Healthy Natural Hair vs. Damaged Hair: Are They the Same?

by Susan Walker of Earthtones Naturals

In our quest for knowledge as naturalistas or transitioning divas our goals are two-fold: To 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:
  1. Elasticity – the ability of the hair to be stretched or manipulated without breaking.
  2. Porosity – the ability of the hair to absorb moisture.
  3. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. Is your hair breaking? This is related to loss of elasticityMinimal breakage is normal but patches of broken hairs signify more extensive damage.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Do you have split ends? Split ends are ruptures that travel up the hair shaft that expose the inner structures of the hair.
  7. 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!

What's the state of your hair?

23 Weigh in!:
Stefani H said...

This post is most certainly about my hair. As a naturalista with hip length hair I always get comments and questions about what I do to my hair. A lot of people think that because my hair is long it's healthy. it certainly isn't. It's riddled with tons of SSKs from wearing it 'out'. I get lots of tangles especially when I'm not wearing a protective style. I'm not quite as diligent as i should be about covering my hair at night so I have significant damage in the form of broken hairs on my crown because I'm a side sleeper :-/. I could go on & on but the one main thing that I have been trying to maintain the last 6 months is a regular cleansing & styling schedule complete with lots of moisturizing and protein treatments when necessary. I have seen a little improvement. i'm also learning patience. :) What's your hair like curlies?!?!?

hunnybun said...

This post is so true. Finding the balance between healthy and length is always a challenge for me. Sometimes I'll go a while without trimming to attain the length but it backfires as my hair gets tangled more often and isn't as shiny and nice. It's like it never ends lol

Nikell said...

Great post! Not only am I on a journey to become natural, I'm moving toward a healthy head of hair. This has definitely helped. I look forward to more (^_^)

Brooke B. said...

I've always had a regimen, but I just recently in April started to be consistent & I have reeked the benefits of having soft/less tangled hair. I make sure to trim my ends when they start to feel rough or look thin. I don't notice as many ssk's, I'm very happy with the condition of my hair compared to six months ago. Great article.

H.SWABY said...

Well i am have some grow n then there is a certain part of my hair that wont grow..I sleep on my back so this spot wont progress the way I want.. Sometimes I feel like its damaged.. and cnt figure out how to help it to progress like the other part of my head. I have tried castor oil applyling it to tht spot mainly.. So the state of my hair is half OK/ HALF NOT. Can b irritating..feel like getting a scissor and chop chop..sugestions plze

H.SWABY said...

Also with my Hiar you ahve some part that have SHINE/SHEEN and some dont. Y is tht?

Erika A. said...

Overall, my hair is okay. However, it is damaged from permanent color & some split ends. I deep condition weekly so my hair isn't dry. I just need to trim my ends as they get tangled easily & are thin.

hunnybun said...

sheen depends on how laid down your cuticle is. The straighter your hair the more laid down the cuticle and the more sheen you have (provided your hair isn't damaged). The curlier or kinkier the hair the more raised the cuticle and less opportunity for light deflection or sheen. So usually the kinkier or curlier the hair the less sheen but it differs from person to person.

Hilary B. said...

I think my hair is fairly healthy. For the past three months (bc'ed in May after a 1 yr transition), i've done hot oil treatments, deep conditioning treatments, used the curly girl method as well as the LOC method, and have used minimal manipulation. I'm sure once my ends get older and my hair grows more, I will experience more damage and will have to up my efforts but for now, I think my hair's doing pretty well.

dschubba said...

Off topic, but, is that Nazri from Project Runway?

Jamila Williams said...

Great post, I am deffinately trimming my ends this weekend, it is long over due!!

Melissa Taylor said...

My hair is in need of a trim and oil treatment. Got some Pro Naturals Moroccan Argan Oil sitting there for me to use.

Monique Brown said...

thank you for the info, very useful, I use
Pro Naturals Moroccan Argan Oil too and it has worked pretty good, it protects my hair and keeps it soft, shiny and healthy. :D

CurvyCurly said...

Good article on identifying, preventing, or addressing damaged strands. Monthly protein treatments, bi-monthly deep treatements, and a major reduction in manipulation have greatly improved the health of my hair.

DiscoveringNatural said...

I love the questionnaire at the end. I am glad to answer majority of the questions with a "no"...

Fatty Bamboo said...

I would say that about half of my hair (the half I dyed blonde twice, rinsed pink, & then dyed brown, only for that brown to fade back to blonde -_-) is quite damaged. It's much drier than the rest & I can see where some strands are snapping off. Oddly enough, the vast majority of my hair is retaining length...
On another note, I remember reading, perhaps on this blog, that hair is dead & can't actually be heslthy, but healthy looking.

Lydia said...

This is a great article. I would love to see a more detailed post on what is normal breakage vs. abnormal breakage. I tend to see broken strands a lot when I wash and even everyday when running my fingers through my hair. I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is not.

Cint said...

The current state of my hair is damaged hair that has been nursed to more healthy hair. I don't think my hair is the healthiest that it can be but I am working on getting it to that point. One area that I can improve on is definitely drinking more water, taking my vitamins, and eating healthier foods.

Meika Sterling said...

i think my is ok...not damaged but it could be better...i def need to work on moisturizing my hair more often especially my ends

Megan Montgomery said...

My hair still has damage from heat I am cutting off 1/2 - 1 inch every 2-3 months. My hair does not tangle but sometimes I get the monsterous ssk's man every now and then. Is acv rinse okay with the Ph balance? I use it once a month. I want my hair to grow out healthy again.

Megan Montgomery

Cassandra [C.] said...

hmm, does hair really stretch 50% of its length? I mean, I could see if you meant its "shrinkage length" compared to its "stretched length". But are you saying that if my hair is 4 inches i should be able to pull it to 6 inches, AND it should not break??<- this being normal. . .

April Williams said...

My hair doesn't really break, (not that i know of), but yet stayed the same length for 3 months now and i am 4 months natural, what could be going on?

Earthtones Naturals said...

Yes that is what I'm saying according to the work and research of Dr. Ali Syed, head cosmetics chemist at Avlon.

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