By now we’ve all heard that heat is bad for our hair. It can damage our curl pattern, cause dryness and breakage, and lead to split ends. Is there a safe amount of heat to use on your hair? How often can you straighten your hair without causing damage?
How do you know if you have heat damage?
The most obvious sign of heat damage is that your hair does not fully revert to its natural curl pattern when you wash it – your curls have loosened all over or you have straight pieces mixed in with your curly pieces.
Heat damaged hair may have trouble retaining moisture and may be more prone to breakage and shedding.
If the damage is mild, you may be able to repair your hair with a protein treatment. In most cases, the damage is permanent and the hair will need to be cut to remove the damaged areas.
Which straightening tool should you use?
First you should understand that different types of heating tools will give you different results. Some types of straighteners are more prone to damaging your hair than others, and the technique you use can be just a important as the tool you select.
Hot combs – A hot comb or marcel iron is probably the most damaging type of heating tool because there is no way to regulate the temperature. These kinds of combs or curling irons are made of metal and exposed to a direct heating source such as an open flame or an oven, which can cause the temperature of the iron to reach well over 400 degrees. I don’t recommend using this type of iron to straighten your hair ever if you are concerned about heat damage.
Flat irons – Electric flat irons are the most popular type of heating tool because they are convenient and easy for even a beginner to use. Flat irons have an on/off switch and a temperature control so that you can choose how hot you want your iron to get.
Blow dryers – Blow dryers create a strong blast of cool, warm, or hot air to quickly dry wet hair. The technique used to dry the hair is the most important factor that influences whether or not the hair will be damaged.
Hooded dryers – This is the safest type of heat to use on your hair, as the air flow is spread more evenly over the hair and these tools are very rarely used at a temperature that is high enough to damage your hair.
How to choose a flat iron or blow dryer
When selecting a flat iron or blow dryer to use on your hair, you want to choose a model that has a broad range of temperature selections. For flat irons I recommend choosing one that allows you to set the temperature in degrees rather than just “High” or “Low”. This will give you more control over how much heat you apply to your hair. For blow dryers you want a model that offers cool, warm, and hot air.
You also want to pay attention to the material that your flat iron or blow dryer is made of.
For flat irons, there are 3 types of material that the plates can be made from – titanium, ceramic, and tourmaline. Titanium heats quickly and can reach very high temperatures. This means they are great for getting the hair very straight, but they are more likely to cause heat damage. Some less expensive models do not heat evenly which can also be damaging to the hair by creating hot spots on the flat iron plate.
Ceramic irons heat more evenly and create a smoother result than titanium. These irons are less likely to cause heat damage, but may not give the best results for very coarse hair.
Tourmaline is a natural crystal that can be used to coat flat iron plates. This material also heats evenly and reduces frizz. Tourmaline flat irons straighten the hair using less heat than titanium and the results tend to last longer than ceramic irons. I recommend using a tourmaline or tourmaline-ceramic iron which combines the two materials to give you the best of both worlds.
In a blow dryer, the heating element is inside the motor of the dryer. These heating elements are made of the same materials as flat irons. Look for ceramic or tourmaline in your blow dryer as well.
Ionic blow dryers still use ceramic or tourmaline as the heating element inside the dryer, but they also contain an ion generator which creates negative charges that react with the positive charges in your hair to help your hair dry faster. This is very beneficial for those with thick, coarse hair that takes a long time to dry.
How often can you use heat on your hair?
The first thing to keep in mind is that you should be using the lowest temperature setting possible to straighten your hair, and you should never use a temperature over 400 degrees.
If you have trouble getting your hair straight at 350-400 degrees, the issue is probably not your hair texture. Many black women believe that their hair is so coarse and “rough” that they need the maximum amount of heat possible in order to get their hair straight. We need to change our mind set here, because more heat doesn’t always lead to better results and in the end it’s not worth it if you have to cut your hair due to damage.
Instead of using excessive heat, focus on making sure your hair is properly hydrated by deep conditioning on a regular basis. Dehydrated hair is harder to straighten and more prone to frizz, so when your hair is not properly moisturized, you are less likely to get a sleek, shiny result when you straighten.
Also, make sure that you are using the right kind of flat iron. As stated above, tourmaline or tourmaline-ceramic will give you a smoother result with less heat.
Lastly, embrace your natural hair texture. If you are used to wearing your hair straight 100% of the time, wearing natural styles can be an adjustment. Don’t feel like your hair has to be bone straight all the time. Experiment with straightening your hair on a lower heat setting or blow dry only without flat ironing.
Blow dry your hair on a cool or warm setting whenever possible. Try to avoid using the high heat from your blow dryer, as this can overheat the hair and cause long term damage.
What is a silk press?
So you remember back in the day when we would get our hair pressed with the hot comb and our moms or grannies would use grease, oil, or that red stuff that would weigh our hair down and make it heavy and greasy? A silk press is a way of straightening the hair using minimal product so that the hair is light and bouncy instead of heavy and oily.
A silk press can be dangerous for your hair because many stylists use high heat and multiple passes with the flat iron to achieve this look. As mentioned above, if your hair is well hydrated and you are using a good quality flat iron you should still be able to straighten your hair on low heat and get the desired result.
If your stylist is going over your hair multiple times with the flat iron and setting the iron to 450 degrees or higher – expect to have heat damage when you wash your silk press out.
How can you use heat safely?
Here are a few rules of thumb for how to use a flat iron safely:
- Flat iron no more than once a month and always set the temperature at 400 degrees or lower
- Always use a heat protectant spray (this does not mean you should increase the temperature!)
- Do not touch up your hair with the flat iron or curling iron after you straighten it
- Use one pass of the flat iron on each section of hair – that means you run the flat iron over your hair one time and that’s it. Using a high quality flat iron on hydrated hair will make this process easier.
- Do not curl your hair with the flat iron or curling iron after straightening – use rollers, flexi-rods, or bantu knots to curl your hair instead.
Here are some tips for blow drying:
- Always blow dry with warm or cool air
- Use a diffuser to blow dry your hair with cool or warm air if you are wearing a curly style or if you need to dry a roller set without a hooded dryer
- Do not use a round brush when blow drying – these cause splits along the hair shaft and will lead to a hair cut
- If you are using cool air with a diffuser, there is no risk of heat damage and you can do this as often as you like
- If you are blow drying with warm air and a comb attachment, do this no more than once every 2 weeks
How do you choose a stylist to straighten your hair?
If you would prefer to have a professional straighten your hair, you have to be selective about who you choose. Don’t be afraid to ask questions beforehand, because once the damage is done, it’s done and you’ll be one crying if you have to cut your hair off and start over.
Here are some tips for choosing the right stylist:
Ask for a consultation beforehand
Ask about their philosophy on safe heat use
Observe them straightening someone else’s hair (check their social media to see if they have any videos available)
Ask what other services they offer – a stylist who specializes in caring for natural hair is more likely to use care when straightening your hair in order to prevent heat damage
If you’re looking for styling options as an alternative to straight hair, try a light blow dry with cool or warm air and then set your hair in a twist out, braid out, or roller set. The result will be more stretched than a set on curly hair without the risk of heat damage that you will get from flat ironing.
At the end of the day, there is no guarantee that you will prevent heat damage whenever heating tools are used on your hair, but you can increase your chances of keeping your hair healthy by using these best practices.
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