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Is Salt Water Bad For Your Hair? Here's Everything You Need to Know

Summer is so close we can practically taste it.

Within a few short weeks, our days will be filled with picnics, windows-down car rides, and trips to the beach (or at least dreams of such). While thinking of the latter, your first instinct might be to check your sunscreen collection. As important as skin protection is, we implore you to consider your tresses, too. In addition to UV protection for hair, you’ll also want to be mindful of how you prep and treat your strands pre- and post-saltwater swim. After all, there’s a reason why so many people Google whether or not salt water is bad for your hair.

Ahead, learn the side effects of salt water on strands, plus how to protect your tresses so you can just keep swimming.

Is Salt Water Bad for Your Hair?

As refreshing as a dip in the ocean can feel, improper pre- and post-swim care can lead to some pretty undesirable hair effects.

“Salt water can dehydrate the hair and scalp, resulting in brittle and dry hair,” says celebrity hairstylist Andrew Fitzsimons. “This can lead to further issues like damaged strands, as the salt water will make the hair cuticle vulnerable to damage.”

But that’s not all. Salt water can affect hair color, too. “Submerging your hair in natural salt water can weaken the hair structure and strip artificial color from your hair,” warns Davines Educator Emily Claire, who is a stylist at Rob Peetoom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “As someone who colors their hair, in general, I choose to avoid salt water and chlorine exposure.” It can also degrade other chemical processes, like a keratin treatment.

Can’t imagine a summer without salt water? You’re not alone—and you don’t have to. While salt water can unfortunately wreak havoc on hair, trichologist Helen Reavey, who is the founder of Act+Acre, points out that it’s all about the duration of exposure.

“Salt water can be damaging to the hair if it’s exposed too often or for too long,” she says. “As the name suggests, salt water has an extremely high concentration of salt, which can strip the hair of its natural oils leaving it dry, brittle, and prone to damage. Additionally, salt water causes the hair follicle to lift making it more susceptible to damage from sun exposure and other environmental factors.” That said, if your ocean swims are infrequent overall—and if they’re coordinated with a protective haircare routine, you’ll be A-okay. (More on that in a bit.)

Salt Water and Hair Loss

Before giving you the rundown on how to protect hair against salt water damage, allow us to address another common concern: hair loss as it relates to salt water exposure.

“Salt water contributes to hair loss due to breakage, but not hair fall at the root,” says trichologist Angela Onuoha, a brand ambassador for Divi Scalp & Hair Health. “However, salt water can cause a dry and irritated scalp, which does not create a positive microbiome for hair growth.”

Additionally, celebrity hairstylist and co-founder of The Beachwaver Co., Sarah Potempa, says that constant salt water exposure can lead to the look of fallout. “Salt water shouldn’t cause hair loss when exposed in moderation,” she says. “However, regular exposure to salt water can dry the strands out, making them more prone to breakage. As hair breaks, it can tend to look thin, especially towards the ends.”

How to Protect Hair From Salt Water

The easiest way to protect your hair from salt-water damage is to rinse off before and after your dip.

“If you can, I recommend quickly rinsing your hair before getting in the ocean—by saturating your hair with clean water, it can absorb less salt water, minimizing the drying effects,” Reavey says, noting that rinsing post-swim can help rid strands of salt water and replace it with moisture barrier-supporting ingredients, depending on your chosen hair-care products. (We’ll touch on that in a bit.)

Another way to protect strands against salt water damage? Treat your hair—wet or dry—with leave-in conditioner before taking a dip.

“For an effective shield against salt water, I highly recommend the Andrew Fitzsimons Virgin Repair 10-in-1 Leave-In Conditioner ($16),” Fitzsimons says. “This product is designed to maintain the moisture in your locks, making it an ideal choice before any saltwater adventure.” (Other popular options? The Act+Acre 2% Squalene Anti-Frizz Leave-In Conditioner, $48, R+Co Candy Stripe Protect + Prep Detangling Spray, $34, and amika Hydro Rush Intense Moisture Leave-In Conditioner with Hyaluronic Acid, $29).

BosleyMD trichologist Gretchen Friese suggests doubling up on these two methods for the best saltwater strand protection. “Hair acts like a sponge—if the sponge is full of something, there isn’t room left to absorb much else,” she says. “So if you can fill the strands with regular water (and even some leave-in conditioner) before getting in the salt water, there won’t be much room for the salt water absorption.”

Meanwhile, if you’re swimming for sport, plan to be in the water for a long time, or don’t mind not letting your strands hang loose, Reavey suggests wearing a swim cap. “If you'll be spending a lot of time in salt water, consider wearing a swim cap to shield your hair from direct contact,” she says.

The Best Cleansing Routine Post-Salt Water

In reality, if you’re at the beach, there’s a very good chance that you won’t have access to a shower with hair-care products (or you’ll have too much on your summer bucket list to want to pop back home or into your hotel room to immediately shower off post-swim). With that in mind, be sure to bring a bottle of leave-in conditioner (and a detangling hair brush, like the UNbrush Detangler Hair Brush, $18) in your beach bag.

“I tell my clients to apply a leave-in conditioner, like the Divi 3-in-3 Leave-In, before and after swimming to nourish and protect the hair and to help keep its softness,” Onuoha says. “Also, because salt water is drying, hair tends to be left tangled, which can cause damage, so a leave-in with detangler is a must.”

Then, once you’re back home (ideally sooner rather than later—like makeup on your face, you don’t want to sleep with salt water in your hair), hop in the shower and reach for a nourishing shampoo and conditioner combo. A few solid options include the Divi Hydrate + Restore Shampoo and Conditioner ($60), Briogeo Don’t Despair Repair Shampoo and Conditioner Set ($59), and Coco & Eve Like a Virgin Shampoo & Conditioner ($40).

After cleansing, Onuoha recommends using a scalp serum to “hydrate the scalp and to fight the dryness caused by the salt water.” Some fan-favorite picks include The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + Hyaluronic Acid Scalp Serum ($15), Divi Scalp Serum ($48), and Gisou Honey Infused Scalp Treatment Serum ($48).

You can also treat your mids and ends to intense hydration with a leave-in hair mask post-salt water exposure. You can’t go wrong with the Davines Su Hair Mask ($34), K18 Biomimetic Hairscience Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask ($75), Sol de Janeiro Triple Brazilian Butter Hair Repair Treatment ($36), and Coco & Eve Like A Virgin Hair Masque ($39).

The Takeaway

Salt water can be damaging to strands, but with proper prep and post-swim care, you can enjoy ocean dips without worry. Just be sure to appropriately stock your beach bag and shower (whether at home or on vacation) with strand-saving formulas. Happy summer!

Article written by Rebecca Norris for instyle

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