We know that proper skincare protocol says to leave your breakouts alone (i.e., no picking, prodding, poking, or touching), but does the same ring true when it comes to hair? After all, between coloring, bleaching, and heat styling, our strands can be considered just as fragile as our skin. Anyone dealing with split ends knows that the quest to repairing them—or really, sealing them and preventing them, as there’s no real solution aside from cutting ‘em off—can often feel unattainable at times. But if there’s one thing you can do to alleviate the all too common haircare woe, it’s to stop picking at them. But why? And how?
To answer these questions and more, we called on celebrity hairstylist Lee Stafford for some insight as to why split ends form in the first place, the negative effects of picking them, and how to care for hair to make it appear healthier than it is, without resorting to a dramatic haircut.
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What are split ends?
Split ends refer to the fraying of the hair shaft, which typically happens from the bottom up. They’re easy to spot, but according to Stafford, they can vary in type. There are three main types of split ends: the basic double split, the fork, and the tree. The basic double split is the most common type of split end and appears in the shape of a “Y.” Across the various types of split ends, the basic one signifies the preliminary stages of damage. Then there’s the fork split end, which is a sign of more serious damage—you’ll know you have it if a single hair splits into three parts. Lastly, when a regular split end escalates, it will resemble the branches of a tree, which is aptly called a tree split end. You’re more susceptible to split ends if you have long hair, as the longer the hair grows (often with greater time gaps between trims), the older and more damaged the ends can get.
What causes split ends?
The basic double split is caused by friction (i.e., rough brushing) or strenuous hairstyles (think: a tight topknot). Split ends that resemble a three-pronged fork typically show up as a result of dehydration and lack of nourishment. Finally, the tree split end is what happens when you have one of the other types of split ends but fail to give it the attention it needs. Clearly, there are a number of possible reasons why hair splits and what habits might exacerbate the process. For many, heat damage from using a hair dryer, curling iron, or straightener is to blame. Stafford says that adding heat-styling tools to the mix strips your ends of moisture and over time, the hair becomes more porous, which then leads to damage and split ends. You don’t need to halt all heat styling (let’s be realistic), but Stafford recommends always using a low heat setting on your tools, ideally nothing over 350 degrees, as well as applying a heat protectant before styling. For a lightweight formula that won’t interfere with your styling, try Chi’s 44 Iron Guard Thermal Protection Spray.
Then there are the damage-inducing treatments. “The use of chemical dyes, bleaching agents, hair relaxants, and perming solutions [which are all damaging to the hair] lead to split ends over time,” explains Stafford. Not only that, he says that while hair coloring weakens the hair, it’s how you treat your hand after that process that’ll determine the overall health of your hair. After a treatment, the hair is drier, more fragile, and in need of moisture, so you should immediately follow up with a moisturizing and protective treatment, and continue to use it at least once a week at home to prevent split ends. The Amika Soulfood Nourishing Hair Mask is a top-rated pick for hair that’s weak, dry, and damaged, as it contains sea buckthorn berry, which is touted for its ability to deeply hydrate, protect, and nourish strands.
Why you shouldn’t pick split ends
Just like prodding at your breakouts can introduce more bacteria, irritation, and redness, picking at your split ends can lead to breakage, thinness, and fine, brittle-looking strands. Here’s how Stafford explains it: “When you rip the split end, you damage further up the shaft which, in time, can weaken your hair. If your hair is weak, you are prone to breakage again and it’s a vicious cycle.” Bottom line: Healthy hair requires a strong hair strand. If you’re halving your hair strand by pulling apart the two ends and peeling upward (or plucking the ends off when you notice a translucent strand indicating a split end), you’re weakening it.
While picking at your split ends won’t affect hair growth (which happens at the roots), it can make it appear as though your hair is shorter or wispier at the ends than the top. Essentially, split ends can worsen faster than the scalp can grow new length. This leads to hair becoming shorter and uneven or making it seem like your hair never seems to grow past a certain length.
How to get rid of split ends
Once your hair is split, the only way to prevent further damage is to trim it off. Sure, products exist that claim to “bond” split ends back together, but Stafford says this only helps by making the split ends appear healthier by dousing it with moisture. For this, you can try the Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector—it’s formulated to address the concerns that damaged hair faces (namely, compromised texture and structure, breakage, and frayed ends). Though it’s pricey, it’s popular with over 2,000 reviewers giving it a 5-star rating, raving at how much better their hair looks from using the product regularly.
For those of you growing your hair out, take note: The longer you put off the trim, the more it can hinder that additional lush length you crave, as the split end will naturally feather upward, says Stafford. If a big chop terrifies you, he suggests asking for a “hair dusting,” which is a technique that removes split ends without sacrificing much length.
If you’re prone to split ends, Stafford recommends deep conditioning in between hair appointments or about every one to two weeks. Try Eva Nyc’s Therapy Session Hair Mask, which is formulated with conditioning argan oil and anti-breakage plant protein for smooth, hydrated hair.
How to prevent split ends
As you might expect, you should limit heat-styling tools and damaging treatments. A less-obvious culprit: frequently wearing your hair pulled back. Pulling locks into a ponytail everyday can cause breakage even further up the hair shaft. When you must tie it back, instead of using an elastic that tugs on the hair, try a spiral hair band, like the Invisibobble, or a silk scrunchie, like the Slip Silk Skinnies Scrunchie Set, either of which hold the hair without as much stress to the strands. If you often wear your hair in braids, bear in mind that wearing the style too often (as in, five to seven days a week) could cause breakage, which can then lead to split ends as well.