essential functions—like helping your heart and brain work—rather than making hair. In fact, when diagnosing anorexics, one of the top symptoms is severe hair loss, says Paradi Mirmirani, a Vallejo, California dermatologist specializing in hair disorders.
Save your strands: Eat a healthy diet with plenty of lean protein like fish, chicken, lentils and beans. “Hair is primarily made of protein,” she explains. “It’s the one thing that can make or break your hair if you’re not getting enough.” Aim for 46 grams per day (or about 25 to 30-percent of your total calories).
4. Mishandling wet hair
Our strands are never more fragile—and prone to breakage—than when they’re saturated with H2O, since the protective cuticle is slightly raised. Brushing or combing locks in the shower, then following with aggressive towel-drying, create the perfect storm for snapping it off.
Save your strands: Minimize post-shower brushing by combing before hair gets wet. Then, blot (don’t rub!) hair with a soft towel after your shower.
5. Wearing tight hairstyles
If a tight ponytail or braid is your go-to, beware: Sporting these styles puts excessive tension on the hair follicles, damaging them and creating scars that destroy them permanently, says Doris Day, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist specializing in hair health. This can lead to traction alopecia, a condition that permanently weakens the follicle and makes it impossible for hair to grow.
Save your strands: Loosen up! Try wearing your hair down whenever possible (especially while sleeping; rolling around on a pillow can create even more friction). When you do tie your strands back, keep it soft—if it’s pulling on your skin, it’s way too tight.
6. Using long-lasting hold styling products
If your hairspray or gel claim All-day Mega-hold, they’re actually making your locks harder to hold on to. “These are usually high in alcohol, which makes hair dry and brittle,” says Dr. Mirmirani. “Once you comb or brush your hair, that residue causes the hair to break and fall out.”
Save your strands: Skip any products that make hair stiff or sticky. Instead, opt for softer-hold solutions like styling creams that keep hair’s moisture intact and don’t create friction when brushing.
7. Taking oral birth control pills
If you’re one of the many women who are sensitive to hair shedding or thinning due to hormonal changes, the wrong oral birth control can weaken your hair. “A pill that contains androgens can cause hair loss for someone who’s ‘androgen sensitive’ and doesn’t know it,” says Dr. Bauman.
Save your strands: Switch to low-androgen index birth control pills like norgestimate (in Ortho-Cyclen, Ortho Tri-Cyclen), norethindrone (in Ovcon 35), desogestrel (in Mircette), or ethynodiol diacetate (in Demulen, Zovia). If you want to know whether you have an androgen sensitivity, a hair restoration physician can perform a quick cheek-swab genetic test.
8. Scratching your head
Itchy scalp (like that caused by seborrheic dermatitis) may result in hair loss due to scratching-induced hair damage, says Dr. Bauman. Once the cuticle is damaged, the hair fiber is prone to breakage.
Save your strands: Relieve the itch with a shampoo that contains selenium, zinc pyrithione, or tea tree oil. If over-the-counter products don’t help, your doctor can prescribe prescription antifungal shampoo or cortisone foam.
9. Soaking up the sun
Even if you’ve (wisely) given up tanning, chances are your hair is still exposed to UV rays, which eat away at the strength and elasticity of your hair. “Prolonged UV exposure causes the layers of the cuticle to weaken and break, resulting in brittle hair that can lead to hair loss,” says Dr. Bauman.
Save your strands: Wear a hat—preferably one with built-in UV protection—whenever possible (and don’t forget to tuck your ponytail underneath). Worried about hat hair? Try using a leave-in conditioner with built-in sunscreen.
10. Not washing hair often enough
Now that dry shampoo is a staple in most of our beauty arsenals, it’s easier than ever to skip a few days between washing. Convenient? Yes. But not so great for your hair: “A buildup of product or excessive dandruff on the scalp has been shown to clog hair follicles, and if it’s bad enough, it can be difficult for hair to grow,” says Dr. Day.
Save your strands: There’s nothing wrong with skipping shampoo for a day. But if it becomes a habit, product residue, dirt, and oil can clog pores in the scalp. Be sure to wash your hair every two days, especially if you’re sweating or using lots of products. To prevent excessive dryness, switch to a sulfate-free shampoo.
11. Taking certain medications
Certain medications (like statins, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, anti-hypertensive medications) or hormones (like thyroid replacement drugs) can cause hair loss. “These can disrupt or interfere with the normal cycle of hair growth, causing hair to go into a resting phase and fall out prematurely,” says Dr. Bauman.
Save your strands: Ask your doctor about alternative medications that don’t have the same hair-loss repercussions.