Long Hair Care and Styling Techniques

Hairbrushes and combs used for long hair

Pictured here are three basic styling tools for long hair. From left, a detangling comb with wavy prongs for wet hair, a teasing comb with a narrow end to help part and lift the hair, and a natural boar-bristle brush for use on dry hair.

Hair length fashion trends change, but long hair has always been considered a beautiful fashion accessory for females. This is reflected in a verse written thousands of years ago in the Bible, "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering" (I Corinthians 11:14, NET Bible). In our culture, we see the beauty of long hair for girls favored in the design of toy dolls and animated film heroines. Celebrity women often use hair extensions to create the illusion of longer hair. Women who appreciate modesty in appearance often adopt long hairstyles, inspired by Biblical references to femininity that pair modesty with long hair.

Long Hair Should be Treated as Silk

On a daily basis, long hairstyles require more care than short ones. Long hair must be treated gently, like silk, to stay strong for the years that it remains on the head before it is trimmed away. Despite what hair care products companies may claim, hair cannot be repaired once it is damaged. Hair grows about six inches a year and goes through a periodic shedding and re-growth cycle. The maximum length of hair possible depends on the growth cycle and varies individually anywhere from around waist to floor length. Women with thick hair may find that the weight prohibits them from wearing lengths much beyond their shoulders to avoid headaches and other problems to the head and neck. Thick hair can be layered to help reduce weight. Women with average to thin thicknesses of hair can usually wear hair in one length to the middle of the back or waist. Long hair should be styled up securely during some activities to avoid the danger of hair catching on moving objects.

Long Hair Cleansing and De-Tangling Basics

Some women claim they can get by with rinsing their long hair with water only, avoiding shampoo that might be drying to their hair. Most of us need shampoo to cleanse away excessive oils and other contaminants. Daily washing using gentle shampoo and conditioner should not be viewed as damaging to long hair. The real damage to long hair comes from other styling techniques that use heat or sharp edges on accessories to hold the hair in place. Long hair will tangle if excessive scrubbing is used. Shampoo is most needed at the scalp, so using your fingertips, rub a small amount of shampoo in tiny circles around the scalp and allow the shower rinse away the shampoo, lightly cleansing the rest of the hair as the water washes away soapy water down the length. Water from the shower can also help de-tangle long hair at the same time it rinses. Conditioner is needed only on the middle to ends of the hair, to help with de-tangling more than anything. When combing wet, tangled long hair, start at the ends first and work toward the scalp, separating out small sections as you work around the head.

Use Gentle Hair Products

When selecting shampoo, conditioner and hair styling products, remember that price does not predict quality. The same ingredients are used as the foundation for most products across the price spectrum. Beauty products expert Paula Begoun offers her own gentle shampoo and conditioner and shares the following list of ingredients to avoid in all brands of hair care products. Because this list appears to be no longer available on Begoun's site, I am reprinting it here and encourage you to visit PaulasChoice.com for products and educational resources. The Fashion Belle site is not connected in any way with Paula Begoun. Her reviews and products offerings are world-renowned and are some of our favorites.

Hair-Care Ingredients to Avoid

If you want smooth, shiny, healthy hair that is easy to manage, you need to know that beyond a great haircut and styling techniques, the products you use to take care of your hair play a pivotal role in how it looks and behaves. That's why avoiding problematic ingredients is so important: Irritating ingredients can cause scalp redness, itching, and flaking, and in some cases can make your hair feel dry or look more damaged. Watch out for the ingredients on the following lists; make sure your shampoos, conditioners, or styling products do NOT contain them.

Ingredients that cause dryness, exaggerate frizzies, and leave you with an itchy, flaky scalp include the following:

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate. It is not a dangerous ingredient; it's just an irritating, drying one.
  • (Note that sodium laureth sulfate is fine)
  • Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate
  • TEA-lauryl sulfate
  • TEA-dodecylbenzene
  • Alkyl sodium sulfate
  • Essential oils, if they are present in large amounts, such as peppermint, menthol, lemon, lavender, and lime oils
  • Irritating fragrant plant extracts

The concerns about irritating ingredients in a conditioner are not the same as for a shampoo because, ideally, you will be using the conditioner only on the lengths and ends of your hair, not on your scalp. Keeping conditioner off your scalp is also helpful to prevent weighing your hair down. In addition, hair at the root is healthier because it hasn't been exposed to the environment or styling tools, so it doesn't require conditioning. Despite this, you may want to avoid the following ingredients in conditioners:

  • Any essential oils (particularly those from the citrus or mint families)
  • Kaolin (a form of clay). All types of clays can be drying for hair and lead to frizziness.
  • Menthol or menthyl lactate
  • Camphor
  • Balsam
  • Irritating fragrant plant extracts

Styling Products
Most styling products are well formulated. Even hairsprays (regular and aerosol) with alcohol are OK because the alcohol evaporates quickly; plus, hairsprays typically are not aimed directly at the scalp. All film-forming agents (such as PVP or ingredients with "methacrylate" in the name) in styling products pose a risk of scalp irritation, but most people tolerate them just fine as long as they minimize direct contact with the scalp. However, there are some troublemaking ingredients in styling products that are best avoided, including the following:

  • Menthol or menthyl lactate
  • Fragrant oils such as peppermint, rosemary, all types of citrus, and lavender
  • Fragrance ingredients such as linalool, limonene, and eugenol
  • Methylisothiazolinone or methylcholorisothiazoline, both of which are sensitizing preservatives not recommended for use in leave-on products

The above list is typical of the educational resources available from Paula Begoun. Subscribe to her free email newsletter to learn more.

Minimize the Use of Hot Styling Tools on Long Hair

Most hairstyles featured in the media are created with the use of curling irons, flat irons or blow dryers. When used daily, the high heat of these tools will damage long hair which, unlike short hair, is not trimmed away within a year's time. Blow dryers are typically used for shaping short hair, something that is less relevant to the weight of longer hair. The best advice for long hair is to use a blow dryer only when needed for dry the hair. Remember that most of the damage from a blow dryer comes after the hair is dry. To minimize damage, stop just short of the hair becoming completely dry and let it finish air drying.

In place of a curling iron or flat iron, consider hot rollers. The heat from hot rollers is gentler, and the curls are just as effective. Heat rearranges hair molecules into a new shape, so the curlers should be left in until they have finished cooling for the best retention of that shape. For mini hot rollers (1/2" in diameter), this can take as few as five minutes. Large hot rollers with a heated wax core take twenty to thirty minutes to set. Hairspray helps hold curls in place. Use a clarifying shampoo occasionally to wash away any buildup.

Hair Accessories with Smooth Edges are Best

Even though a hair shaft is stronger than an equivalent thickness of steel, it will still break under repeated stress. Ponytails secured with thin bands are treacherous for long hair because the weight from the length breaks hair around even the softest bands. Jaw clips or other more gentle accessories are better for holding ponytails in place. Twist the hair once or twice before applying a clip, and the ponytail will stay in place with much less damage than with a band. Avoid barrettes or clips with sharp edges, which will break hair. Mini hair clips work well to hold hair in place similar to the effect of barrettes or clips, only without damage. Loose braiding is a fairly gentle way to style long hair, but wearing hair braided in the same way every day could cause breakage. Vary hairstyles to minimize repeated stress to the same areas. Never sleep with hair braided or in clips, since this contributes to breakage. Long hair can be flipped back over the top of your pillow to get it out of the way when sleeping.

Use Caution with Chemical Treatments on Long Hair

Treatments that change the chemical structure of the hair, like perms or straighteners, damage the hair. Short hair accommodates the damage better than long hair because it can be trimmed away after only a few treatments. When searching for a long hairstyle, avoid a style that depends on chemical treatments, or at least use the gentlest type of treatment available. Perms labeled thio-free or low ammonia are designed to minimize damage. Hair coloring is not usually as damaging as a permanent, but the farther away a new color is from your original hair color, the more damaging it is, especially when the new color is lighter. Try semi-permanent hair color before moving on to permanent formulas. If semi-permanent color produces your desired result, then it will be far less damaging to your hair than permanent coloring.

Long Hair Cutting and Brushing Tips

Long hair should be trimmed at least every three months to manage split ends. Jim Butchee of the Long Hair Studio is an expert in long hair, and I traveled once to enjoy a personal visit to his studio in Dallas, Texas, for a trim. He offered several gems of advice.

  • The reason you go into most salons and come out with a cut shorter than the one you may have requested is that most stylists are not taught to cut or style long hair. They are uncomfortable with lengths below the shoulders.
  • When trimming long hair, cut the back section of hair in one layer with the head tilted slightly forward, then bring two pieces from the sides of the back around each shoulder to the front as length guides for trimming hair on the front half of the head.
  • Use brushes that have bristles extending cleanly up from the base. Brushes with crevices at the bristle bases catch and tear the hair. The same applies to balls at the ends of the bristles.

Added to Mr. Butchee's advice on brushes, consider the tools pictured at the top. The natural boar bristle brush does not grab into thick hair as deeply as plastic bristles, but the bristles are gentle, and hair can be brushed in several layers if it is thick. A boar bristle brush works only on dry hair, as it is not strong enough to handle most thicknesses of wet hair. A wide-tooth comb is gentle on wet hair. A plastic teasing comb can add lift at the roots. Holding hair away from the face, use a teasing comb to push hair back toward the scalp two or three times. This should be done much more lightly than heavy teasing that puffs hair. Do not tease the layer of hair closest to the face, since it should be smoothed over the top to conceal the teased area.

Enjoy Long Hairstyles

If you ask around, you will learn that many women with shorter styles struggle with liking their hair. Since long hairstyles require more care, fewer women tend to adopt a longer look. However, those women who choose longer styles often receive many compliments and enjoy their long hair. We would love it if Frank Ploenissen from the Long Hair Site would bring his work back online, since he is the one who inspired the founder of the Fashion Belle site many years ago to transition to a longer hairstyle and enjoy the versatility that comes with it.