Thermal Damage From Heat Styling: What You Need to Know
11 / 01 / 18

Thermal Damage From Heat Styling: What You Need to Know

Most of us can’t live without using some form of heat on our hair, whether it’s a blow drier, flat-iron, or curling iron, but unfortunately these heat styling tools can cause, among others, a condition that dermatologists call bubble hair. A sign of thermal injury, bubble hair is the result of bubbles formed within the hair shaft when water in the hair is heated and turns into steam. Clinically, hair appears to be kinked, break off, and the condition may develop into localized alopecia over time.

thermal heat damage

What is Bubble Hair?

Bubble hair is a condition that emerges from excessive heat application on damp or wet hair. Hair dryers operating at 175°C+ or hair curling tongs/flat iron operating at 125°C and applied to hair for one minute can also induce bubbles in hair fiber.

bubble hair

The localized application of heat on one area of hair vaporizes water inside the hair fiber, boiling into steam. The steam produced is trapped underneath the cuticles within the cortex and cuticle membrane complex. This vaporization of water forces spaces in the hair to expand while the heat also destroys the protein characteristics, leaving damaged hairs weak and brittle as the bubbles destroy the integrity of the fiber.

damaged hair

The proteins, which usually exist as a helical conformation, open up. (This helical conformation is what gives the fibrous protein in hair its strength.) Opening the proteins weakens the core structure of hair, eventually turning the hair into a sponge-like structure. Follicles lose cuticles leaving hair unprotected.

What Can Happen as a Result of Bubble Hair?

bubble hair results

bubble hair up close

  • Hair appears to "come out in clumps," and the overall texture of the hair changes from soft and naturally curly to straight and stiff or brittle hair, with frizzy ends. The ends (usually the most damaged areas) will feel like straw.
  • The stress of combing hair (grooming) causes breakage because of the weakened internal and external damage on hair.
  • Lipids and smaller proteins in the cell membrane complex are lost during heat styling which also weakens the hair, and can cause the hair to feel drier and less pliable.
  • Thermally damaged hair does not fully regain the moisture lost during heat styling and also does not retain moisture properly, so hair appears drier/coarser over time. 

Can Thermal Damage be Prevented?

Damage from bubble hair is irreversible, so the most obvious way to prevent this thermal damage is to stop heat application to hair. However, this is impossible for most of us, heat styling can be an essential part of our day-to-day. So it is crucial to utilize all precautionary measures to keep this condition to a minimum.

How to reduce the risk of bubble hair:

  • Do not heat style everyday- reduce the frequency.
  • Do not heat style wet hair. Damp to dry is good enough, and will produce less steaming.
  • Use good quality hair styling tools. Some of the cheap hair styling tools do not distribute heat uniformly causing excessive localized heating and burning of hair.
  • Do not automatically set your appliances to maximum setting. Determine if lower settings can also do the job properly. Lower heat = less steaming. Also, it is better to use the lowest temperature settings on hair dryers, and use heat as little as necessary and for the shortest time possible.
  • Add a shielding layer by pretreating hair with select heat protecting sprays or styling creams before utilizing any heat. These products are sprayed or applied directly onto hair and contain protecting polymers and silicones that offer many other advantages. Hair is insulated from heat while preserving the surface and cortex resulting in decreased hair breakage during combing. It also improves moisture restoration and water retention of thermally treated hair, mitigating the damaging heat effects. It is obviously impossible to avoid all damage but conditioning the hair properly, caring for the split ends, using good shower practice etc. can all add on to preserving the hair integrity longer.

What if My Hair is Already Thermally Damaged?

Bubble hair is a condition that many people could suffer from without realizing it. While not a disease or an impairment of any sort, it is, however, a severe hair problem.

For hair already damaged by heat, regularly moisturizing hair can help reduce the appearance of heat damage, but it cannot repair the hair. To increase the progression of health and appearance cut any damaged hair, and allow healthy hair to regrow. Our practice offers vitamin and protein supplements as well as laser therapy. 

Contact HT&RC today to schedule a consultation!