How to Detangle Hair, No Matter How Knotted It Becomes

Find out how to detangle stubborn knots without losing more hair in the process.

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When wash day rolls around, you might look forward to trying out a new hair mask or treatment to take your locks up a notch. But a not-so-thrilling prerequisite task? Detangling your hair before applying any of these products. Whether your strands are stick straight or super coily, you don't want to skip this detangling step — even if it seems tedious. To help you learn how to detangle hair, a few pros were called in to guide you through the process (including how to detangle matted hair).

Why It's Important to Learn How to Detangle Your Hair

When it comes to detangling your hair, it pays to be proactive. The longer you go without properly detangling your hair, the more you risk knotting or even matting (which is essentially extreme knotting that's especially difficult to untangle) that can lead to extreme breakage, says Jesseca Dupart, licensed cosmetologist and founder of Kaleidoscope Hair Products.

It's a slippery slope. Detangling your hair regularly helps prevent strands from becoming entangled with other strands, especially those that have already detached from your scalp but haven't completely fallen off your head, says Mahisha Dellinger, CEO and founder of hair brandCurls. "When hair is not properly detangled, it could lead to weaknesses along the hair shaft, which ultimately lead to breakage," she says.

"Additionally, damaged hair is likely to cause more tangles due to the inconsistencies along the damaged cuticle layer, the outer protective layer of the hair," says Dellinger. "Such inconsistencies contribute to decreased smoothness and increased nicks and ridges along the hair shaft strands, thus allowing more opportunities for damaged strands to latch onto one another, forming tangles and/or knots." (

In short, if retaining your hair length (or just general hair health) is one of your goals, Dellinger recommends committing to detangling your hair at least once a week to start. Some hair types will benefit from more or less frequent detangling

That said, some hair types will benefit from more or less frequent detangling — something you can figure out by paying attention to how often you feel your strands get knotted, she adds. Detangling your hair once per week is often the sweet spot for people with curly or coily hair types, while those with straighter hair may benefit from more frequent brushing.

The Best Way to Detangle Your Hair

Now that you understand why detangling your hair is a must, onto how to do just that. Dellinger and Dupart both stress the importance of taking your time when detangling to limit unnecessary breakage. The fastest way to detangle hair isn't necessarily the best way to detangle hair.

As far as tools are concerned, both experts agree that your fingers should be your first line of defense when it comes to getting rid of knots and tangles. Then, once you find that you're able to run your fingers through your hair without catching any knots, you can call upon a comb or brush. When choosing a comb or brush, you want to opt for something that has some "give," aka flexibility, so it doesn't force its way through tangles, says Dellinger. (The flexible bristles will yield to super-tight knots rather than forcing their way through them.)

Contrary to what you may have been taught when you were younger, whether you go with a brush or a comb is strictly a matter of preference. Still, youdo want to opt for a tool that has wide teeth and allows you to maintain a sturdy, comfortable grip, says Dupart. Pattern Beauty Wide Tooth Comb (Buy It, $15, sephora.com) or Heat Free Curls DualSide High Definition Curlbrush (Buy It, $25, heatfreehair.com) fit the bill. (

Wet Vs. Dry Detangling

Your hair is in a vulnerable state when it's wet since its outermost layer swells up, which, in turn, temporarily weakens the structure, but that's the best time for detangling, according to both pros. Applying conditioner to wet hair adds "slip" to the hair, which prevents unnecessary tugging on the shaft of the hair you may experience when detangling dry hair, says Dupart. And so she suggests using a regular or leave-in conditioner, such as Kaleidoscope Therapeutic Growth Conditioner (Buy It, $12, target.com), before detangling.

While Dupart advises against detangling dry hair entirely, Dellinger gives it the green light as long as you coat your hair in oil — such as Curls Hair Under There Soothe & Cool Me Scalp Potion (Buy It, $10, walmart.com) — before getting to work. That being said, people with straighter hair may not find they need to apply oil before detangling since their strands have less of a tendency to tangle (and as such, any knots might not be as tight and difficult to undo as those with curlier hair), but everyone should apply conditioner when they're opting to detangle wet, says Dellinger. (

How to Detangle Hair

ICYMI above, you can adjust your frequency and technique based on how prone your hair is to tangling. In general, however, everyone can benefit from detangling their hair while it's wet and freshly coated with conditioner. Just be sure not to rush through the process, as doing so can be painful and cause unnecessary breakage. Got that? Good. Now, here's how Dellinger and Dupart recommend detangling hair:

  1. Wet hair and apply conditioner, ensuring your strands are thoroughly and evenly coated from root to tip.
  2. Gently rake your fingers through your hair as if they were the teeth of a comb. Begin at the ends and work your way up toward the scalp rather than trying to untangle each section by immediately running fingers from the root to tip of your strands.
  3. Once your fingers have detangled as much as knottage possible, move a wide-tooth comb or brush through your hair, beginning at the ends and working your way up. Avoid using a fine-tooth comb, as it can snag on tangles (and, thus, contribute to even more breakage).

How to Detangle Severely Matted Hair

If you haven't kept up with detangling and your hair's at the point of matting, all hope is not lost — you'll just need to learn how to properly detangle matted hair, in particular. While any hair type and style can fall victim to matting, protective hairstyles are the most common culprit, according to Dupart, who's experienced the results of keeping a style in too long firsthand. That's why when trying out a new protective style, it's important you take the time to understand the maintenance of that style, especially how long you can keep it in.

If you've already reached the point of no return, though, put down the scissors, take a deep breath, and follow these steps.

  1. Before washing, spray your hair with water, then apply an oil or conditioner of your choosing to help loosen up the knots. Let the product sit for about 30 minutes.
  2. Separate your hair into sections (Dellinger recommends creating about 10) and start slowly finger-combing hair, detangling ends and working upward. If your hair is extremely matted and your fingers won't do the job, try using the small end of a rat or pin tail comb to "unlock" the knots, says Dupart.
  3. Once you've made as much progress as possible with your fingers, use a brush or comb to go back over the sections to give the hair another round of detangling.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 until you've entirely loosened up the tangles, then go ahead and wash your hair.

Detangling your locks may not be the most glamorous part of hair maintenance, but it's necessary to stop breakage, retain hair length, and promote overall healthy hair. Making it part of your regular routine will pay off in the long run, trust.

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