Healing damaged curls?
September 22, 2012 7:08 PM   Subscribe

I've been wearing my hair pulled back in a ponytail for probably twelve years. I want to start wearing it down, but it's gotten way too damaged for that. How do I restore it back to health?

My hair is naturally curly but also naturally dry in texture. Since middle school, I've done all sorts of bad things to it: dying, blow-drying daily under high heat to straighten it, neglecting to use conditioner for months, using a brush, not getting it trimmed, and pulling it back in sometimes tight ponytails every day. The result is a frizzy mess that, if worn down, gets blown out of shape with even a slight wind or dab of humidity. That exaggerated rat's nest in the "Before" picture on conditioner commercials? That's basically it. But with more broken hairs.

I've made some changes over the past year, including using conditioner daily, combing it out with my fingers after a shower, and taking a shower the night before work to let it mostly air dry or use the hair dryer on the low warm setting. I have noticed a big improvement in texture, though it's not yet healthy enough to wear down.

I have tried not washing it every day, but it gets really greasy at my scalp by midday if I don't. I have thought about a keratin treatment to re-texture it, but I look WAY better with curls or waves than I do with straight hair (not to mention that it has really thinned out).

What are your best practices for restoring curly hair that's as unhealthy as mine? Preferably DIY, but I am desperate enough for the salon if necessary.
posted by houndsoflove to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
1. Drastic cut.
2. Salon grade conditioner.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:23 PM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are you familiar with the book Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey? Here's a tumblr about it. She goes into detail about how to get away from washing every day, in addition to lots of other curly hair tips.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:23 PM on September 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've heard that curly hair is great for the "No 'Poo" method. It gets worse before it gets better but once you get over that nasty hump, it's supposed to be magnificent. A million websites explain it in detail and there are forums and discussion groups galore.
posted by padraigin at 7:25 PM on September 22, 2012

My hair is completely different from yours, except that mine also gets horribly greasy within 24 hours of washing. My hairdesser told me to only wash it every other day, which I hate, but its finally starting to work. My fix is to use some of that dry shampoo on it, on the day I don't wash it. I hear baby powder is exactly the same as dry shampoo. I just apply it at the roots and brush through with my fingers, and it looks noticeably better. Don't know if that's right for your hair type, but worth a try, since it sounds like your hair would benefit from being washed less (mostly to help the older stuff not at the roots).
posted by Joh at 7:31 PM on September 22, 2012

If your hair is curly and frizzy, and breaks easily, it likely is fine (if it's Asian or Mediterranean rather than northern European hair, these suggestions may not be so helpful). My hair sounds somewhat similar to yours: I have fine hair (meaning, each strand is fine; I have a fair amount of it, though), which I'd classify as either being quite wavy or in loose curls/ringlets, depending on humidity. I think that my hair tends towards frizz, even when totally properly cared for, but there are definitely things that can make it rather better. Many of these things you're already doing (combing out with fingers or wide-tooth comb, using conditioner, air-drying), and I would absolutely recommend you keep doing them.

There are a few things I might recommend additionally: they work for me, YMMV obviously. I'd recommend never using heat on the hair - preferably no blow dryer, and definitely no straightener or curling iron. I'd also recommend only shampooing at the roots, and using conditioner from the ears downwards, rather than shampooing all over. I also would recommend trying a shampoo without SLS, or some other less harsh shampoo (maybe, if you don't live somewhere with hard water, one of Chagrin Valley's shampoo bars?). I've also had luck adding essential oils to my shampoo (I've used tea tree and lavender, or the Chrome Dome blend from Essential Wholesale): this has helped my general scalp health, but also seems to make my hair itself more shiny. I also use a leave-in after my shower - I'm currently using Terax Life Drops, which seems to work reasonably well for my hair and for others' hair with fine curls. I also might play around with protein treatments and moisture: you should try to figure out whether your hair needs protein or moisture, and go for it. Protein treatments that I've used have included the Aphogee 2-step, as well as the Nexxus Polymedic Reconstructor, and I've heard good things about the Apogee 2-minute Keratin Reconstructor. Henna and/or henna glosses have personally really helped my hair, but if you don't want your hair red, you might want to try cassia obovata, which apparently has similar properties. You may also want to check out the Long Hair Community, as they have many good tips (it's where I learned many of the above); some of the online sites for black hair are also helpful, as my understanding is that black hair is also curly and fine.
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:35 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have fine, straight hair but the same oily scalp issues. I tried the no-poo method before but with no success and I had to give it up. (I wrote about it once before here.)

That said, I really believe that the stuff that is in traditional shampoo might be great for your scalp, but it's shit for your hair. It's worth getting away from.

DevaCurl No-Poo is a lovely product that keeps my hair healthy and clean without over-drying. My stylist recommended that I dilute the bottle with half water, making it last a lot longer (and helping me justify the cost). I bet you'd see faster results at full strength.
posted by juliplease at 7:37 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh! I also wanted to mention that I would HIGHLY recommend a Ficcare clip for when you want to wear your hair up. It causes MUCH less breakage than elastics, and sort of lies flat against your head, so you can lean back (unlike when your hair is in a butterfly clip). It also holds unbelievably (I can work out in mine with no problem and no chance of it slipping out). They're pretty pricey but I've worn mine almost every single day for several years and it's still in perfect shape. They also look much more dressy than any other option that I investigated, and would be perfect for work. I personally bought a size medium, which has worked very well for me with my hair anywhere between shoulder and mid-back. I really think it has helped cut down breakage where I typically had it at the pony-tale-elastic line.
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:40 PM on September 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

When you say that your hair has "really thinned out", could you clarify whether you're getting breakage somewhere along hair hair (say, at the ponytail line), or whether you're getting lots of shedding? My recommendations would differ drastically depending on which one.

Also, could you clarify whether you're currently using a leave-in after you shower? The sad truth is that - at least in my experience - some fine curly hair (mine included) will always have an element of frizzy mess, without a leave-in. The leave-in helps moisturize and weigh it down enough that it shines and stays together rather than frizzes out. I do pretty much everything that I mentioned in my long post, and I *still* can't wear my hair down without a leave-in. I've basically had to accept that with no products and no special treatment, I never will have exactly the same sleek shiny hair that people with straight hair naturally have, and I will have to work harder and use products to approach anything like that.
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:47 PM on September 22, 2012

Is your hair fine or coarse?

You need to use leave-in conditioner. I shower, leave conditioner in, then put my hair in a french braid overnight. If it is wet the next morning (almost always) and I need to be somewhere professional it's already fine, and if I want to leave it out, it gets nice curls.

You probably want to transition to not using shampoo. It's not gross at all, honestly.

I recommend hair sticks if they work in your hair. If they're smooth, they have nothing to catch on and won't tear your hair like other clips can. (I like hair sticks from this guy at Etsy -- I have a lot of his sets of acrylic ones, and they're very good looking and also so incredibly smooth. I can only buy 6" ones.)

Realistically, though, a lot of the damage is just there. You need to wait until it grows out and get a nice trim.
posted by jeather at 7:59 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

University Nomad, I've had a little of both but mostly I mean shedding. A couple of years ago I saw a lot of hair coming out in the shower and when I combed - not big clumps, but thin clumps yes. The amount of hair I lose in shower and in brushing is now more normal-seeming, but it is still pretty thin.

jeather, my hair is coarse.

I've been scared to try leave-in conditioner because of the thinness & tendency to look greasy really fast, but I'll give it a shot some weekend when I don't have anywhere to be.
posted by houndsoflove at 8:20 PM on September 22, 2012

Is cutting it short an option? I know it can be iffy with curly hair depending on how curly we're talkin', and kinda scary for everyone, but if you like the way it looks in a ponytail (i.e. with no hair around your face), it's pretty likely you'd like your hair short.
posted by jorlyfish at 8:34 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just use the leave in conditioner below your ears, as University Nomad suggests. The yucky greasiness comes from the scalp, so that section of hair doesn't need any conditioner.
posted by Joh at 8:36 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like a broken record for this on this site but: if you've got thinning, coarse hair and you're still relatively young, do ask if your doctor recommends a thyroid check on your next round of bloodwork.

But back to the hair:
--A good haircut to impose some shape to it and get rid of dry ends (even if they're not split)
--Not shampooing every day (I shower daily so I have days where I leave it alone or only condition)
--They're annoyingly expensive, but I've had very good luck with these products bringing softness back to my hair (even after color processing it). Again, if you're not washing every single day, they last longer. I imagine other argan oil treatments may be helpful as well.
posted by availablelight at 8:36 PM on September 22, 2012

P.S. if you get it cut, make SURE it's someone who knows how to keep cropped curly hair from turning into a soccer mom mushroom.
posted by availablelight at 8:37 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've mentioned this in several hair threads... but washing your hair everyday causes the need to wash your hair every day. It takes 2-3 weeks of washing every 3 days or so for your hair to get over it, until then it will look greasy, and then after that it will be much better. It's really worth doing to make your hair better and healthier and less greasy in general.
posted by brainmouse at 8:39 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you have coarse hair, hair sticks are likely to work for you. If you can pull your hair back with pencils or chopsticks, you can use hair sticks.

It will take a while to transition away from daily washing, but it is worth it. If you pull your hair back, it may not be noticeable.

As I said, I use a leave-in conditioner (often it's just normal conditioner which I do not wash out). I do put it on my scalp, but I am especially sure to reach my ends, and then when I detangle with a comb, I push even more to the ends. What happens is that, as I have very dry hair but tend towards normal-to-greasy scalp, overnight the conditioner soaks into the hair (and the towel), leaving it a little too heavy to frizz. Your hair will stop looking greasy once you have switched your hair washing regime. You absolutely cannot do this with cheap crappy conditioners, though. (My favourite, though I have trouble finding it, is the Abba Moisture conditioner.)
posted by jeather at 8:49 PM on September 22, 2012

I think my hair is like yours. It really does take a while for your head/hair to adjust to not shampooing every day. I'm down to about twice a week, but sometimes I use conditioner on the no-shampoo days. I use Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle conditioner, it's cheap and free of most of the junk in most commercial products that are hard on curly hair. Argan oil is, indeed, the bomb. It does seem weird to put it on when you have an oily scalp, but it makes my hair really soft. I put it on from the ends up, scrunching it as I go. On a day (or night) when I know I'm going to shampoo, I often do a coconut oil treatment, just slather a bunch on and leave it for at least an hour (or even wrap my pillow in a towel and wear it to bed). I usually have to shampoo twice to get it out, but man, my hair is lovely after that. And even though I'm normally not a "product" kind of person, I recently started using this crap on my hair sometimes and it's been great. My hair still looks fuzzy some days, no matter what I do I still seem to have at least one day a week, but it always feels soft now, a big improvement over what it was a year ago.
posted by upatree at 9:27 PM on September 22, 2012

What brainmouse said. Using detergents on your scalp dries it out, then your scalp produces more oil in response. The only thing you can do is grin and bear it when switching to washing 3-4 times a week. I actually only *wash* my hair once a week using soap, and even then I'm using castile soap, not a true detergent. The rest of the time I just wet it down.

Comb or pick or your hair from the bottom up, not scalp down. Don't towel dry using the scrub method--use an absorbent microfiber towel to absorb as much water as possible.

You can't fix damaged hair; hair is dead. Once it's damaged, it's damaged. You can use products that make it look less damaged, but overuse of product and heat continues the damage cycle. The best thing to do is cut off all the worst hair and then treat it right. Take a hair/nail supplement, get plenty of protein, and use as little product as possible on your hair. Absolutely *nothing* with alcohol in it.

(Normally I think supplements are a waste of money, but I have fingernails that split easily and grow very oddly, and taking the supplement seems to make an actual difference. Don't buy the ones made by beauty companies--just get the generic at a grocery store.)
posted by xyzzy at 9:35 PM on September 22, 2012

I have frizzy wavy-to-curly hair (depending on the weather and its length) which I used to wear in a ponytail all the time. Eventually I just chopped it all off, but if that's not an option, here are some things that have worked for me:

- Not washing every day; this just makes my hair feel dry and poofy all the time. It always looks best a day or two afterwards (the internet says this gives it time to replenish its natural oils, or something).
- Not using shampoo; only conditioner. I tend to be cheap and buy whatever happens to be on sale, but you can also find specific recommendations at Naturally Curly. If my hair seems especially frizzy, I'll work in some coconut oil before washing.
- Brushing and combing as little as possible. Mostly detangle with my fingers, finishing with an actual comb or brush if I need to.

Also: Heating implements hardly ever touch my hair. Mostly because I'm lazy and incompetent, but I'm sure it helps keep damage to a minimum.

Nthing recommendations for a good haircut, particularly a very short one. Not only does it get rid of the damaged bits instantly, but I think it's also easier to maintain. I can wake up in the morning and get ready with minimal fuss, and I've been surprisingly happy with haircuts from cheap salons and barbershops.

(As long as they can cut it relatively round and follow the shape of your head, it grows out fairly well. If it starts to look wonky, all I have to do it brush it in a different direction and hey presto! a new style.)
posted by junques at 9:38 PM on September 22, 2012

You need Curly like me!!! she has a book available, but all of her information is freely available on her website. It is helpful and encouraging and affirming and it rescued my destroyed hair. I used to iron my hair with a clothing iron, I've straightened it with an at-home kit and given myself a bald spot, and I've let a drunken college friend "dreadlock" it. After cutting it all off and using a modified version of her system, my hair is soft and manageable.

You do not need products. You do not need leave ins. You do not need (but are welcome to play with!) Hair masks. You do not need to spend a lot of money. You do not need syrum, gel, mousse, pomade, etc. (In a year when you've cleaned up the worst of the damage, you might be allowed a non-alcohol based hairspray but you probably won't want it). You might need to chop it. You need conditioner (you need a lot more conditioner than you think a sane person would use) and a denman brush and very occasional shampoo. Nothing else. (Yes, I style my hair with conditioner). I repeat: NOTHING ELSE. oh, except patience.

After a while, your hair will start to heal and you can get the hang of her system and modify it to suit yourself. But every few months you should go back, review, and do the whole nine yards for a week or so.

Your beautiful curls will be so gloriously glad when you start lovin' on them!
posted by windykites at 9:55 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start using a moisturizing hair masque once a week. I would also use a leave-in conditioner. Use some product meant to shape curly hair and air dry as much as is practical.
posted by violetk at 12:27 AM on September 23, 2012

You've gotten a lot of advice above that I won't repeat. I have coarse, curly hair mysef (not so much thin though) and I've had to do a lot of trial and error to figure out what products make it soft and manageable (then have to search all over again when those products are discontinued, dammit!).

If you need to use some sort of styling product in it, I have always had MUCH better luck using a cream instead of a gel (clear, alcohol based). For whatever reason, my hair holds the curl and looks soft as long as I'm using something that is is opaque white and creamy...using a clear gel (even the ones for curly hair) just creates a mess. Also, don't go too heavy. I know the instinct may be to weigh it down with product to manage the curl, but that tends to backfire and get funky greasy looking so you have flat, frizzy, icky hair. Currently I'm in love with Bed Head Curl Amplifier.

I've also found that the type of shampoo I use doesn't matter much, as long as it's a creamy one (not clear, unless I want to get all the product build up off my hair). The conditioner is what makes the difference. Some of them frizz my hair, some weigh it down, and some work great. Currently I'm on Suave Professionals for Curly Hair (I think...it's in a grey bottle and for curly hair). I switched to that out of desperation one day when I could no longer find the John Frieda magical conditioner that worked, and for a $2 shampoo/conditioner it's working surprisingly well. YMMV of course (especially with damage)...just be prepared to try different things.

If there is an Aveda salon near you , you might want to check in with them. A cut and style may be around $35, but they have some curly shampoo/conditioner that I like as well, as well as some oils and other treatments for curly hair. Their products are expensive, but you can see what your hair looks like after a GOOD cut and using their products. Just make sure you tell them to NOT blow dry your hair...my last stylist loved to dry my hair with a diffuser on low but I still walked out of there with a poofy 90's looking big hair situation, primarily because of the blow dryer. So....ZERO blow drying!

Good luck, and I hope you find what works (and that they don't discontinue it anytime soon!)!
posted by MultiFaceted at 1:12 AM on September 23, 2012

You need to figure out how to style your curls without heat. I won't repeat advice, but please do check out the resources above. My hair has a *slight* wave, with a bunch of curls near the nape of my neck, and if i want to wear my hair wavy I need, at the very least, to apply a holding product, like gel or mousse, to soaking wet hair, followed by 'plopping' in a t-shirt or the kind of microfiber towels you can buy at car accessory stores.

Putting your hair up isn't bad, especially when you wear a style that protects your ends. I love, love, love spin pins, because they do the work of a million bobby pins.

One last thing: I recently rediscovered silicone anti frizz serums like Frizz Ease. The trick, I found, is to keep them in the shower and put them in right before I get out. I have very, very fine hair prone to hormonal thinning, and I find this really controls frizz without making my hair look greasy.
posted by nerdfish at 1:20 AM on September 23, 2012

And a disclaimer about conditioner-only washing - its a miracle for some people, but for others it can dramatically increase shedding. I LOVED how conditioner washing made my hair feel, and ignored the literal handfuls of hair coming out on the shower. I don't shed nearly as much when I use regular shampoo (well, i use Nioxin, but that's another kettle of fish).

My hair is waist length and very dry, so what's really helped me is to condition the length before and after I shampoo. So I apply an egg-sized amount of conditioner to the hair below my ears, wash, condition again, wash, then condition a final time. My scalp is happier and my hair feels much softer.

I wash my hair twice a week. Dry shampoos are my best friend, but I understand they dont really work for people with curly hair. If its really gross I either braid it or wear it up.

Oh! And if you have trouble detangling your hair, or find your hair breaks when you comb it, the Tangle Teezer is a goddamned hot pink plastic miracle worker. I detangling with the Tangle Teezer then brush with an all-bristle Mason Pearson and its made a huge difference.
posted by nerdfish at 1:29 AM on September 23, 2012

Not sure I can add much new but just to emphasise:

Hair cut (depending on how damaged you hair is this may need to be drastic) - by somebody who understands wavy/curly hair and your maintenance level preferences.

Dry shampoo rules. There are different kinds - try them and find one you like.

Condition regularly but only below the ears. The kind of shampoo generally is a lot less important than conditioner.

Use nothing other than a wide toothed comb or your fingers on your wet or damp hair.

I generally put a bit of put a bit of moroccan oil curl cream and a bit of curl styling mousse in the palm of my hand, mix the two and then apply to my wet hair, define some curls and let it air dry. If I want to really control the waves I roll it up - there are multiple ways of doing this that do not entail heat (hairband, socks, rags) cause I am way too lazy to spend time drying and styling my hair.... you can use most of these over night!
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:27 AM on September 23, 2012

I really, really strongly recommend going to a good salon to get your hair professionally assessed. From what you've said, your curly hair has undergone years of damage and now you want to make it healthy again - this is not a task that should be undertaken armed with just anecdotal advice. Find a professional salon with a stylist who is versed in curly hair (the Internet is a fantastic resource for finding this), explain to them your story and ask how to fix it, and listen to what they say. Curly hair is a whole other beast that is pretty complicated at first. Get your foundation and blueprints to healthy hair from your stylist and then start to build by yourself.
posted by krakus at 8:30 AM on September 23, 2012

Could totally be placebo, but I think vitamin d and fish oil help my hair growth.
posted by mercredi at 8:45 AM on September 23, 2012

Make sure that you use a heat protector product (usually marked as a "straightening" product) on your hair before using a heat tool.

Once my hair was super dry and awful and my stylist used some kind of Kerastase treatment on it. Omigod my hair was amazing afterwards!
posted by radioamy at 1:14 PM on September 23, 2012

Good nutrition is good for your hair, but it only repairs the new hair, so it takes a while to see the result.

I have thick, coarse, curly/wavy hair. It gets wild in humidity and wind. I use silicone-based shine serum. It makes hair more slippery, so it doesn't tangle and frizz nearly as much. I also use hair gel. I work in the shine spray and gel when it's wet, and don't use a blow dryer. It lets my hair curl without getting frizzy. On days I don't wash it, I mist it with water, which seems to refresh the hair products.

If you pull your hair back, don't pull it tight; that can damage the root, and it takes some time for it to recover.
posted by theora55 at 6:28 PM on September 23, 2012

Belated thanks for your answers, everyone. I just wanted to add for anyone who visits this thread in the future that I have managed to modify my shampoo & conditioner every day routine to shampooing with Organix Moroccan oil sulfate-free every other to every third day, and applying conditioner mostly from the ears down. I'm still air drying at night and finger/wide-tooth comb combing. My hair is starting to look even better.

Tried the No 'Poo method but had to stop after 5 days. I have no idea how long the bad period's supposed to last but mine was REALLY bad, lusterless and greasy even after vigorous scalp massage and baking soda rinse. Hopefully others have better luck but for me, it's probably going to have to be just less shampooing with less harsh products.
posted by houndsoflove at 7:23 PM on October 1, 2012

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