Over the past year or two, I've been through somewhat of a hair renaissance. I spent years hating my natural curls, wishing my texture away in favor of a glossier, straighter variety. "You always want what you can't have," was a phrase that plagued my entire existence. Growing up, my mother thought I was crazy, constantly adulating my curls and forbidding me from straightening them. Thank god she did because now they're one of my most cherished attributes. I went from straightening my hair to clipping in extensions each day for almost a decade to blow-drying and curling each strand every morning. Finally, I gave up and accepted my fate as a puffy, frizzy-haired human with curls that are anything but uniform. Truth be told, I've never felt more like me (or gotten as many compliments).
My one vice, though, that remains throughout all of this is my affinity for bright, cool-blond highlights. I color my hair a lot, and while it's great for my look, it's pretty terrible for the health and definition of my curls. After my most recent appointment, I noticed a ton of breakage, split ends, dry patches, and really uneven length. I was distraught—but, what could I do? I reached out to three hair gurus for advice: Halli Bivona from John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman; Bosley MD Certified Trichologist Gretchen Friese; and hair health expert at HairClub and host of the podcast @HairLikeHers, Shab Reslan.
Meet the Expert
- Halli Bivona is a master hairstylist at the John Barrett Salon in New York City. Her work has been seen in editorials like Vogue and Marie Claire, on red carpets, and on runways.
- Gretchen Friese is a certified trichologist and ambassador for BosleyMD.
- Shab Reslan is a certified trichologist and stylist. She hosts the Hair Like Hers podcast and offers virtual hair and scalp consultations.
Keep reading to find out how (with their sage advice) I revived my devastatingly over-processed hair.
Be Gentle While Shampooing
The first step everyone should take when treating over-processed hair is to be gentle to your strands while shampooing, and avoid scrubbing too harshly. "Repeated behaviors are how you can make or break your hair," warns Shab. "When you shampoo your hair, you really want to focus the product and your scrubbing action on your roots. If you scrub your ends or rub your hair together too firmly, you will cause damage to your cuticles." Hair is most vulnerable when wet, so the next time you're washing your hair, make sure to keep Shab's advice in mind.
Protect Your Hair From Heat
Let's face it: As much as we all love the sleek-straight or full-body-volume locks our hair tools can give us, the heat from these devices can be too much to handle. “Hair can become over-processed for a few reasons," reveals Friese. "Damage from chemical services and overuse of heat tools are the most common."
Avoid or minimize the use of straightening, curling, or blow-drying your hair to prevent heat damage.
"If heat styling is something that you cannot get away from, I recommend using a good heat protecting product like the Olaplex No.7 Bonding Oil," says Friese. "It is reparative as well as a good heat protectant."
Remove Excess Water Before Conditioning
The secret to treating damaged strands includes simple steps, like making sure your hair is dry enough before coating it with moisture. "Squeeze the excess water out of your hair very well before applying any conditioner or mask, and clip it up to penetrate better," recommends Shab. "Rinse out at the end of your shower."
Using a good conditioner is a must for any haircare routine. "My go-to deep conditioning treatment is Essential Daily Conditioner Masque by Rare El’Ements," says Shab.
Many of us are guilty of drying our hair with a towel after a shower, but Shab advises against this. "Instead, wrap it in a hair turban and allow to dry slowly. That will maintain more moisture in your hair and [it will] dry softer," she says.
Consider purchasing a microfiber hair towel, like Aquis's Lisse Luxe Hair Turban to soak up your hair's excess water after a shower, making protecting your hair that much easier.
Restore Your Hair
"The best thing for over-processed hair is to get the elasticity back into it," Bivona begins. "Protein treatments like Milbon Linkage Meu can be done in the salon—it restores proteins and collagen to help rebuild the hair from the inside out."
Afterward, I got a set of four Milbon Deesse's MEU hair treatments and used an ampoule each week for four weeks to extend the benefits. And boy, were there benefits. When the month was over, I felt my hair coming back to life. It was silkier, smoother, shinier, seemingly stronger, and definitely more moisturized. But it wasn't back to its former self just yet.
Go for a Fresh Cut
"A good haircut will also help hair that has had a bit too much chemical processing. The cut will take off any split ends that may travel up the hair and wreak more havoc," Bivona reveals. So, I headed over to John Barrett Salon for my first cut in almost two years. Yikes, I know, but my hair grows slowly and haircuts make me nervous. Like the angel that she is, Bivona dusted my ends, removing barely any length. I left with an awesome cut and zero split ends.
Guess who else is a haircut advocate: Friese. "Though it is not the most favorable option, a good haircut is always a great way to help restore a healthy mane," she recommends. "Cutting off the over-processed hair and starting anew with the healthier hair on the head is an option to 'restart' a healthy hair journey. Damaged strands can break and continue to do so along up the shaft making the hair shorter, so often a good snip is the solution."
Add Moisture Back
"Getting moisture back is key," Bivona explains. "Replace your daily conditioner with a mask—I love Shu Uemura's Ultimate Remedy Extreme Restoration Treatment. This way, you're putting in the maximum moisture with every wash. I recommend leaving it in up to 20 minutes and then rinsing thoroughly."
[Ed. note: This product is currently unavailable; we recommend Shu Uemura's Silk Bloom Restorative Treatment ($69) instead.]
Try using your mask in lieu of conditioner each time you shower. It's a total game changer in terms of hydrating, softening, and strengthening your hair.
After finding such success with the Shu Uemura mask and in-salon treatment, I was addicted. I decided to try a few more beloved offerings in search of even more noticeable results.
Opt for a Reconstructing Treatment
I searched back through my desk drawers to find a treatment I had been meaning to try but never got around to applying. Lona Vigi, a celebrity hairstylist with clients from Selena Gomez and Nicole Richie to Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, suggested I try Nexxus's Emergencée Repair Reconstructing Treatment.
[Ed. note: This product is currently unavailable; we recommend Nexxus' Emergencée Conditioner, for Weak and Damaged Hair instead].
The small tubes are each concentrated with marine collagen and elastin to increase the hair's strength and manageability. The formula is then mixed with proteins to actively penetrate the hair fiber and repair the structure of each strand.
Meant to dramatically reinforce the hair cuticle wall, these once-a-week doses did wonders for my curls. My hair felt like silk for days after each one. That, and the results are cumulative. After using all four, my hair was practically back to its pre-color moisture, thickness, and strength.
Seek a Professional Smoothing Remedy
If you're looking to treat your hair outside of your home, you may consider searching for a salon that offers a professional smoothing treatment. Friese recommends the Keratin Complex Smoothing System which "can target weak spots, reinforce the hair's structure, and help repair the damage," she explains. "This treatment also helps control frizz and reduce drying time, which in turn will lessen some of the need for heat styling."
Apply Leave-in Conditioner
When a busy work schedule or a tight budget makes it hard to get to the salon, it's important to find time to treat your hair at home. “At home hair care is very important every day, but especially when dealing with over-processed strands,” Friese emphasizes. “Regular use of a leave-in treatment, such as the Redken's Extreme Anti-Snap, is a great option for after shampooing (and conditioning) before styling your hair,” she recommends.
Use Oil to Prevent More Damage
"Try using either camellia oil," Bivona suggests, "which is a prominent ingredient in my absolute favorite post-shower serum, or coconut oil daily on wet and dry hair to introduce moisture and protect your hair from any more damage."
After using each of the products religiously, I thought it wise to also put off my next color appointment. To keep my hair bright and my roots at bay, I invested in Shu Uemura's Color Lustre Cool Blonde Shade Reviving Balm.
It works to balance my cool-toned color and keep brassy tones to minimum in-between highlights. The genius is in the formula which subtly deposits color while canceling out unwanted yellows. Plus, it nourishes hair to leave it even healthier and more vibrant than before. I use it in the shower instead of shampoo once a week starting at the mid-lengths and working towards the ends. Then, I keep it in for the rest of the shower (at least 10 minutes) and rinse before toweling off.
What causes over-processed hair?
Your hair is over-processed when it's been damaged by heat, relaxers, or hair dye.
How can you tell your hair is over-processed?
The tell-tale sign of over-processing is dry, brittle hair. Your hair can also look visibly another texture—for example, curly hair can have straight, damaged ends. You might also have a lot of frizz and wayward cowlicks.
Can you reverse over-processed hair?
Once your hair has been damaged by heat, dye, or a relaxer, you can't undo the damage. However, you can make your hair look and feel better by adding deep-conditioning masks, leave-in conditioners, and hair restoration products. You can also think about heading to the salon for a cut and a professional treatment as well.