In our quest for knowledge as naturalistas or transitioning divas our goals are two-fold: Two achieve healthy hair and for our hair to “grow”. Well, that’s not what we really mean is it? Our hair grows. It grows at varying rates monthly and throughout the year and its growth is based on our genetics, our overall health, nutrition, hormones, etc. But it does grow. What we are most interested in is the retention of length. If your hair breaks just as much as it grows then you’re not going to see the lengths adding up. Our hair care regimes – as simplistic or complex as they are – are implemented to prevent damage.
With all the care you’ve taken of your hair, would it surprise you to know that even if you don’t have overt signs that your hair is in fact damaged? And the longer your hair is, the more damage it has sustained?
Damage can be defined as any condition where one or more of the hair structures – the cuticle, cortex, medulla, etc. – are physically or chemically altered so much that they are unable to return to their original state. Cuticles can become cracked and frayed, the hair shaft can become cracked damaging the cortex and medulla, and the hair fiber can be exposed and unprotected in extreme cases.
The question is, to what extent is your hair damaged?
Main Causes of Damage
Common causes of hair damage include that from regular hair care practices such as mechanical manipulation, to extreme processes like chemical altering.
Mechanical damage includes damage from friction and tension. Friction occurs when the hair strands rub against each other. In some hair types and textures this can lead to a build up of static electricity and flyaways. This is rarely the case for textured hair. What we tend to experience is the rising of the cuticles and tangling. Causes of friction include combing, brushing, manipulation of the hair with our fingers, shampooing and conditioning the hair.
Tension is another culprit when it comes to damaging the hair. A common example of this is traction alopecia which results in hair loss along the hairline. It’s caused primarily by pulling forces being applied to the hair, and occurs commonly from tight ponytails, puffs or braids.
Heat styling is a major source of damage especially when the hair is being manipulated with a brush while being styled. These tools can deplete the hair of moisture resulting in dryness.
Shampoos that have a pH higher than 5.5 can cause a pH imbalance and affect the cuticle. If it contains harsh surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate the hair can be stripped of its natural oils located in the epicuticle, or the outermost cuticle layer. This can result in mechanical damage due to combing and styling. In addition, the intercellular “glue” which binds the fibers of the cortex together can be dissolved by repeated shampoos with a high pH and harsh detergents. This can lead to damage to the cortex (which accounts for the hair’s strength).
Lastly, hair can be damaged from modifying its chemistry through the application of chemical relaxers, texturizers and permanent colours. When the hair is damaged in this way, the fatty acids cuticle are stripped away leading to an increase in the porosity of the hair. More water will enter the hair shaft causing it to swell. A swollen hair shaft can result in a lifted cuticle, more friction, tangles and damage.
The reality is that the longer your hair is, the more exposure it’s had to physical manipulation. The hair towards the end of your hair is the oldest and most susceptible to being damaged from combing, brushing, exposure to UV rays, manipulation, friction, etc.
So what is “Healthy” Hair?
In her book “Hair Care Rehab: The Ultimate Hair Repair & Reconditioning Manual”, Audrey Davis-Sivasothy describes healthy hair as “damaged hair that is well-maintained”.
Characteristics of healthy hair or hair that is in good condition include the appropriate balance of the following properties:
- Elasticity – the ability of the hair to be stretched or manipulated without breaking.
- Porosity – the ability of the hair to absorb moisture.
- Strength – The ability of the hair to resist breakage with manipulation.
Healthy textured hair should:
- Have minimal breakage;
- Feel soft to the touch;
- Appear shiny or possess sheen;
- Have the ability to properly retain moisture;
- Have a fairly uniform curl pattern from the base of the hair to the ends;
- Return back to its original position after being stretched.
Once hair has been damaged there is no way to repair it. The only way to rid the hair of damaged areas is by cutting. Companies market products as having the ability to “repair the hair” but this is not entirely true. What the products can do is temporarily improve the state of the hair to make it look, feel and perform like hair that is healthier, as well as prevent future damage.
How Damaged Is Your Hair?
To assess how damaged your hair is, answer the following questions:
- Do you have a loss of elasticity to your hair? Curly and kinky hair should be able to stretch to about 50% of its length before breaking. If it can’t be stretched to this degree without breaking then it has lost some elasticity and tensile strength.
- Is your hair breaking? This is related to loss of elasticity. Minimal breakage is normal but patches of broken hairs signify more extensive damage.
- Does your hair have shine or sheen or does it look dull? While lack of shine or sheen may be a characteristic of healthy hair of some curly hair types on healthy hair a tight cuticle layer reflects light.
- Is your hair dry and brittle? Hair becomes brittle when it has lost moisture. Damage to the cuticle and cortex are the main reasons for this brittleness.
- Is your hair highly porous? Porosity assess how easily the hair accepts and releases moisture and other substances. Porosity and moisture loss are due to cuticle damage. The cuticle is no longer tightly aligned and providing proper coverage to the hair shaft.
- Do you have split ends? Split ends are ruptures that travel up the hair shaft that expose the inner structures of the hair.
- Does your hair tangle a lot? Excessive tangling can be due to frayed hair fibers.
If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions then your hair is need of some TLC. Stay tuned for repair strategies in next week’s post!