What is healthy hair? Simply put, healthy hair is hair that has never been altered. The hair of a newborn is at the peak of health. When our hair has the correct balance of protein and moisture the outer layers of the hair cuticle lie flat and smooth which protects the inner layers from damage. Once you begin excessively brushing, coloring, treating, styling, and exposing your hair to your environment such as diet, exercise, sun, and types of water, you essentially begin the process of damaging virgin hair. Although, we would all like to have the healthy skin and hair of an infant, the key to beautiful, healthy hair is to learn what products, treatments and maintenance will help your hair look its best.
Choosing Hair Care Products That Are Right for You
When we have healthy, undamaged hair we often don't realize how fortunate we are. However, many people are not so fortunate in the health and appearance of their hair. Instead of healthy and luminous, it may be discolored, tang hard to manage and be plagued with physical damage such as broken hair shafts and split ends. It might be damaged by a physical or chemical trauma. Since it is best to keep hair healthy in the first place, let's look at pitfalls first, and then at advice regarding how to choose hair care products.
Things That Can Cause Damage to Your Hair
Hair can be damaged by physical injury, chemical injury, thermal (heat) injury, and by disease. When we eliminate disease from the list, we are left with types of damage that are more or less under our control. We can prevent much of the damage that can be done to our hair. Hair is a biologic fiber (see How and Why Hair Grows). The hair fiber is constructed largely from the proteins called keratins, which provide both the central core of the hair shaft and the cuticle scales that armor the shaft and give it pliable strength. When we talk about physical, chemical or thermal damage to hair, we are talking about damage to the keratins. Damage usually affects the cuticle scales first; this reduces the pliable strength of the hair and makes it harder to manage, and it opens the way for damage to the keratins that make up the hair shaft's central core.
Excessive Sun Exposure
We are familiar with advice to avoid excessive sun exposure that can damage our skin. The same advice holds for avoiding excessive sun exposure that can damage hair. It is the ultraviolet component of solar radiation that damages hair. The ultraviolet wavelengths break chemical bonds in the keratin proteins that constitute most of the bulk and strength of the hair shaft. Weakened keratin proteins weaken the hair shafts and renders then more likely to become dry and "weathered" in appearance. It also makes the hair shaft weaker and more likely to break when combed or brushed.
It is best to avoid exposure to the sun when possible. Wearing a hat is the easiest way to avoid sun damage to hair. Ultraviolet protection is claimed for some hair care products including shampoos, conditioners and sprays.
Sun and Salt Water
Seawater is not only salty; it is alkaline, in contrast to hair keratins, which are slightly acidic. Bathing hair keratins in the alkaline solution of seawater can damage the keratins. The combination of seawater and solar radiation also has bleaching effects. Various recipes have been offered for products that are claimed to protect against the combination of salt water and sunlight-for example, before entering the water, give the hair a protective coating of a grease such as cocoa butter that prevents sea-water direct contact with hair. A readily available method for limiting hair damage is to shampoo and thoroughly rinse hair in fresh water after leaving the water, then applying a protein conditioner.
Chlorine in the Swimming Pool
Chlorine is a potent bleaching agent and causes severe damage to hair keratins. Thus, chlorine in the swimming pool can both lighten and weaken hair. Damage to keratins can be even more severe when the proteins have already been damaged by chemical or thermal hair styling treatment. Chorine-damaged hair can manifest its damage in hair breakage, split ends, discoloration and difficulty in styling. The belief that swimming pool chlorine causes blond or gray hair to turn green is not altogether true; the greenish sheen comes from metals such as copper or iron that are dissolved in pool water and are oxidized by chlorine after they are taken up by hair shafts.
To help mitigate potential damage done from swimming pool chlorine you should:
- Rinse hair thoroughly in fresh water immediately upon leaving the pool
- Shampoo with a product that will limit chlorine damage to keratins. A shampoo of this type should be acid/alkaline (pH) neutral (see Hair Styling Products) and contain sodium thiosulfate, which neutralizes chlorine.
Some hair experts recommend limiting or preventing chlorine damage by applying a protective conditioner covered by a latex or silicon cap before entering the pool.
Excessive Heat in Hair Styling and Blow Drying
Keratin proteins are easily damaged by excessive heat. Two common ways for this thermal (heat) damage to occur are:
- Use of heated implements for hair straightening or styling, and
- Using the blow dryer at too high a temperature for too long when drying hair.
Hair styling tools should be used at the lowest effective temperature and for the least amount of time necessary to produce a desired style. They should be used only as often as necessary to maintain a styling effect; too frequent application of heated styling implements can cause an accumulation of hair damage over time.
The blow dryer should never be used at high heat to dry hair. Blow-drying should be done on the "cool" setting to prevent thermal damage to hair keratins.
Myths die hard, and one of the most tenacious is the belief that women (and men) should brush their hair with at least 100 strokes daily. The belief may have been credible-and useful-in days when bathing and shampooing was less frequent because running water was not readily available. Hair brushing in those circumstances was an effective way to remove dead skin cells and distribute hair oils. Today this practice may do more harm than good. It is proven that too frequent and too-hard brushing can physically damage the cuticle of hair shafts weakens and can result in breakage. We know that the appropriate use of shampoos and conditioners replace the need for "100 strokes"
It is still necessary to comb and brush hair, however, but damage can be limited or prevented by observing some rules:
- Never back-brush or backcomb hair; this pulls hair in the wrong direction and can be damaging.
- Don't brush wet or damp hair; dry it first.
- Use a wide-toothed comb instead of a brush, except when a brush is absolutely necessary. Use a comb rather than a brush to work through hair tangles, and do it slowly and with care rather than "ripping" through the tangle.