Protect Your Cuticle: The First Line of Defense for Natural Hair

Fig. 1: Undamaged hair

Tonya McKay writes:

As a polymer scientist with a love for biological structures, I find hair and skin to be extremely fascinating systems. Human hair is an intricate composite structure comprised of keratin proteins, lipids, polysaccharides, water and pigment particles. All of the individual components are complex and perform very specific functions. Those of us with curly hair are concerned a lot about our hair’s texture and porosity (a popular buzz word of late). These two factors are primarily based upon the structure of the cuticle — the outer layer of our hair.  

The scanning electron microscope image in Figure 1 shows highly magnified detail of the exterior surface of a strand of human hair. The external layer is called the cuticle, and is much like bark on a tree. Both the cuticle layer and tree bark are made up of many smaller, individual pieces (called scales when referring to the cuticle) that work together as one overall unit to perform a function. The job of the cuticle is to provide protection to the hair shaft from mechanical and thermal damage, while allowing moisture in and out as needed. The cuticle structure is an amazing work of nature, because it is strong, yet flexible, and is made up of many pieces, which allows it to act as a seal to protect the inner cortex of the hair, and yet also allows it to be permeable, or porous.

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Understanding Hair Butters and Oils- Natural Hair

Tonya McKay writes;

Butters, oils, and waxes all come from fats that are derived from plants or animals, and have two basic components; fatty acids and alcohols. The difference between butters and oils is primarily whether or not they are solid at room and/or body temperature. Although they are both composed of groups of fatty acids, there are differences in the molecular composition and structure of butters and oils that are responsible for these differences in melting points.

Factors that determine melting point of lipids
  • Molecular weight – lower-molecular-weight fatty acids have a lower melting point, so that they are liquid at room temperature or body temperature. Higher-molecular-weight fatty acids form crystalline structures that persist to higher melting points, and so they are usually solids at room temperature and higher.
  • Saturated molecular structure — longer-chain fatty acids without any double bonds are straight chain molecules (like long snakes) that are able to closely pack next to one another This close-packing induces crystallization, which requires more energy to break apart than molecules not packed together into a crystalline or semi-crystalline structure. For this reason, the melting points of these types of fatty acids are much higher. This means the “oil” will exist in a solid state at room temperature or even body temperature.
  • Unsaturated molecular structure — unsaturated molecules have at least one double bond somewhere in their structure. This creates a kink or branching effect in the geometry of the molecule. This prevents unsaturated fatty acids from getting too close to one another, thereby preventing crystallization. These molecules have lots of space between themselves, which allows for more mobility of the molecules and results in a lower melting temperature. These oils may be liquid at room temperature or melt upon contact with skin.
  • Stearic acid, a saturated hydrocarbon molecule with 18 carbons (relatively long-chain fatty acid) has a melting point of 69.6°C (157.28°F). Oleic acid, a monounsaturated hydrocarbon molecule, has a double bond in it that creates a kink in its geometry, which makes it more difficult for adjacent molecules to pack tightly next to one another. It has a melting point of 10.5°C (50.9°F). Polyunsaturated acids, such as linoleic and linolenic, have multiple kinks in their chains and are liquid at very low temperatures (melt point = -5°C (23°F) for linoleic acid).
  • Linolenic acid, polyunsaturated fatty acid.
  • Linoleic acid, polyunsaturated, omega-6 fatty acid.
  • Oleic acid, monounsaturated fatty acid.
  • Stearic acid, saturated fatty acid.

Don’t Let That Water Weight Fool You!

Charnika Jett of NaturallyCurly writes;

After the first week of reducing your calories, working out at the gym and consuming different varieties of fruit and vegetable medleys, you step on the scale to see your fate. If your weight loss is so remarkable that you can’t believe it, chances are you shouldn’t because you’ve probably only lost water weight.

According to, when a person cuts back on calories suddenly, the body tries to make up the difference by borrowing some fat and protein from your body. When this happens, you lose a lot of water weight, as muscle tissue holds a lot of water.

During the following week the body stabilizes and you might see a huge difference on the scale. More than likely, it will look as though you gained weight this week, when really the scale is showing you an accurate body weight.

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The Buzz About Honey

CurlChemist Tonya McKay writes;

If you peruse the CurlTalk discussions, you’ll see honey mentioned on numerous threads.

This should come as no surprise, given honey’s long history as a health and beauty ingredient.

The use of honey has been documented throughout human history, with mention found as far back as in various Sumerian tablets. The practice of cultivating bees for the purpose of harvesting their honey was an integral part of ancient Egyptian culture. Honey was widely used in Egypt and Babylon as a hair and skin treatment, in cosmetic mixtures, for medicinal purposes, and as a bath component. Through trading, honey gradually found its way into the lives of humans all around the globe.

During the post World War II era, many natural ingredients typically were replaced by lab-synthesized chemicals, which were touted as being superior to nature and were valued for being “modern.” Recently natural ingredients are experiencing a renaissance. This has driven the cosmetic industry toward the development and marketing of products containing natural ingredients such as honey.

There are many hair and skin-care products being marketed that highlight the inclusion of honey. There are also many recommendations for the use of honey in recipes for home conditioning treatments and rinses for curly hair.

So what’s the real story on honey? What sorts of things should one be aware of when using honey in a hair-care routine?

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What's the Scoop on Silicones?

CurlChemist Tonya McKay of NaturallyCurly writes;

We always get lots of questions about silicones, as they are in so many products and are of ongoing concern to many curly-haired consumers. I thought this month we could tackle a couple of those questions in a quick, practical manner (hopefully) to aid in the seemingly never-ending process of ingredient scrutiny and product selection.

Q: Is there any way to rank silicones in order of their water solubility and also recommend the best surfactants to remove each category?

A: It is difficult to actually rank the silicones in order of water solubility, simply because they are usually either soluble or not. Most silicones are water insoluble due to being non-polar, but there are a few that are chemically modified in order to render them more compatible with water. The following table lists the main types of silicones found in hair care formulations. It also indicates whether or not they are water soluble and includes which surfactants can be used to ensure good removal of the silicone from the hair. Studies done by Dow Corning have found that the water-insoluble silicones show no appreciable buildup when a shampoo containing one of the recommended surfactants was used.

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What is pH and What Does it Have to do With Hair?

“pH” is an abbreviation for “potential hydrogen” and is a scale used for ranking the relative acidity or alkalinity of a liquid solution. The precise mathematical definition of pH is the negative logarithmic value of hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the solution. pH = – log [H+]

A scale of zero to fourteen is used for pH, with 7.0 being a neutral solution (water). A number below 7.0 is considered to be acidic, with a lower number being more acidic, and anything above 7.0 is considered to be alkaline or basic, with 14 being the strongest alkaline value. Due to the logarithmic nature of the pH scale, a solution with a pH of 2.0 is ten times more acidic than one with a pH of 3.0. Human hair is a solid material, a composite of protein molecules with three distinct layers. The central portion called the medulla is not present in every hair and is usually just made up of air. The surrounding layer, known as the cortex, is composed of bundles of fibrous coils made of keratin protein molecules that supply the hair strand with its strength and elasticity. The cortex also contains particles of melanin, which impart color to the hair strand. The outer layer is comprised of multiple layers of overlapping, keratinized scales and is called the cuticle, which acts to protect the cortex and medulla. Hair and skin are both covered by a very thin fluid layer comprised of oil, salt and water, called the mantle, which is slightly acidic (pH = 4.5 – 5.0). This acid mantle is very important in maintaining the proper moisture balance in our hair and skin. It is also instrumental in making the cuticle scales lie flatter against the surface of the hair shaft, which makes hair smoother and shinier as the flat scales reflect light more coherently. Scales that lie more snugly against the hair shaft also prevent moisture loss more efficiently, which helps hair to be stronger and healthier. With the normal exposure to the environment as well as washing and styling, this acid mantle can become contaminated or removed and must be restored with the use of properly pH-balanced products.

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