There's a lot to unpack here.
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Damp Hair
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As someone who actively tries to use very minimal heat on their hair, I was shocked when I heard that air-drying the hair wasn't necessarily better than using a blow dryer.

I know: I felt like I'd been lied to for most of my life, too. Let me further explain. It all started on TikTok (of course) when I stumbled upon a video of Scarlett Rocourt, CEO of the haircare brand Wonder Curl, who went viral on the app for claiming that air-drying your hair is causing more damage and dryness than using heat to dry the hair.

Rocourt's claims come from a Korean study published on Annals of Dermatology. The study was performed by a group of doctors who wanted to test the impacts of hair drying in different settings. There were five groups that each blowdried hair at various distances for differing lengths of time. One of those groups didn't get any heat and was air-dried at room temperature. The results showed that "although using a hair dryer causes more surface damage than natural drying, using a hairdryer at a distance of 15 centimeters (about six inches) with continuous motion causes less damage than drying hair naturally."

After speaking with several hair experts, ranging from scientists, trichologists, and professional hairstylists, I learned that there are potential repercussions to air-drying your hair, especially if you aren't doing it the right way. Ahead, keep reading to learn about the consequences of air-drying along with alternative methods to try.  

Does Air-Drying Hair Cause Damage?

Yes, it can, and to understand why we need to know more about the structure of our hair. According to Dr. Gaby Longsworth, a Ph.D. scientist, certified hair practitioner, and owner of Absolutely Everything Curly, hair strands are divided into three regions — the cuticle, cortex, and medulla. In between the cuticle and cortex region, there is a layer called the cell membrane complex. This layer binds the cell membranes between the cuticle cells and the cortical cells.

wonder-curl-hair-strand
Credit: Wonder Curl

"The cons of air-drying hair are because of what happens to the cell membrane complex of the hair strands," explains Dr. Longsworth.

In the study, the damage seen in the air-dried group was a swollen cell membrane complex layer. So while direct, excessive heat can cause damage to the surface part of the hair strands, air-drying can cause trauma to that inner layer. When the cell membrane complex layer swells, it can weaken the hair over time, explains Dr. Longsworth. It can also cause something called hygral fatigue.

"Hygral fatigue is caused by repeated swelling of the hair," she says. "If you wash or wet your hair daily, the constant and excessive swelling and de-swelling of the hair can affect the lipid layer causing strands to become weak, dry, and less elastic, leading to breakage."

Adriana Papaleo, the master hairstylist at Rob Peetoom salon in Williamsburg, NYC, also says when we touch or rake our hair while it's wet, it exacerbates breakage because the hair is so fragile in its wet state. Additionally, the weight of wet hair can be stressful and heavy on individual hair strands and cause the hair to stretch, says Justine Marjan, a celebrity hairstylist, and GHD ambassador.

On top of breakage, air-drying can also increase frizz, build-up, and mildew, especially for afro-textured and curly hair. "Hair that stays wet or damp for a long period can attract bacteria and fungus, especially if you have very dense hair," explains Jennie Roberts, a celebrity hairstylist, and texture hair educator. "Afro-textured hair, if left to dry naturally can take days, which can lead to scalp problems." This is one of the main reasons why stylists say never to sleep on wet hair, as it's the perfect environment for scalp mold, bacteria, and fungus to appear.

"Also, the prolonged exposure to water when air-drying exposes your hair to whatever mineral and chemical build-up could be in your water," says Marjan. Ever heard of hard water? Hard water is when water contains dissolved compounds of calcium, magnesium, and other metallic elements, causing stiffness, dullness, and hair breakage.

What's the Best Way to Dry Hair?

According to the study and the reasons discussed above, air-drying the hair for extended periods can be more damaging than using a blow dryer at low heat and a safe distance of about six inches.

However, our experts agree that when it comes to choosing a method of drying your hair, you have to consider a few factors, such as your hair type, if your hair is already damaged, hair porosity, hair color, and your lifestyle.

Despite the risks, there are benefits of air-drying your hair. For starters, heat damage is a real concern. When excessive and direct heat is applied, it can cause damage to the hair cuticles and the scalp. "If you utilize a hairdryer too close to the scalp, you can cause excessive heat damage creating inflammation at the scalp level," says William Gaunitz, a certified trichologist and founder of Advanced Trichology.

"Another benefit of air-drying is preserving the cuticle's lipid layer," says Dr. Longsworth. "Unprotected drying with prolonged heat breaks down the outer lipid layer on the cuticle, which changes the hair from hydrophobic (water-repelling) to more hydrophilic (water-loving), which makes the hairs want to try to separate from each other, creating frizz."

Because of those factors, Dr. Longsworth says those with damaged, color-treated, or high porosity hair would benefit from air-drying. "Hair porosity refers to the hair's capacity to absorb and retain moisture," she explains. Typically, fine and straighter hair types have high porosity hair. Air-drying can also maintain color-treated hair as heat can strip the vibrancy if you aren't using color-safe hair care.

Gaunitz also points out that there was no discussion of a conditioner used in this study, which the average person typically uses to protect their hair. So, if you choose to air-dry your hair, using protective hair care can keep the hair safe. "Embracing your natural air-dried texture can be a joy," says Papaleo. "Having the right products and styling techniques to support, though, is key."

She recommends using a protective leave-in product, like Davines Oi Milk ($36, amazon.com), and being cautious not to stretch or brush the hair while it's soaked. Marjan says best practices also include absorbing as much moisture as possible by gently squeezing water out of the hair with a microfiber towel and detangling hair with a brush intended for wet hair, starting at the ends and working upwards. For those with curly and afro-textured hair, you can try the plopping technique to air-dry your hair, which absorbs most of the moisture as well. 

VIDEO: Dealing With Dry Natural Hair? These Products Are Ready to Flip the Script

So, Is It Okay to Use Heat?

Ultimately, the good news in all of this is that we can all rest assured knowing that using a blow dryer doesn't cause as much damage as we once thought — when used correctly, of course.

When drying curly hair, Roberts says she loves using a diffuser. The GHD Professional Hair Dryer Diffuser ($24, ghdhair.com) which attaches to the GHD Helios Professional Hair Dryer ($279, sephora.com) is clutch.

"Diffusing is safe and great for texture as the airflow comes out of a bigger area from the hairdryer, so heat and speed are much gentler to hair," says Roberts. "Whenever I show people how to do this, I put the dryer on the coolest setting, but not cold, and the slowest speed." When using a diffuser, you should constantly move it around your hair. Don't sit the hair in the diffuser and let it dry because that will make your curls and hair texture dry and unshapely. Roberts says, dry the hair to around 80% of the way through, and then air-dry the remainder of your hair so that it isn't in that soaked, weakened state for so long. "The secret is to keep the diffuser moving at all times and not concentrating on one patch so the hair will dry evenly," says Roberts. 

Don't forget to use hair products that hydrate and protect the hair before styling. Roberts recommends the Curlsmith Curl Conditioning Oil-In-Cream ($40, ulta.com).

If you have straight or wavy hair, you can also still blow dry your hair keeping in mind the same tips — keep the heat flowing all around the hair on a low setting and about six inches away. "This should cause very little or no damage to the cuticle and cortex of the hair," says Dr. Longworth. "If you must use high heat, always protect the hair with a heat protection spray."