I often hear and read many naturals complaining about the hair at the crown of their head. “It’s dry, it’s brittle, it’s dull, it’s coarse, it breaks easily, it’s the kinkiest hair on my head, it’s the hardest to handle!” And, I’m no different. The hair on the left side of my crown is always shorter and more prone to damage than the rest of my hair, always seeming to exhibit breakage and straggily (yes, straggily, it’s a word! ;) ) and raggedy ends. Now, I’ve come to learn over the years that this is most likely due to the fact that the hair at one’s crown is usually taking the brunt of the elements, you know: sun, wind, rain, cruddy air and free radicals;). I also always just thought that this exposure simply resulted in a raised cuticle and more porous strands, whereas the hair protected by the crown hair is smoother and far more cooperative.
So, when I started reading hair guru Chicoro’s Grow It! and came to the section on “Damage from the Environment,” I was fascinated to learn that the damage caused by exposure to the elements is a lot deeper than a simple mechanical reaction. You see, Chicoro breaks down that hair exposed to sun without protection actually undergoes a chemical and irreversible change! As you know, the sun can be damaging to the skin due to Ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB. Well, these same UV rays can be damaging to hair and Naturallycurly.com provided an informative post on this topic several years ago.
Most of us are familiar with the lightening of our hair that occurs when we spend hours in the sun in the summer. To many people this is even a desirable side effect of sunbathing. However, this effect is evidence of the destruction of pigment in the hair as a direct result of UV-induced oxidation of melanin particles in the cortex. …UV radiation also can cause cleavage of molecular bonds in the hair, ultimately leading to fracture of the cuticle and the cortex. This can lead to dry, brittle hair, rough texture from damaged cuticles, split ends, and breakage.However, in my opinion, Chicoro takes the information provided here one step further and actually discusses how the effects of the sun are very similar to those caused by bleaching the hair. She states, “Like bleach, the oxidizing rays from the sun can break down, or change the chemical composition and the components of the hair.” She goes on to indicate that hair contains a chemical group called a thiol group and these groups stabilize the hair by forming disulfide bonds, which contribute greatly to the strength of the hair (Google “hair and disulfide bonds,” you’ll see many articles about the manipulation of disulfide bonds in chemical processes like body waves and relaxers). These thiol groups also make hair slippery … and we know how important slip is. However, once the hair is oxidized by the sun, these bonds actually turn into compounds called sulfonic acids. These acids are sticky and hair with them will tangle more readily. And, that’s never fun. Finally, she drives the nail home with the fact that this change from disulfide bonds to sulfonic acids is permanent.
So, what does all this mean to those of us challenged by recalcitrant crown hair? The simple answer? Prevention and remediation. For “new” hair that hasn’t been excessively exposed to the elements, we need to proactively protect it before damage happens. For older hair that has already undergone this chemical change, we need to take remedial actions to reduce and/or eliminate the resultant effects of damage. In practical terms, this means employing some combination or all of the following techniques:
- Condition, condition, condition … did I mention condition? Deep condition with moisturizing treatments, as well as effective protein treatments that support the keratin in the hair, based upon your hair’s needs.
- Moisturize to protect the hair from the sun and combat dryness.
- Use leave-in products, such as conditioners, stylers and/or sealants, with UV protection (the NaturallyCurly.com article linked above provides a great list of ingredients that are UVA absorbers).
- Seal with butters and/or oils that offer natural UV protection, such as shea butter or hemp seed oil (I haven’t vetted this info, but found two articles that provide lists of oils that offer sun protection and their corresponding SPF levels. See here and here).
- Use protective hair coverings like hats and scarfs.
- Employ protective styling techniques which reduce the amount of hair exposed directly to the sun.
- Don’t use peroxide or products with drying (non-fatty) alcohols. And please, whatever you do, don’t use lemon or other “sun activated” lightening products on your hair (flashing back painfully on my “Sun In” days!! *smdh*!!).