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How to Prevent Hair Breakage During and After Your Workouts

Magnify Your Shine

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On any given day, your hair likely gets a quick towel dry, is pulled into and out of a ponytail a few times, and then nestles into your pillow—all typical habits you don't give a second thought. But here's the rub: "These movements create friction," says hair stylist Eva Scrivo, the owner of the Eva Scrivo Salons in New York City. And this repeated daily friction can cause a lot of damage over time (find out how damaged your hair is with this test). "Eventually, your strands fray and ultimately snap," says Martina Spinatsch, a hair scientist at Schwarzkopf hair care. Friction also makes strands feel rough, tangle easily, and form split ends. "I don't think a lot of us realize just how fragile hair really is," Scrivo says. "We should be treating it as gently as a favorite dry-clean-only blouse." To do that, you need to make some simple shifts to your routine.

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How Friction Damage Starts

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Each strand's outer layer, or cuticle, is made up of scales on the surface of the hair and a lipid protection barrier (a fatty layer of molecules) that keeps the scales soft and flat, Spinatsch says. When friction damages that natural shield, it causes the scales to flex upward and can even pull them off, leaving holes in the cuticle. This exposes the cortex—the inner structure of the hair—which is comprised of bundles of a tough protein called keratin (they look like cables with hundreds of wires wound around them). "When these bundles fray, you get split ends," Spinatsch says. And when you tug—to comb or pony up—the weakened hair breaks.

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Be Especially Kind to Wet Strands

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Hair stretches up to 30 percent when it's wet, making it more susceptible to breakage, Scrivo says. Rather than aggressively rubbing it with a towel to dry it, wrap the towel around your head and squeeze out the excess moisture, says Herbal Essences celebrity stylist Charles Baker Strahan. The detangling tool you reach for is also key. "Using the wrong one is like cutting a tomato with a dull knife—it's ineffective and destructive," Scrivo says. Opt for a wide-tooth comb or a brush made for wet hair, which has superflexible bristles. Try the Wet Brush ($9; thewetbrush.com). Slowly work your way through, section by section. "Be particularly conscientious with your ends; they are the oldest part of your hair, so they're most susceptible to damage," Spinatsch says. Then if you want to blow-out your hair, the best brush for the job is a round one with boar bristles like Wigo Large Wood 100% Boar Round Brush ($25; ulta.com). Because these bristles have smooth edges, they put less tension on the hair than plastic versions do, plus they can stand up to heat for much longer (you should invest in a quality hairdryer, too). Plastic brushes need to be replaced every other year.

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Photo: Deycke/Trunk Archive

After Working Out, Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

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Ideally, after sweating through an exercise session, you'll wash—or at least rinse—your hair before you dry it (and you'll follow these other tips). But raise your hand if you skip that step to save time and go straight into blow-drying your sweaty gym hair. It seems genius, until you learn that "the salt in your sweat combined with the heat of the dryer is seriously dehydrating," Scrivo says. Her time-saving solution: Dab the sweat with a towel, then mist your hair with water (fill an empty hair spray bottle or use a facial mist, like Evian Mineral Water Spray, $13, sephora.com) to dilute any remaining sweat. Then blow-dry.

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Rotate Your Go-To Styles

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Strands are more prone to breakage when you put stress on the same section every day. "Tight ponytails and buns strain the hair, especially when you pull your hair into them when it's still wet," Baker Strahan says. "You'll most likely see broken strands around the hairline." If you wear one of these styles daily, mix up its location; try it high one day and low the next (these styles stand up to a tough workout). To prevent breakage from your hair elastic as well, go with a thick version; it provides more cushion and less tension than a thin elastic band would, Scrivo says.

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Let Your Hair Sleep Soundly

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Your trusty cotton pillowcase creates friction on the hair: Strands tend to snag on cotton fibers, which rough up the cuticle. Use a Slip Pure Silk Pillowcase ($79; slipsilkpillowcase.com). Or wrap hair in a silk scarf or pull a silk slip over your pillow, Baker Strahan says. Sleep with your hair up? If you pull out your elastic in the a.m. and strands come with it, then go to bed with a looser bun or a braid to keep hair from being yanked in the night (tighter styles can lead to hair loss).

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