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We wash, style and blow-dry in order to tame our often un-ruly tendrils. Yet some of the everyday hair care practices we use are actually doing more damage than good. This article takes a look at the issues we face in our efforts to achieve well groomed, shiny and healthy hair.
The average human head has about 100 000 hair follicles and from each one emerges a shaft of hair. Nourished by blood vessels the follicles produce new keratin cells promoting the constant growth of new hair. The inner layer or medulla, which is protected by the outer keratin cells, contains pigment cells (for colour), fat granules and oxygen. Separate glands run alongside the follicle producing sebum, a natural hair and scalp conditioner. Straight, shiny hair is the result of sebum produced by the glands easily travelling the length of the hair shaft. By contrast, curly hair will often look and feel dry because the sebum has a more difficult time getting from the base of the hair shaft to the tip.
The overall health of the hair depends on numerous factors however nutritional status is key. There are no topically applied hair products that can compensate for poor nutrition. Hair cannot repair itself because it is already dead tissue. However, you can grow healthier hair from the “inside-out”. Healthy hair depends on a constant supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients to grow and maintain the look and feel. Any deficiency in key hair nutrients will show up in our skin, hair and nails first, before affecting our internal organs. Therefore, brittle, dry, dull hair that easily breaks may actually be a signifier to check your general nutritional status.
Hair is predominately made up from protein so a deficiency can result in changes to the colour and texture resulting in brittle, weak and thinning hair. Eating protein 3-5 week will help maintain your levels. If you have had a protein deficiency you will notice hair returning to healthy condition within 12 weeks of correcting the deficiency, as the new hairs grow through.
In addition diets high in sugar and animal fats may contribute to poor hair health. An imbalance between good and bad fat consumption can either lead to an overly dry and flaky scalp and dry hair or excessive oil production. Correcting the imbalance will help to normalise the health of the scalp and the relative dryness or oiliness of the hair. High sugar consumption creates a higher demand for B group vitamins, which can also affect hair health. Reducing highly processed and sugar rich foods will not only help hair health, it will also improve general health.
While internal factors affect hair health, external factors also have the potential to damage hair. If you have ever washed your hair with soap you would know that it tends to get tangled and knotty afterwards. The outer “scales” on the hair shaft stand up when in the presence of an alkali, such as soap and get caught up creating a tangled, messy “do”. The scales will lie down flat in the presence of an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, which is why vinegar hair rinses were traditionally used after washing. While shampoos don’t create this effect they come with their own set of issues as they are stronger cleansers than soap and strip more of the natural oils from the scalp and hair, leaving it dry and in desperate need of moisture. This is where conditioners come in, their key functions to make the hair scales lie back down and coat the hair so that it feels smooth again.
In addition the type of surfactant used to clean hair in shampoos can be problematic with those such as sodium or ammonium lauryl sulphate contributing to irritated and dry scalp and hair issues. Softer surfactants such as decyl glucoside, coco glucoside or coco betaine are better choices for both hair and scalp health.
In general try to avoid conditioners and stying products with added silica as these will just build up on the hair shaft and create “artificially” shiny and silky hair. They will also increase the need to wash hair which in turn dries out hair again, creating a cycle of poor hair management and ultimately, poor hair health.
How often we wash hair is an individual choice however, most people tend to wash their hair too frequently, each time stripping back the protective oils from the scalp and hair. If your scalp is dry or itchy, try waiting one extra day before washing allowing the sebum to protect the scalp for a longer period. Twice weekly for normal to dry hair is a good benchmark. Obviously oily hair needs to be washed more frequently and often daily. Washing hair often entails blow-drying or straightening which if done excessively, damage the hair shaft. The less you dry & straighten, the better your hair condition will tend to be.
Hair styling agents can also impact on the health of the hair and more importantly your general health. In conventional styling products synthetic plastics such as PVP (polyvinyl pyrrolidone polymer), acrylic copolymers, VA (vinyl acetate)
polymer and acrylamide polymer are used as holding agents, all of which are synthetic petroleum based plastics. While these may not be specifically damaging to your hair, they are not environmentally friendly and in addition are easily absorbed through the scalp thereby contributing to the total toxic load your body has to deal with. Look instead for natural products such as beeswax or coconut oil based products for strong hold pastes or gels and sugar biopolymer based products from corn or vegetables instead of hair spray or mousse. The natural wax products will also help to keep the hair shaft moisturised. Generally styling products based on such ingredients are healthier for you and for the environment.