“My hair has this gross burnt hair smell after I blow dry, flat iron or curl it. Even if I just blow dry it smells burnt. A few days after that, my hair starts to get dry as well. I think I’m doing the right things by using a heat protectant and I use a comb attachment with my blow dryer but I’m not sure. My hair texture is curly but a friend of mine that has kinky hair says she has the same problem so I’m asking for both of us. Please help!” – Emily
We have some good news for you and your friend and some bad news. The bad news is that if your hair smells burnt then it is burnt. Yes, ladies, you burned your hair. Water tastes like water because it’s water and fire is always hot because, well, it’s fire. Your hair smells burnt simply because you burned it and there is no denying the smell of burnt hair. It’s a smell that you accurately described – gross. We are not trying to rub in that you burned your hair, but we don’t want you to underestimate the damage that you’re doing to your hair. The good news is, in order to avoid doing this again, we’ve laid out some easy tips for you to follow.
FIRST: MAKE SURE YOUR HAIR IS READY TO RECEIVE HEAT
Before you even begin to use heat on your hair, you want to make sure your hair is healthy enough and prepared to receive heat. To prepare your hair, wash your detangled hair with a moisturizing, sulfate-free shampoo followed up with a deep conditioning treatment and a light finish, water-based leave-in conditioner. Water-based leave-ins are very moisturizing and will help cut down on product buildup which also lends to hair that flows. Let your hair air dry to at least fifty percent and then start with your blow out. If you have unhealthy hair–think breakage and thin hair that looks lifeless–avoid heat all together and focus on getting your hair healthy first as heat is only going to make your hair worse.
Some of our recommended water-based Leave-in Conditioners: Jane Carter Revitalizing Leave-in Conditioner,?Infusium 23 Leave-In Treatment and any of the conditioners from 4 Moisturizing Drugstore Leave-In Conditioners You May Have Missed Pt. 1.
SECOND: USE A QUALITY AND EFFECTIVE HEAT PROTECTANT AND USE IT LIBERALLY
You should be using a heat protectant on your hair anytime heat comes near it. That means even if you’re just blowing out your hair. If you’re blowing out your hair and flat ironing or pressing it out with a hot comb afterwards, you need to layer your heat protectant meaning you’ll use your heat protectant again on your blow dried hair. For curly hair, a great way to layer your heat protectant is to start with a cream-based protectant to do your blow out and then follow that up with a silicone and oil-based mist heat protectant before you start your straightening. This helps to cut down on product build-up so you can have bouncy hair. If you have hair that’s more curly than wavy, stay away from water-based protectants since you’ll more than likely need higher heat to straighten your hair and they can cook your hair from the steam they create causing your hair to form microscopic bubbles which will lead to breakage overtime. Lastly, keep in mind that over time, heat protectants can actually dry out and break your hair if you are using the wrong ones that don’t have any moisturizing ingredients and are full of drying alcohols. When alcohol in heat protectants mixes with heat, it can actually dry out and break ff your hair. Creams and silicones are your best bet with the cream always first and the silicone second since silicone blocks out moisture. If you’re only doing a blow out, then just use the cream. It’s important to note that heat protectants only work when you’re using heat wisely. Think of them as doing 20 percent of the overall work in your heat styling regimen. They don’t work if you’re frying your hair.
Some of our recommended Heat Protectant Creams: Kiehl’s Protective Heat Protective Silk Straightening Cream, Carol’s Daughter Chocolat Smoothing Blow Dry Styling Cream, Fantasia iC Polisher Heat Protector Style Cream, Silk Elements Mega Silk Heat Protection Creme and L?Oreal Blow It Dry Thermal Smoother Cream
Some of our recommended Heat Protectant Sprays: Nexxus Pro-Mend Heat Protexx Heat Protection Styling Spray, Kenra Platinum Blow Dry Spray, Blow Pro Heat Is On Protective Daily Primer (we like this best for wavy hair since it’s water based) and L?Or?al Anti-Oxidant Color Vibrancy Dual Protect Leave-In Spray (great for color-treated, wavy hair)
You can also check out a few other recommended heat protectants by reading What Is The Best Heat Protectant For Curly Hair?
THIRD: APPLY YOUR HEAT PROTECTANT THE RIGHT WAY
When straightening or blowing out your hair, do it in sections and apply the heat protectant throughout each section. So imagine your hair split in quadrants. Take one quadrant and split it in four and apply your creamy heat protectant to each of the four sections and then start to blow dry each quadrant one at a time. That will ensure you have enough product on your hair. You would repeat this with your silicone-based protectant if you plan to follow that up with a straightener like your flat iron or hot comb.
FOURTH: LOWER YOUR HEAT AND USE CLEAN HEAT TOOLS
You don’t have to blast your dryer or use your flat iron on the highest setting. If you take your time to blow your hair and use your heat protectant, your hair may take a little longer to straighten, but it lowers the chances of you burning your hair out. Using heat on your hair is not the time to start rushing things. Healthy, virgin hair burns at around 451 degrees Fahrenheit but can be even lower (or slightly higher) for some depending on their hair’s health and response to heat (for instance, blonde hair is very fragile to heat), so 451 is not a hard and fast rule for everyone. Most flat irons can go up to 450 degrees so that should give you some pause. Coarse kinky hair can be effectively blown out on medium heat and straightened around 410 so there is no need to crank it all the way up. Fine kinky hair can be blown out on medium as well and straightened around 375-400. Kinky curly hair (type fours and threes fine or coarse) can also be straightened around 375-410 and wavy hair can be straightened around 310-375. But play around with your temperature adjustments to see what works best for you. Additionally, never hold your curling iron on your hair for longer than 10 seconds in one place–which could be lower for each individual head of hair–but never longer than 10 seconds and about three to four seconds for a flat iron. Before you stick anything in your hair, make sure your straighteners are clean. Running cruddy irons over your hair with caked on product can also leave that burnt hair smell on your hair as well.
FIFTH: KNOW HOW HEATING TOOLS WORK ON YOUR HAIR
It’s important to invest in quality heat styling tools. If your dryer does not have discernible low, medium and high heat setting and is not an thermal/ceramic ionic dryer, it’s time for an upgrade. The thermal infrared heat dries your hair gently and evenly from the inside out. Ceramic locks in moisture to create silky smooth hair and eliminate frizz and the negative ions help eliminate static and reduce drying time.
Though heat styling tools give us great looking hair, at the end of the day, anytime you do anything to manipulate your natural hair texture, you are damaging it. If heat cooks food then it’s also cooking (damaging) your hair and yes, even if you are using heat properly. Understanding this means knowing how much your hair can and cannot take. You’ll need to take breaks in between straightening your hair because naturally curly hair cannot take as much heat as a naturally straight hair. This is why we all have that one friend with straight hair than we can use heat more we can because even though she’s also essentially cooking her hair, she’s also not rearranging the bond structures of her hair to get it to do something it normally does not–which is to lay flat.
SIXTH: KNOW WHAT THAT BURNT HAIR SMELL MEANS FOR YOUR HAIR
Burnt hair smell means burnt hair. That also means damaged hair. This most often will result in a few things. The first is that you may notice immediately that you lose a noticeable amount of hair when you flatiron or blow dry your hair and after running the comb or your fingers through it. That’s immediate heat breakage. The second is you’ll start to notice a few weeks or months out that your hair is breaking more than normal and you can’t pinpoint why. That’s delayed heat breakage. The third is that you’ll go to wash out your straight hair and it won’t revert or only parts of your hair will revert. This is what we and hair stylists call heat damage. Usually you’ll have a combination of all three with heat damage even though most people won’t even notice until they go to wash their hair. The only way back from total heat damage is to cut out the damage immediately or slowly grow it out which will be a pain because your “new texture” won’t match your natural texture.
So that burnt hair smell means a lot more than it seems. The best thing you can do for yourself is to use heat sparingly and responsibly. Curly hair’s structure was not designed to be straight and for us girls to go straight it takes patience and the right products in order to not end up bald. This is why keratin treatments and relaxers are formulated to be so potent. It’s because they need all the power they can muster to try to undo mother nature’s work. Try to let your hair air dry as much as possible, use heat spar-ing-ly with a heat protectant on the most effective, lowest setting and up your deep conditioning game to combat the damage of each straightening session.