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Curly Nikki

The Curl Whisperer on Shedding

By January 27th, 202115 Comments

Tiffany, do certain products or techniques result in excess shedding? I’ve heard that conditioner applied directly to the scalp may cause hair fall.

Tiffany says:
Yes, there are definitely products or techniques that can cause excess loss of hair or breakage.

Sulfate-based shampoos, especially those with sodium laurel sulfate, can be responsible for hair loss. The primary issue with sulfates is that it is very, very difficult to rinse your hair and scalp completely clean of them, leaving behind a heavy detergent deposit–one that continues to build up over time–that can damage your hair follicles. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology (Volume 2, Number 7, pp. 127-181, 1983) cited that hair loss, comedone (blackhead) formation and irritancy can often result from the residue left behind by sulfates.

Products that are often highly alkaline, such as Pantene or Prell, can be quite damaging to the hair and cause hair loss and breakage as well. If you look on the labels of some of these products, you’ll notice “sodium hydroxide” on the list–yes, that stuff also known as lye which is used in relaxers and extra-strength perms. I could literally give you a perm with some of these products if I wrap you in perm rods, apply the product over your head, then process and neutralize you as with a regular perm.

Also, some of these products are commonly full of wax as well, which coat the hair shaft and can cause damage and breakage. Take a hair strand from anyone who uses one of these products on a regular basis and run the blade of a scissors up the shaft–you’ll see a white, waxy film that peels off. (As far as the “suffocation” argument of wax-based products, incidentally–they can’t truly suffocate the hair strand since hair is technically not a living thing, but a wax build-up sure has the potential to suffocate those living follicles in your scalp!).

Conditioner in and of itself, when applied directly to the scalp, will not cause hair fall unless it contains a product ingredient that is harmful to the scalp or hair. Any product–shampoo, conditioner or styling aid–that is too alkaline can disturb the acid mantle, however. The acid mantle is the very fine, slightly acidic film on the scalp that acts as a barrier to keep bacteria, viruses and other contaminants or chemicals from penetrating the scalp. As an example: one of the reasons that you are instructed to color your hair when it is “dirty” instead of freshly washed is not because the color will take better on the hair shaft –it is so your acid mantle is intact and will prevent the chemical color from penetrating your scalp.

So, if you are applying products that are too alkaline to your scalp on a too-frequent basis, you are interfering with the natural acid mantle function and leaving a very vulnerable part of yourself exposed. Your acid mantle is there for a reason and it needs to remain undisturbed as much as possible so it can do its job to keep you and your hair healthy.

As far as techniques, scalp massage helps to keep your hair healthy and can also promote hair growth by stimulating the blood flow to the hair follicles, but make sure you are only using the pads of your fingers to stimulate your scalp; using your fingernails can damage your scalp, which could lead to hair breakage and loss. And if you use a brush in your hair care routine, it is important to use one with naturally rounded tips that won’t tear the scalp, and to avoid yanking the brush through any tangles.


  • Anonymous says:

    By “products”, I do mean products in general–sorry if I wasn’t more clear!

    Pure ACV carries a pH value of around 2.5 (note: sometimes “natural” or “organic” ACV runs higher), so it definitely can be used to help bring the hair back into a proper pH balance (as a reference point, the neutralizing/normalizing shampoos used with relaxers generally range from 4.5 to 6.0). Diluted with water, ACV makes a great rinse for bringing your hair back into a more appropriate range.

  • Anonymous says:

    Can ACV rinses bring the hair back to a normal PH after using highly alkaline products?

  • Happiness says:

    “Products that are often highly alkaline, such as Pantene or Prell, can be quite damaging to the hair and cause hair loss and breakage as well.”

    Hey Tiffany, by “products” do you mean leave in products? or rinse out shampoos and conditioners…or jst products in general? thanx!

  • Anonymous says:

    Hope everyone is having a great evening…below are some responses to some of the questions/points that have been raised:

    Sodium hydroxide, which carries an extremely high pH value of 13-14, will continue to break the disulfide bonds in your hair if it is not neutralized in some way and your hair is not restored to its proper pH levels, leading to breakage and hair loss.

    I do not believe Aveda’s Be Curly contains any sodium hydroxide, although it has been a while since I’ve looked at their products.

    Unfortunately, many products do not contain a low concentration of sulfates when they are included–they are often the second ingredient listed on the ingredient label, which means the product contains more sulfates than any other product ingredient, save one (most usually water). Other ingredients added are usually in lesser amounts that I wouldn’t count on totally negating the effects of sulfates, especially given that “pH-neutral” products are still 100 times more alkaline than hair (see below) in the first place.

    I had a first-hand demonstration of the Pantene perm when I was in beauty school, when I was learning about product ingredients in my first design level, by one of the instructors. The result was not a strong curl, about the same as you’d get from a body wave, but there was a definite permanent wave pattern change from the process.

    Sodium hydroxide is an extremely caustic substance and its main function in the practice of cosmetology is to destroy disulfide bonds in the hair; it is also the same chemical used in drain cleaners and chemical hair depilatories. While I am not a product chemist, I imagine there are probably more appropriate and responsible ingredients that could be used to simply balance the pH of a hair product than one this corrosive.

    “Neutral” on the pH scale means a value of 7; your hair ranges from 4.5 to 5.5. While a two-fold increase in pH may not seem like a big deal, it is important to note the pH scale is what is called a “logarithmic” scale: each change in number means a tenfold change in pH. So, hair products that are “pH-neutral” are still approximately 100 times more alkaline than your hair.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post Nik! Tiffany’s explanation and analysis here is far more detailed and informative than the last discussion on SLS!

  • Anonymous says:

    It seems like its too much to know about hair products..What are the products that are good because it seems like everything has something wrong with it?

  • Anonymous says:

    umm, i wouldn’t use pantene on my hair if were the last shampoo on the planet. I don’t care for ingredients that aren’t necessary, such as sulfates, and i’m allergic to sodium hydroxide. i am having a hard time figuring out why some protest so much against those who suggest avoiding sulfates. if you think sulfates are okay, then they are okay for you and, by all means, use shampoos that include sulfates. if sulfates are not okay, then there are a wealth of alternatives on the market. as for me, i try to make as much stuff as i can nowadays. but all the back and forth makes me think that someone is either a little too close to the hair care industry or is an ego trip or something.

  • Anonymous says:

    I checked, the hello hydration intensive mask has sodium hydroxide listed in the middle before linalool, magnesium nitrate, fruit extract and cocos nucifera extract

  • Anonymous says:

    Regarding sodium hydroxide, it’s not included in my bottles of Hello Hydration but the last ingredient in the Pantene mask. To be fair to pantene, only a minute amount of NaOH (sodium hydroxide) is added to their products to balance the PH, when used it actually becomes a salt after the solution is made, which happens alot in chemical reactions. To summarize, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the sodium hydroxide in the conditioners. Regarding their shampoos however, pantene shampoos have always been to harsh and utterly stripping to my hair and I would NEVER use them again, so clearly they are using too much sulfates in their shampoos and I would proceed with caution. And trust me, I am not against SLS completely, it’s listed in my fav facial cleanser cetaphil as one of the last ingredients, and I also used in on my eczema prone son with no problems.

  • Makeup Theory says:

    I have four words: Dr. Bonner’s Castille Soap.

  • Anonymous says:

    Just to specify that I am talking about hair shampoo and conditioners when I said that most hair products are pH neutral.

    Other products such as hair colour and relaxers are usually not pH neutral

  • Anonymous says:

    Yep the sulphate topic again lol. I agree that alkaline products can be a problem for hair, if you do not follow up with a treatment to rebalance the hair back to an acidic pH (5) but I have to disagree with some points

    1. The study done in 1983 was relevant but you have to account for the fact that it was pure sls in a solution. This is not like shampoo at all which has plenty of added ingredients to balance it out. Most shampoos (including pantene – pH 6.97) are pH neutral. Additionally the report itself did say that SLS products are perfectly fine if you apply and rinse off and use at low concentrations

    2. Pantene has had some bad press from the hair industry and to counter it they have even have an ‘ask a scientist’ page. If you would like to know more just go to where cosmetic scientists have dispelled alot of myths about pantene.

    3. Sodium Hydroxide is added to many products especially conditioners to help balance the pH. Pantene has it as does Hello Hydration (I love it too but I use the intensive mask). It is not added in any amount that can cause protein disruption as happens with perms or relaxers. I can honestly say that I seriously doubt that you could use pantene or hello hydration on their own to give you a perm. If you set your hair on rollers, you just get a temporary curl related to the plasticity of hair.

    To b – In chemistry acidic chemicals give off hydrogen ions (protons) while alkaline chemicals take up these ions. So acids (proton donors)have a low pH (anywhere below 7) and alkalines (proton acceptors)have a high pH (over 7). In reality, we generally would regard a neutral level around 6.5 and 7.5. Neutral chemicals are balanced (or in equilibrium as chemists would say), generally not taking up or releasing protons. Therefore, in short sodium hydroxide is added to counter the effects of other chemicals that are releasing hydrogen ions leaving you with a neutral product.

    If you want to know the pH of your product, you can just buy some litmus paper from your pharmacy/chemist, wet it, dip in the product (no fingers to spread out the product, you’ll interfere with the pH) and use the pH scale to read the pH.

    Most hair products are usually pH neutral.

  • Anonymous says:

    Is this for Pantene Relaxed & Natural products? What about Aveda Products, like the Becurly?

  • Anonymous says:

    I never realized Pantene has sodium hydroxide in it (good thing I stopped using them). Dandruff shampoos are another culprit. I read one soap site that said s.h. is a binding agent, but another one that confirmed what you said. Question: if the sodium hydroxide isn’t later neutralized, will it still straighten the hair?

    And what types of products qualify as alkaline? (Chemistry is not my strong suit… 😉 )

    Oh yeah also…NPR had two great segments this morning on hair and will feature a web chat at noon today on their site. Just a heads’ up!

  • Anonymous says:

    The sulfate discussion once again. Choosing the right cleanser has been the most frustrating for me as I want to maintain a clean healthy scalp and hair without the negative effects associated with so many cleansers. Currently, I am using shampoos with with magnesium laureth sulfate or C14-16 olefin sulfonate. Tiffany, are those sulfates still too harsh and can contribute to hair loss? If so, what are the best options as I do use conditioners with amodimethicone and heavy oils and butters and want an effective cleanser.

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