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Gorgeous, healthy long hair is a gift, and if you’re lucky enough to have it effortlessly, congratulations—you’re one of the rare ones.
Long hair, for all its charms, is a maintenance nightmare for many women, and while it’s easier to be successful with the right tools and enough extra time for caretaking, the truth is that long hair requires an investment of time on your part.
How you take care of your long hair will depend on a variety of factors, but one thing we can tell you with certainty is that you have to understand the hair on your head to keep it there.
Regardless of your hair type, long hair may have some additional needs. Whether your hair is down to your hips or you're rocking a cool shaved look, everyone’s hair has some commonalities.
For instance, we know that the average person has approximately 100,000 hairs on their head. We also know that the average person drops dozens of them a day just in the normal function of their scalp.
There are three phases to the hair growth cycle, and these include the anagen phase, the catagen phase and the telogen phase.
Your hair follicles grow in anagen, they begin to slow down and prepare for the end like leaves in the fall in catagen and in the telogen phase, they fall out — at which point, the follicle goes to rest before the cycle begins again from the top.
So, what makes long hair different from shorter hair? Well, truth be told, not very much.
The only difference between hip-length hair and short hairs barely peeking out of your scalp is, literally, the length.
A three-foot-long strand of hair is essentially the same at its base as a strand—it’s what happens toward the tip of the hair over time that makes them different.
Time is important because, as your hair is exposed to the elements, wear and tear happens for the most important part of your hair’s follicle: the cuticle.
The cuticle is the armor-like outer layer of your hair shaft, and like the scales on a snake, it’s plated to protect the inner, fragile parts of your hair fiber.
Longer hair is only different insofar as there’s more cuticle, and the cuticle has been exposed to the elements for much longer at the end than near your scalp.
The result of this is weathering: sun exposure and other sources of damage have had more time to break away those armor-like scales of the cuticle, exposing your follicles to breaks and splits.
Research has proven this—when looked at under a microscope, experts have seen that the damage is more apparent at the oldest part of the shaft and less apparent closer to the root where the newest growth is.
It doesn’t matter in this particular case whether your hair is straight, curly, thin or thick. Cuticle damage is just a result of time and length.
What does this all mean for your hair care? If anything, it should be comforting to know that everyone faces the same hurdles in having long hair.
It also means that long hair is a long game—you need to be dedicated to the care of your hair from day one.
What that care looks like is a mixture of preventative measures and maintenance to protect the cuticle in the immediate, short and long terms.
Sure, the ends of your follicles may have seen better days, but think about it this way: every morning, you’re given a new chance to take better care of new growth.
Since your hair grows every day, you can prevent hair damage to your hair and strengthen it with the following hair care tips:
Let’s start with the easiest piece of advice we can give you, which is to do less.
Washing your hair frequently keeps it clean at the expense of washing away those natural oils your hair produces to protect the cuticle from getting damaged.
The American Academy of Dermatology advises just washing your scalp when you do wash your hair, and letting the soapy water run down the length of your hair to cleanse it, protecting the strands from additional damage.
Aside from investing in a quality shampoo, one of the most important things you can do to prevent dry hair is using a solid conditioner.
Those oils you washed away can be replenished with the right products, and the best place to start is with a good conditioner.
A good conditioner will moisturize and replenish, leaving your hair in much better shape than just shampooing alone.
Once you’re out of the bath or shower, take a step back on the towel aggression.
Like too-tight hair bands, aggressive towel drying causes friction, rubbing your hair’s cuticles against one another.
This can lead to damage and can eventually cause issues like splitting.
Air drying is the best option, but if you must use a towel or hair wrap, squeeze your hair, rather than scrub or buff.
Chemical and heat styling, burning devices, stretching tools—any styling products that push your hair to its literal breaking point can, well, cause hair breakage.
Turning curly hair into straight hair with a blow dryer or flattening iron only causes damage, and that goes double for chemical straighteners.
Styles like tight ponytails can damage healthy hair over time.
Keep the products to a minimum when you can, and prioritize moisturizing and protection over styling.
When you style, straighten or otherwise manipulate your hair type with heat, you’re causing major damage that can’t be easily reversed with a moisturizer.
We know there are some times when it’s unavoidable, but avoid it when you can.
If you’re seeing big-picture hair issues like thinning, loss or patchy baldness, you may want to look into professional support.
Other products like vitamins may also be beneficial depending on your individual hair needs.
Sticking to a hair care regimen can be difficult for anyone. That level of commitment only increases with hair length.
Things like restricting your use of heating tools, looking into proper shampoos and conditioners, taking care when drying it and not over-washing it are all great places to start if you’re looking to keep your long luscious locks intact.
Regardless of how long and lush you want your mane to be, there’s one central, essential trick you can use to protect it for the long term, and that’s to talk to a healthcare professional.
We know cosmetology is the domain of hair care, but in the bigger picture, your hair is part of your body, and if you’re struggling with fragile follicles and damage, it may be the sign of some bigger issues.
If the above tips don’t seem to be healthy, a healthcare professional can speak to what may be causing your damage and can answer questions about hair loss and other issues you might be encountering.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
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