These expert-backed tips will help you steer clear of unwitting harm to your tresses.
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When considering top hair damage culprits, dye, hot tools, or chemical straighteners might come to mind first. And it's true: Those processes and tools tend to cause abrasion and damage the hair cuticle, acknowledges Elaine F. Kung, MD, clinical assistant professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City and founder of Future Bright Dermatology

But even if you're not running to the salon for chemical-laden treatments each month or attempting beach waves with a scorching iron on the daily, your tresses are still vulnerable. That's because the part of hair that's actually visible is a dead fiber, which naturally degrades with time, says Michelle Blaisure, a certified trichologist (hair and scalp specialist) for Bosley Professional Strength hair care. And technically, hair fibers can't be rebuilt after they've left the follicle. (Related: The 2021 Shape Beauty Awards: Best Hair Products)

For that reason, your mane not only requires protection from hot tools and treatments, but regular nurturing to keep it silky and healthy, too. And according to the experts we interviewed, there are a trove of ways you're unknowingly harming your hair on a daily basis — all of which can be avoided entirely.

Here, 9 ways experts say you're likely harming your hair without even knowing it and alternative moves to help you steer clear of damage.

1. Pulling Hair Back with a Hair Tie — Especially When Hair is Wet

When you're in a hurry, it's tempting to throw tresses up into a messy bun with a hair elastic. But this is actually one of the speediest ways to hurt your hair, says Alli Miller, color educator for Aveda and Master Colorist at Gila Rut Salon in San Diego, California.

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That's because elastics — any stretchy black hair tie, especially the ones with a metal piece — cause excessive tension, which can be especially harmful if you haven't dried your hair, says Miller. "When the hair is wet, it becomes more elastic, and therefore, more fragile when stretched out, so putting additional tension can cause breakage more easily," she notes.

The easiest fix: Opt for a soft scrunchie or Invisibobble hair tie, which doesn't create the same damaging tension but will offer great hold, she explains.

2. Raking a Brush Through Your Hair (with Reckless Abandon)

Even if you use a leave-in conditioner, your towel-dried hair is bound to require a bit of brushing before you get to drying and styling. But overly aggressive brushing — especially incorrectly — can cause traction damage (meaning you'll lose strands as a result of pulling too hard), says Miller. 

Instead, Miller suggests prepping your hair with a leave-in conditioner then using a wide tooth comb to detangle ends first. Then, move upward with your brushing. "Because starting from root to end can cause the tangles to lock, rather than detangle, hair should always be brushed from ends to roots," explains Miller, who adds that this is actually also the best tactic for detangling dry hair as well.

She offers a related pro-tip: "If you detangle with a paddle brush, hold the brush vertically to detangle versus horizontally." 

3. Neglecting Heat Protectant and Opting for the Highest Temps

Hair dryers and hot styling tools are often blamed for hair damage, but if you reach for heat protectant, you can keep your mane happier. Most people will crank their curling iron or straightener to the highest temperature without testing it on their hair first, points out Miller. Instead, you'll do best to do your hair at the lowest temperature that still allows you to create the style you're going for. 

And be sure you have heat protectant in your product arsenal, which will create a barrier around the cuticle, so the product takes the heat and not your hair. Most heat protectants block heat up to 450 degrees, explains Miller.

4. Washing Hair with Hard Water

If you live in an area where the water you're bathing with is hard — or high in dissolved minerals, like calcium and magnesium — it becomes harder for the water to bind to shampoos and conditioners, which makes them less effective at penetrating your tresses. (You might notice this immediately if your shampoo doesn't lather well.) And, over time, that moisture blockage can result in brittle, dull ends, explains Anna Manessiotis, colorist at Bomane Salon in Beverly Hills, California.

The best way to tackle this issue: Install a shower filter (Manessiotis likes Raindrops).

5. Sleeping on a Cotton Pillowcase

Cotton may be cozy, but it's not the best material for a pillowcase if you're trying to keep your tresses healthy, points out Miller.  

"[Cotton is] actually a rough, textured fabric and has the ability to absorb the hair's natural oils that help take care of the scalp and roots," she notes. "This leaves your hair dry and can cause tangles when you move around in your sleep." 

Both put your hair at greater risk of damage, so opt for a satin or silk pillowcase instead. (Related: The 7 Best Silk Pillowcases for Your Skin and Hair)

6. Not Shielding Your Hair From the Sun

A lot of folks don't realize how much the sun — UVA and UVB rays specifically — can dry out their hair, points out Manessiotis. 

The reason: Unprotected exposure to sunlight damages the outside of the hair strand, called the cuticle, which can lead to dehydration, brittleness, and even split ends, explains Miller. Thankfully, you can guard against this by using hair products that include sunscreen as a key ingredient.

7. Using Protein Treatments When You Don't Need Them

Several hair care products claim their inclusion of protein helps to fortify and strengthen damaged hair, but healthy hair doesn't actually need it, says Miller. What's more, it can overload your strands and lead to dullness, dryness, and breakage. 

"Protein in hair is like a max-capacity scale," she explains. "If I throw 20 pounds on a scale with the max capacity of 10 pounds, what will happen? Scale breaks since it wasn't built to support that. Same with hair." (What this means: Most of us probably don't need all that much protein in our hair products.)

If you're suffering from existing damage — perhaps from going blonde from dark brown — talking to your colorist about using a protein treatment might be called for. But stop using when your hair looks healthy, says Miller.

8. Avoiding Your Hair Cut as Long as Possible

You might think that postponing a chop will result in longer locks, but ultimately, more frequent trims are the key to maintaining length, says Miller.

"In delaying your cut, you actually are allowing your split ends to travel up the hair strand," she points out. "This leads to needing to lose more length when you actually come in." 

Trims should happen every six to 12 weeks, depending on your length and the amount of damage hair is put through, notes Miller. If you're not sure if it's time to book an appointment, just check for split ends, which will be visibly dull, dry, and, well, split.

9. Ignoring Your Scalp Health

While it's tempting to spend a lot of money, time, and energy treating tresses themselves, Miller emphasizes that scalp health is often overlooked. "Product buildup on the scalp can clog hair follicles and cause hair loss," she notes. 

Keep your scalp healthy — and, in turn, hair growth healthy — by shampooing it on the regular. You might also reach for a clarifying shampoo a few times a month. And don't forget to moisturize, Miller adds, suggesting the use of a serum or scalp treatment, which can nourish the scalp by balancing natural oils called sebum. (Related: Scalp Sunscreen Is a Sun Protection Step You Don't Wanna Skip)