Before we take a look at preventing split ends, let's take a closer look at the hair strand, and why it splits when damaged.
Hair is (usually) made up of three parts. From the inside out they are: the medulla, which gives the hair body and strength; the cortex, which gives the hair strength, texture and color; and the cuticle which is the outer layer of protective scales and gives the hair softness, manageability, strength, smoothness and shine. Some hair types do not have a medulla.
Here is a magnified image of the hair, showing those outer protective scales (cuticle):
microscope image courtesy of Grahame Rosolen
Pretty cool image, right? Be sure to visit Grahame's website for more awesome up close images. He was kind enough to provide permission to me for the use of his image.
Okay, back on topic - see those scales? Those are what we want to protect. They should lie flat, and they point DOWN. When the cuticle is damaged, those scales peel off and expose the rest of the hair shaft. When that happens, you get split, damaged hair.
Hair altering chemicals:
Try to steer clear of chemicals. Natural hair is beautiful. If you absolutely must color your hair, search for the most gentle coloring agent you can find.
For perming, coloring, and other chemical treatments to be successful, they have to penetrate the cuticle to reach the cortex. This weakens the cuticle and this is why chemicals are so damaging to the hair. Naturally, some people's hair can withstand chemicals better than other people's hair.
If you are going to be using chemicals on your hair, be sure to use a good conditioner as part of your hair care routine afterwards, and perhaps a supplemental oil too. Oils like jojoba and coconut oil are fantastic for this. Deep conditioning on a regular basis is a must.
When you are going to be swimming, whether in sea or swimming pool water, first take measures to protect your hair. Such measures could be: using a leave in conditioner, oiling your hair (use jojoba, coconut oil, etc.) or using a swim cap. Swim caps don't have to be ugly either, there are some really cute ones available, see The Swim Cap Guide for more info - isn't that "Flower Petal Swim Cap" crazy?! :) Be sure to rinse your hair as soon as possible after swimming.
"What?" you say. Yes, there can be damaging chemicals in the water you wash your hair with... mainly chlorine. There are filters that will reduce the amount of chlorine in your water, like this Wellness Shower from Natural Solutions. Another thing to watch for in your bathing water, is calcium carbonate, high concentrations of which will make your water "hard." Don't know if you have hard water? If you are in the US you can check this map to see how hard the water in your area is. A water softening system will be most beneficial to your hair (and the rest of you!) if you live in a hard water area.
Brushing, Combing & Styling
Let's first talk about THE most damage you can cause with a comb or brush - BACKCOMBING/BACKBRUSHING! Simply put: don't do it! Backcombing/backbrushing pulls up the scales of your hair, and when you comb/brush that section again, the scales break off. Irreversible damage.
For those of you that don't know what backcombing/backbrushing is, it is when you pull the comb or brush up your hair towards your scalp to create "volume". Also known as "teasing" your hair.
Combs and brushes:
Be very careful not to use combs that have seams. Those seams can virtually shave the protective scales right off your hair. Use a handmade comb like the ones made by Mason Pearson which can be bought from places like Ball Beauty or Kent combs from places like Beauty Works or many other places on the Internet. Please DON'T think that one comb is as good as another, you have to experience the quality of handmade combs to appreciate them. If you can't yet afford a comb like this, file down the seams in a regular comb with the fine side of a nail file and then paint over the filed places with clear nail varnish.
When choosing a brush, avoid brushes that have nylon bristles. Again Mason Pearson and Kent make excellent quality brushes, but the price range is quite high... it's understandable though when you learn how much time (up to 540 hours!) goes into the making of each brush.
I really believe that hair should be combed and not brushed. If you are going to use a brush, buy a 100% natural boar bristle brush. This brush is not for detangling, but rather for distributing your natural and added hair oil, and polishing and smoothing your hair.
Combing and brushing:
Never over brush. 100 brushstrokes is not necessary, and may lead to more splits than anything else.
Never use a brush to detangle your hair.
When combing or brushing, be as gentle as possible. When you encounter a tangle, don't rip the comb/brush through it, stop and detangle with your fingers and then proceed. Newly washed and conditioned wet hair can be combed - just remember that wet hair is more fragile than dry hair, because when wet it is stretched and will not "give" like dry hair will when pulled. My hair type requires that I comb my hair when it is still wet after a wash. There is NO WAY I would be able to detangle my hair if I first let it dry.
Different strokes for different strokes (pun intended!)
Where would the fun of long hair be if it weren't for all the beautiful hair accessories and styles available to us?
There are, however, long hair friendly, and ,long hair UNfriendly hair accessories. For an example, here are some of the various hair bands available today:
The small yellow one is the most hair unfriendly in this group. This little hair band is very thin and has a metal connector. If you use this type of band often, and in the same place in your hair, you will start noticing that your hair is breaking off right where you tie it.
The bigger green one under the yellow one is made of the same material as the yellow, but it is thicker and the join is connected with what appears to be glue, instead of with a metal connector, making it a little less hair unfriendly.. these are sold by Goodie and are their "Ouchless" range.
The little white band is made from what appears to be a type of silicone, and can often be found in a bag of 100's in the African American hair care sections of stores. These little bands are ideal to tie off the ends of braids, you don't have to wind them too tight to get them to stay. Just don't try use these at the base of your ponytail... they like to get tangled up in your hair if used this way.
The small blue band is a terry cloth kind of material, and quite hair friendly. It comes in various thicknesses. These don't last long though, and start unraveling after a few uses, which doesn't look too nice.
The biggest band is a cloth covered piece of sewing elastic, and is deemed to be the most hair friendly of the bunch. These are SOOOO easy to make, but of course you can buy them in pretty much any store that sells any hair care products. Known to many as Scrunchies.
No matter what type of hair band you use, be sure not to fall into the bad habit of taking a section of your ponytail in each hand below the hair band and pulling the two sections apart to tighten the ponytail and move the hair band back up the tail if it has slipped down. Remember those hair scales? When you do what I have just described above, you are sliding the hair band up the hairs and bending back hair scales which should be lying flat. Damage. Often you will see people complaining of breakage right where they tie their hair off in a ponytail - in my opinion, a lot of the damage is the result of doing the above no-no.
Ultraviolet rays can be as damaging to your hair as bleach. The best protection for your hair if you're going to be in the sun a lot, is to wear a hat. What? Don't look at me like that! There are some really nice hats out there these days :) If your hair is super long and/or thick, be sure to get a hat that you will be able to fit all your hair into (preferably in a bun.) Other options are a leave in conditioner, or sunscreen for hair. I have heard of some people making up a mixture of regular sunscreen and conditioner and using it in their hair - hey, whatever works and minimizes hair damage!
When you see shampoo commercials, most times the woman has her hair piled up on top of her head and is vigorously lathering her hair.. then a few seconds later you see her hair dry and beautifully silky and smooth. Ha! After all that hair piling and vigorous rubbing, her hair is going to be super tangled by the time she gets out of the shower! Long hair can not be washed the same way as short hair can. It is best to only wash the scalp hair and leave the length to hang down your back... the length should NOT be piled on top of your head. When you rinse the shampoo out of your hair, the shampoo will run down the length, that is a much washing as the ends of your hair need. Conditioner should then be applied from the ears down and left to soak for a while before rinsing out. Hot water should never be used in the washing and rinsing of your hair, it will strip away moisture. Instead, wash and rinse your hair with the coolest water you can stand. Do some research on the ingredients in shampoos - what you find out will surprise you! Personally, I think the more natural a shampoo is, the better. Silicones in conditioners are a hotly debated topic - some love them, some hate them. Silicones (look for any ingredient ending with "cone") coat your hair, and this is what makes your hair so shiny and slippery. Coat after coat of silicones could eventually lead up to your hair cuticle being sealed - effectively sealing out moisture your hair so badly needs. If you love silicones and can't live without them, make sure you use a clarifying shampoo every now and then to remove buildup. Another option is to add about a tablespoon of baking soda to your shampoo - this will remove any buildup, but should be followed with a deep conditioning session.
See above under Chemicals: Showering/Bathing Water for more info about why the water you wash you hair with can be damaging.
After reading everything above, and looking at that hair strand image, I'm sure you can easily see why vigorously rubbing your hair dry with a towel is not a good idea. Dripping wet hair should be gently squeezed with a towel to get rid of the excess water. Once the excess water is removed, it is best to let your hair air dry naturally. Remember to NEVER brush wet hair, it is more fragile when wet. This is because hair is has elastic tendencies, and when hair is wet, the weight of the water stretches it somewhat, then if you handle your wet hair roughly it doesn't have as much room to "give" before snapping.
Hair dryers are another hotly debated topic. As with anything though, the manner in which you use them is important! If you are using a dryer everyday, your hair will start to show some damage - the hot air from dryers removes moisture from your hair. Using too hot of a setting will also cause damage, or holding the dryer too close to your hair. I have heard of Ionic hair dryers, but haven't used one myself. They are definitely worth checking into though if you use a dryer on a regular basis.
Love your hair, treat it like a garment made of silk, and it will love you right back.