The bad news: Pollution can take a major toll on your tresses. The good news: There are easy ways to protect your hair and undo the damage.
Thanks to new research, it's becoming widely understood that pollution can do major damage to your skin, but most people don't realize that the same also goes for your scalp and hair. "The skin and hair are the first things exposed to pollution, but skin often has the advantage of being protected by lotions, creams, or other treatments," explains Susanna Romano, partner and stylist at Salon AKS in New York City.
Particulate matter (minuscule bits of soot, dust, and other grime), smoke, and gaseous pollutants can all settle on both the hair and scalp, causing irritation and damage, she adds. That can manifest in any number of ways, ranging from dryness to breakage to an itchy scalp. And while city-dwellers who live in highly-polluted areas are obviously at higher risk, your hair is susceptible to the damaging aggressors anytime you're outdoors, whether it's during your commute or an outdoor workout. Luckily, there are easy things you can do to protect your hair.
1. Try Anti-Pollution Hair Care
As is the case with skin care, hair companies are now creating anti-pollution products that help remove and repel all those nasty pollutants more effectively. While the exact ingredients used for this purpose vary, antioxidant-rich botanicals are common. Both the new Kérastase Specifique Masque Hydra-Apiasant ($65; kerastase-usa.com) and the Shu Uemura Urban Moisture Hydro-Nourishing Shampoo ($48; shuuemuraartofhair-usa.com) contain moringa, a purifying extract that removes pollutants and counteracts free radical damage caused by pollution. The Nexxus City Shield Conditioner ($18; nexxus.com) uses Indian Lotus Flower (known for its ability to resist dust and humidity) in a phyto-protein complex that creates a barrier on the hair, locking out both city grime and, bonus, frizz-inducing humidity.
2. Choose Stylers Wisely
"Heavy products like mousses, gels, and thickening creams can actually attract more pollution particles to the hair," cautions Romano. If you live in a highly-polluted area, consider ditching these from your routine and swapping them for one, lightweight multi-tasking product. One to try: Living Proof Restore Perfecting Spray ($28; sephora.com), which smooths, strengthens, and enhances shine.
3. Minimize How Often You Shampoo
It may sound counterintuitive (after all, washing is the best way to get rid of dirt, right?), but over-sudsing can do more harm than good. Exposure to pollution (and UV rays, too) dries out the hair, and excessive shampooing can only exacerbate the situation. Go as long as you can in between washes, ideally shampooing no more frequently than every other day. But if you're the kind of girl who HAS to wash her hair every day (trust us, we get it), lather up just at the roots, since the ends tend to be the driest and most damaged to begin with, advises Romano. You can also dilute your shampoo with water, or, even better, hydrating coconut water, she adds; this instantly makes it gentler and less stripping.
4. Be Careful When Brushing and Styling
If it seems like all of a sudden there's way more hair stuck in your brush, pollution may be to blame: "Smoky, polluted air weakens the lengths of the hair, making it brittle and more susceptible to breakage and split ends," points out Romano. The bottom line: Be extra gentle when styling. Always start combing from the bottom of your hair, up (and be sure to avoid these other hair brushing mistakes). Damaging heat from your blow-dryer or flat iron also aren't going to do your strands any favors. Romano suggests using the nozzle attachment on your dryer to help minimize heat exposure, and keeping irons and curlers no higher than 360 degrees (if you have fine hair) or 410 degrees (if you have thick hair).
5. Add Back Hydration
When in doubt, hydrate—it's a good rule for your health and your hair. Pollution and other environmental aggressors dry out your strands, and a moisturizing mask is the best way to counteract this, fast. (Romano recommends that anyone who lives in a city use one at least weekly.) Choose a moisturizing or reparative formula; jojoba oil is one good ingredient to look for, as it both moisturizes and strengthens the hair's natural hydro-lipid layer, which coats the hair to help keep it hydrated. Find it in: Phyto Phytojoba Intense Hydrating Brilliance Mask ($45; sephora.com). To maximize the results, wrap your hair in a towel that's been dipped in hot water (and wrung out) after applying the mask. This essentially acts as a steam treatment, helping to open the hair cuticle so that all the beneficial ingredients in the mask can better penetrate, explains Romano.