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

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
What’s the state of your hair?