Moisturizing hair is an extremely common and popular topic among naturals. It’s the focus of natural hair meet-ups, workshops and conferences. And though there are so many resources that discuss moisture and provide tips on how to do so, preventing or minimizing dryness seems to be something that most women who are natural are unable to do effectively. Whenever I present at workshops and ask women what their number one concern is it’s ALWAYS how to combat dry hair. And it doesn’t seem to matter what season; dry hair is always an issue whether summer or winter. There are so many protocols available based on women’s experiences on what worked for them. In doing the research however, I found very little information on the science of hydrating the hair and how to do it effectively. So I’m going to dedicate the next few articles to this extremely important topic and give you a very effective protocol on how to properly hydrate your hair.
First things first: Hair structure
It’s important to understand hair structure basics when discussing moisture. The hair follicle is what produces hair and it’s located inside of the scalp. The follicle is the living part of hair; what is emerging from the scalp is not living tissue.
The sebaceous glands are part of the hair follicle and these glands produce sebum. Please remember sebum because it’s this mix of oils and wax that is important when it comes to moisturizing the hair.
The Hair Shaft
The Hair shaft is the part of the fiber we see emerging from the scalp and is “dead”. The hair fiber is made up of three layers that control its various physical characteristics including what it looks like, its strength, its ability to take in water and overall health
The shaft of the hair is made up of three layers:
The two layers of most important that I want to focus on are the cortex and cuticle
This is the most important part of the hair fiber. It’s so important I’ll state this again. The cortex is the most important part of the hair fiber. Why? Because it contains the hair’s protein called keratin. Keratin forms the basic structure of the hair. The keratins are held together within a “cement” rich in fats called the cell-membrane complex or CMC. The cortex also contains the substance that gives hair its colour called melanin.
The hair’s strength and elasticity come from the cortex and water is essential for the maintenance of this strength, elasticity and the integrity of the hair fiber. Without moisture in the cortex the hair becomes thin, frizzy and much more prone to damage and breakage.
The Cuticle: The Hair’s First Line of Defence
The cuticle is attached to the cortex and forms a tight sheath around it. The cuticle has 2 main jobs:
1. Protects that hair (and specifically the cortex) from damage of any form.
2. Allows moisture in and out of the hair as needed. In other words, the cuticle helps maintain the hair’s proper moisture balance.
The healthy appearance of the hair depends almost exclusively on the condition of the cuticle and this is layer is the one we’re most concerned with on a daily basis.
The Main Causes of Dry Hair
There are a few main causes of dry hair. I’ve determined there are 5. Others may believe there are more, others less. However these are some causes that through my research I’ve found to be contributing factors to hair dryness in curly and textured hair.
1. Highly porous hair. Porosity refers to how easily your hair absorbs and holds moisture. This is extremely important because it will help you choose the right products to keep your hair moisturized. Now this next part is extremely important. Remember we spoke about the cuticle and it’s importance in protecting the sensitive structures of hair – the protein? Well porosity is actually affected by the cuticle which determines how easily MOISTURE and OILS pass in and out of the hair. Now for most porosity is genetically determined but it can be affected dramatically by outside factors such as the exposure to ultraviolet rays, chemical processing such as colouring and relaxer applications, and mechanical stress on the hair such as everyday combing, styling and manipulation.
There are 3 classifications of porosity:
- Low porosity. This is hair where the cuticle is tightly bound and the scales lie flat. This type of hair is usually considered to be healthy and it’s often shiny. Low porosity hair with repel moisture when you try to wet it and it is hard to process since it doesn’t really allow chemicals in through the cuticle. *The thing you need to know about LOW porosity hair is that it is prone to build up from conditioning treatments that are high in protein. These types of treatments can leave the hair stiff and straw-like*.
- Medium porosity hair usually requires the least amount of maintenance. The cuticle layer is typically looser and this allows just the right amount of moisture into the hair while preventing too much from escaping.
- High porosity usually occurs for two reasons: it’s inherent in the hair (meaning that this is the way your hair is) or it is the result of damage from chemical processing, rough treatment or environmental damage such as exposure to ultraviolet radiation and from free radical damage. This type of hair has gaps and holes in the cuticle. As a consequence too much moisture gets into the hair leaving it prone to tangling and frizz in humid weather.
2. Shampooing with sulfate based shampoos and those with a high pH. Remember that fatty layer in the hair called the cell membrane complex or CMC? Shampoos that contain sodium laureth sulfate are considered to be harsh. This is because this cleansing agent does what it’s supposed to do really well. It cleanses and strips the hair of the natural oils located in the outermost layer of the cuticle. When these oils are stripped the result can be damage from combing and styling. In addition, this cell membrane complex can be dissolved with repeated shampoos with a high pH and harsh detergents like sodium laureth sulfate leading to dryness and damage.
3. Heat. Many naturals still use heat on their hair. Many women I consult with regularly blow dry and flat iron their hair because they like the look of straight sleek hair or because they don’t know what else to do with their hair. So let me go through how heat leads to dry hair and damage. Water begins to leave the hair shaft at much lower temperatures; around 50 to 120 degrees celcius which is 122 F to 248 F. Healthy hair burns at 233 degrees calcium which as about 451.4 degrees celcius. If the hair is already damaged then the burn will occurs at much lower temperatures. Additionally, the important, fragile proteins in the hair begin to break at 155 C and as the temperature increases to over 233 C the keratin begins to melt. Essentially heat reduces the moisture content in the hair and disrupts the protein structure. If you constantly used heat through flat-ironing or blowdrying your hair can stay permanently straight because the protein and moisture bonds in the hair fiber fail to reform, resulting in loosely curled or straight pieces. |
4. The overuse of oils and the wrong types of oils. Oils are used for many things when it comes to hair but moisturizing is not one of them. Using oils in place of ingredients that truly moisturize can lead to a cycle of dryness, breakage and frustration! Additionally when using oils, not all are created equally and, due to the fats that make up various oils, some will sit on the outside of the hair preventing water from going into the hair and leaving the hair. Others will be absorbed into the hair providing suppleness, and hydration, helping the hair to retain moisture. The key is knowing WHICH oils to use and when as not all oils are created equally.
5. Skipping using a conditioner or using the INCORRECT conditioner for your hair. Choosing the right products for your hair are important for the condition of your hair and nothing is more important than choosing the right conditioner for moisture. This is where knowing what ingredients are in the conditioner and the exact function of those ingredients is crucial. Some conditioners don’t work for every hair type and texture to condition and hydrate the hair. Ensuring you choose the correct type of conditioner for your hair care needs can boost your hair’s hydration level.