THE BIOLOGY & CHEMISTRY
of Beautiful Hair and How to Get It
Long locks of hair unlock the key to a man’s heart... Throughout history, women have woven a tapestry of desire with their alluring tresses. Legend has it that mermaids and sirens lured sailors to their deaths while combing their long lustrous curls. Australian aborigines saved their wives’ hair clippings as a prized possession. Even today, some orthodox Jewish women only allow their husbands to see this most enticing treasure... their crowning glory.
In this cultural tapestry of diverse hair styles, the esthetic for what makes beautiful hair can vary greatly. Although different cultures desire different qualities in hair, most people are attracted to lush, thick, long locks, especially in women. The barometer for a beautiful head of hair is youth. Just as a child’s skin radiates with newborn freshness, young hair reigns supreme as the ideal crown to frame our dewy complexion.
Sadly, our hair moves away from that ideal as we watch it grow thin, lose pigment and get more and more damaged over mother time. However, proper hair care can reduce, and in some cases even reverse, the effects of the passing years.
What Is Hair?
What if I told you that nails, scales, feathers, horns and claws are skin? Would that surprise you? Well, that’s just the hairy truth. You see, hair is a specialized form of skin. Although the hair on our head generally invites the most attention, hair grows over a large percentage of the human body serving to protect, send sensory signals and sexually attract potential mates.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people ask: Tell me how to have a fuller head of hair... long beautiful hair. The question is how many beautiful hairs does it take to make up one head of hair? Well, a single hair has a thickness of 0.02 to 0.04 millimeters, so it takes 20 to 50 hair fibers stacked next to one other to span about one millimeter. We have about five million hairs on our bodies, with about 450,000 of them found above the neck. Now that’s a whole lot of hairs isn’t it? Most people have about 150,000 hairs on their head and normally shed 25 to 100 a day while growing an equivalent number of new hairs. Another 30,000 hairs reside in men’s mustaches and beards. Blondes usually have more scalp hair than those with dark or red hair.
Mature hairs are filaments composed primarily of proteins (88 percent) which form a hard, tough, fibrous type of protein known as keratin. Proteins are composed of a long chain of amino acids that link together. The keratin found in human hair also forms a major protein in fingernails. Hair contains a tough outer coating, the cuticle, which consists of overlapping scale-like bits of hard keratin. Inside the hair shaft, or cortex, resides a core of softer protein filaments.
Hair proteins have a high sulfur content from the amino acid cysteine, which forms cross-links in the hair proteins that are responsible for the hair’s toughness and abrasion resistance. You would never guess when looking at all the hairs that collect in your brush, but human hair is as strong as a wire of iron. Nevertheless, it rips after being damaged or stretched 70 percent beyond its original length.
Hairs Many Hues
The sumptuous shades of human hair are too vast to count. This colorful rainbow ranges from black, brown, red and blond with subtle variations like burgundy, strawberry blond, and copper brown. This rich feast treats our eyes with a smorgasbord of endless hues.
As in a rainbow where light bounces all around us, light bounces off the hair proteins and this partially influences hair color. However, it is the type and amount of pigment within the hair shaft center that primarily determines the tint. Eumelanin is the pigment found in black and brown hair and to a lesser degree in blonde hair. Pheomelanin produces red hair, while a mix of eumelanin and pheomelanin produces the blonde-red combination known as strawberry blonde. The greater the amount of pigment, the darker the hair color. As the amount of pigment decreases, the hair color turns from black to brown and then reddish or blond. When pigment drastically diminishes, the hair appears gray, and when absent, the hair looks white.
As we age, our hair color generally changes. Many “towheaded” children who have blonde-whitish hair as youngsters turn into brunette adults and eventually gray or white-haired elders. Swedes, famous for their blond hair, often grow into brunette adults. Ingmar Bergman, a famous Swedish director, paints his young innocent blond characters to grow up as dark, somber and reflective. So could the transition from blond to brunette provide him with a useful metaphor?
Under some circumstances, the hair can lose its color prematurely. Severe stress can turn hair white overnight. Legend has it that Marie Antoinette went “white” the night before her execution. In the trench warfare of World War I, there were cases of young men whose hair turned gray within two months after prolonged episodes of severe fighting and artillery bombardments. Malnutrition can also cause hair to prematurely turn gray or white. A lack of sufficient dietary copper can cause the hair to lose its color. Excessive dietary zinc from supplements may drive out the copper needed to synthesize hair pigments and turn hair gray.
Hair Length and Growth
Hair grows faster in the spring and summer. Advertisers often manipulate this fact to “prove” that certain hair-growth remedies work wonders. In actuality, one’s age, health, diet or genetics determines the rate at which the hair grows. The length of time your hair follicles stay in the anagen (active growing) phase determines the maximum length your hair will grow. On average, waist-length hair takes about five years to grow out from a short haircut with periodic trims included. The following list illustrates the average lengths and growth rates of the hair on the head and body.
Per Day (mm)
|On the head
|Mustache (beard or whiskers)
Factors that Damage Hair
Many factors damage hair fibers including environmental elements (such as prolonged exposure to sunlight or wind) plus chemical and mechanical injuries (such as tight hairstyles, hot rollers, hot oil treatments, and harsh use of hair dryers). The chemicals we use to alter our hair come with a price. Bleaches, dyes, relaxers, and perming agents, all cause varying degrees of damage. Some cosmetic products partially repair damaged hair, but a good quality of hair will return only after new hair grows in.
Choosing the Right Shampoo
When we wash our hair excessively, we shampoo out more than grime. We also wash out natural oils which protect our scalp. As a result, too much shampooing damages hair shafts. It is important to choose shampoo carefully. The best shampoos are around pH 6.0, at the high end of the slightly acidic pH of the scalp (4.5 to 6.0). Maintaining the natural acid environment of the hair and scalp keeps the hair proteins hard and prevents the growth of foreign bacteria. Thus, by using the best shampoos and not over washing, we preserve the hair and skin oils that benefit our scalp.
Shampoos with a higher pH have a negative impact on the hair for several reasons. While more alkaline shampoos work better to clean the hair and scalp, they also strip away many of the hair’s natural oils and the “glues” that help hold the hair shafts together. A high pH shampoo may make hair look great for a few weeks, but eventually it will lead to dry brittle hair and increase breakage.
Don’t be fooled by baby shampoos that claim to be gentle to your hair and eyes. Many baby shampoos have a high pH that can strip hair and are thus not at all gentle. Also be cautious with “clarifying shampoos.” Formulated to remove buildup of gels, mousses, pomades and other products that weigh down your hair, they can also remove color and perms. Some hair experts recommend using a combination of plain baking soda and your normal shampoo to remove build-up. Other ingredients to avoid include flash foamers, chemicals that enhance the foaming of shampoo, and added fragrances, neither of which have a positive effect.
Choosing the right shampoo is especially important for those with an oily scalp. Greasy hair is more difficult to manage than normal or dry hair and is often tough to comb. Oily hair is covered with sebum from the sebaceous glands of the hair follicle. While frequent washing with a stronger, more-soapy shampoo may help remove oil, it can also damage the hair. Some use retinoic acid to reduce oil production. Retinoic acid should be used sparingly, as overuse can irritate the scalp.
Avoid selecting a shampoo based on its high price tag. Costly shampoos are not a head above the rest. A shampoo’s price is generally related to the cost of its advertising. If the label on a shampoo bottle tells you to wash your hair twice, ignore it; the manufacturer is simply encouraging you to use more of the product. Always use a minimum amount of shampoo. Some shampoo manufacturers recommend that you comb through wet hair to distribute the shampoo evenly. But wet hair is more easily broken, and you will only end up with damaged hair.
When you are done washing your hair, the shampoo should be completely rinsed out to help bring the pH back down to its natural level. If your hair is very dry, only shampoo every three days. Our ancestors went months between hair washings, one of the reasons their hair was so healthy.
Choosing the Right Conditioner
The outer layer of hair called the cuticle is somewhat like fish scales made of hard keratin. The cuticle is held together by disulfide bonds plus small amino acids. In healthy shiny hair, the outer layer of scales lies flat which allows for combs and brushes to smoothly glide through it. Hair with a damaged cuticle appears dry, drab, split, brittle, or frizzy.
Quality conditioners add amino acids, peptides, and pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5) into the cuticle to help glue the scales tightly to the hair shaft. If the cuticle stays open, it can start a tear in the hair shaft which leads to breakage of the shaft. This is why it is important to use a conditioner separately.
Conditioners that strengthen the hair have a low pH of about 4.0 to 4.7. The hair proteins remain hard and strong at a low pH. Some conditioners contain a small amount of fat to give the hair a better shine. The best products are sold in successful hair salons. These salons need happy, repeat customers and usually do not advertise their products. The longer you leave the conditioner on your hair, the better it works. Some manufacturers recommend leaving conditioner on the hair for only a few seconds, but longer is generally better (one to two minutes).
Tips for Long, Healthy Hair
In the last chapter I told you about George Michael (now retired), who became famous for helping women grow their hair to extraordinary lengths. As I mentioned, Dr. Michael believes that longer hair is healthier hair, or as he puts it, “The longer the hair, the stronger the root.” Many women are taught that by age 30, their hair should be no longer than shoulder length. Dr. Michael feels the contrary is true. He believes long hair majestically frames a mature woman’s features—that it downplays wrinkles and makes her look younger.
When counseling women on how to grow long hair, Dr. Michael taught them that it is important to have hair of one length, without bangs or layers. According to his findings, the body tries to equalize uneven hair by excessively shedding strands.
|Hair Length - Inches
||Numbers of Hairs
Lost Per Day
When working with long-haired clients, Dr. Michael utilized many methods to protect the hair. He set hair dryers at only about 10 degrees F higher than body temperature (most blow dryers reach temperatures of up to 260 degrees and damage hair follicles). When curling the hair, he used large rollers of soft mesh or plastic rather than rollers that grab the hair and can tear it. He took special care to protect the ends of the hair when rolling or setting. Shampoos were kept to a minimum. He recommended vitamin and mineral supplements. Dr. Michael also advised women to cover their hair at all times when exposed to direct sunlight. (See www.longhairlovers.com).
Changing the Look of Your Hair
You can dramatically alter your hair’s appearance by changing its shape through permanent waving or straightening. However, both of these procedures cause damage to the scalp and hair. This damage might include breakage, thinning, lack of growth, scalp irritation, scalp damage, and hair loss. If the damage becomes excessive, serious hair loss may occur. Before undergoing any hair treatment, especially one that introduces powerful chemicals to your hair, you owe it to yourself to be well informed about the following procedures.
Permanents add depth and richness to limp or frizzy hair. However, they can also be quite harsh. Permanents break the disulfide bonds in the proteins that hold hair together during the process of wrapping hair around a roller to form it into a new texture. As a result, the disulfide bonds are chemically reset and the new, curly texture locks into place.
However, when the perming solution is left on too long, is too strong, or when applied to hair damaged by dye, bleach, or an earlier perm, the hair and follicles can get severely damaged. If this happen, some choose to apply a copper peptide cream or lotion on their scalp for three to four nights following the procedure to restore scalp health.
Many women love the look of straight locks of shiny hair. Thus, straightening is an increasingly popular option. During the procedure, an alkaline-reducing agent breaks down disulfide bonds that keep hair curly. Hair relaxers, typically creams or cream lotions, contain about 2 to 4 percent of strong bases such as sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, and lithium hydroxide or 5 percent calcium hydroxide plus a solution of up to about 30 percent guanidine carbonate. The pH is around 12. Some relaxers contain about 4 percent ammonium thioglycolate as the active ingredient.
Before the straightening procedure, you apply a petroleum-base cream to help protect the scalp. Then rub on the chemical relaxer and gently comb the hair straight. After a period of time, remove the relaxer with warm water and a neutralizing formula. Finally, apply a conditioner to restore some of the natural oils and proteins removed by the chemical.
As with perms, the harsh chemicals in straighteners can cause severe damage to the hair. I suggest you follow the procedure with applications of a copper peptide scalp product to help restore scalp health.
Only employ a hair-care specialist with a record of success in chemical straightening. I strongly recommend that you obtain professional conditioning treatments before and after the process.
Alternatively, you can apply intense heat to reset bonds which straightens curls. Some use a flat styling iron. Others boldly flatten their hair with a clothing iron over an ironing board covered with a smooth towel. And for many years people have used “hot combs” to press out the hair by running a metal comb (heated either electrically or manually) gently through the hair. However, it is important to note that extreme heat can severely damage the hair. So caution is needed with whichever method of straightening a person may individually decide to use.
Chemical Hair Relaxers
Sit down and relax to the hair raising story of hair relaxers. It began early in the twentieth century.
His name was Garrett Augustus Morgan, and he was born the seventh of eleven children of former slaves. He is best known for his invention of the automatic traffic signal and gas mask. Around 1910, while attempting to invent a new lubricating liquid for the sewing machine, Morgan wiped his hands on a wool cloth and found that the wooly texture of the cloth “smoothed out.” He experimented on his curly haired Airedale dog and successfully duplicated the effect. Morgan called his discovery a “hair-refining cream” and patented the first chemical hair relaxer.
Today Morgan’s discovery, lye (sodium hydroxide), is still a common ingredient in chemical relaxers because it provides the strongest and most dramatic effect. However strong drain cleaners also contain this harsh chemical. Try visualizing drain cleaner on your scalp. Not a pretty picture!
Guanidine hydroxide, another chemical commonly found in hair relaxers, is often promoted as the “no-lye” relaxer. However, do not let the name fool you. It still contains strong chemicals. Although this type of relaxer can inflict less damage than its counterpart, your hair and scalp should still be in top condition before you attempt the procedure.
How Chemical Relaxers Work
How can chemicals “relax” or straighten hair? Both lye and no-lye relaxers contain harsh chemicals that work in the same manner: they both alter the basic structure of the hair shaft. The chemical penetrates the cortex or cortical layer and loosens the natural curl pattern.
However this inner layer of the shaft not only gives curly hair its shape, it also provides strength and elasticity. Once you perform the straightening process, the result is irreversible. Although you end up with straighter hair, you are now left with much weaker strands susceptible to breakage.
It is easy to “over-process” hair by using excessive relaxers or by applying more chemicals to hair already processed or relaxed. This over processing illustrates the most typical misuse of hair-relaxing chemicals. Once you apply the initial relaxer to “virgin hair”, perform touch-ups over new growth no more than every six to eight weeks.
This type of depilatory contains the harsh chemical calcium thioglycolate that literary dissolves the hair shaft. The partially dissolved hair then can be removed with a sponge and warm water. Since the root remains intact, hair grows back promptly. Chemical depilatories are found in the form of creams, lotions or sprays. Many modern formulations also contain additives to soothe irritation or slow down hair growth. Waxing However, if your hair is thick and the skin is sensitive or damaged, painful irritation may develop earlier than the hair will finish dissolving. The result will be red, inflamed skin covered with the remains of the unwanted hair. That is why it is always important to test this method on a small area first. Harsh chemicals that are strong enough to dissolve your hair will not be so gentle on skin either. Those with sensitive thin skin should be especially careful with this method of hair removal. Since skin irritation leads to increased pigment production, it is important to protect your skin from UV rays immediately after depilation, otherwise it may develop pigmented spots. Also make sure to apply healing products that calm down irritation and facilitate recovery post hair removal.
Hair on small areas such as eyebrows can be plucked out with tweezers. This method works well for shaping eyebrows or removing hairs remaining after other methods of hair removal such as waxing. Tweezing does damage hair roots and eventually the hair grows back thinner and lighter. However, this method causes frequent damage to hair follicles and may lead to inflammation and the development of red bumps. If freshly plucked skin is exposed to sunlight, unwanted pigmentation may also develop.
For eons, hair waxing has been used by Asian women for hygienic, cultural and esthetic reasons. Modern chemistry in many cases brought modifications to this method; however the basic principle remains the same—extraction of the hair from its root with the aid of a sticky substance. The best waxes are those that do not stick as much to the skin as they do to the hair, thus ensuring a relatively painless and complete hair removal. Sadly, the majority of hair waxing products grip the skin as well, pulling it and stripping away thin layers of the stratum corneum. This results in irritation, damage of skin elastic fibers, and disruption of the skin barrier. Those treated with systemic retinoids such as Accutane should not use waxing methods because their skin will be fragile and more easily damaged. Additionally, waxing should not be used on anyone with damaged skin, warts or moles.
This is a slow and often painful procedure, but it is the only FDA approved method of permanent hair removal. An electric current is delivered to the hair follicle via a very thin needle that has to be precisely situated in the follicle. If the esthetician misses the follicle, the hair will grow back and the procedure has to be repeated. Since actively growing hair is the most sensitive to the procedure, it takes many sessions (15- 30) to target all the hair. Although with patience and time (not mentioning money) hair can be permanently removed using this method, the damage to the skin and hair follicle can result in keloid formation, warts, and skin discoloration.
Laser Hair Removal
The laser hair removal technique utilizes the process of light absorption by the dark hair pigment—melanin. When high energy laser irradiation is absorbed by melanin, the hair heats up, burning the hair follicle just as a metal rod in the fire burns the hand that holds it. The result is severe damage to the follicle which stops hair growth. However, the skin also contains melanin which can absorb laser energy and heat up, burning the surrounding areas. Therefore the more pigment in the hair, the less in the skin, the better. So those with the contrast of black hair and very light skin have the best chance for successful hair removal with minimal skin damage.
Lasers have revolutionized hair removal allowing fast, relatively painless elimination of hair from large areas. But this is still a method that you should be very cautious about. The intense heat delivered straight into the hair follicle incinerates not only the unwanted hair but often your skin’s gold reserve as well—we are talking about your stem cells located in the “bulge area” of hair follicles. You know the saying that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a couple of eggs? Well in this case, you simply cannot burn down the hair follicle without damaging your stem cells as well. Make sure that it is a price you are willing to pay for smooth, hairless skin.
Although lasers are considered “safe” under the direction of a skilled expert (“safe” in that there may not be any visible or immediate complications), they can turn into a weapon of skin destruction if used improperly. Dermatologists often see disfigurement, burns, scars, and skin discoloration in those who didn’t spend enough time researching the credentials of their laser hair removal specialist. Remember though that even if no visible complications are present, the skin rarely emerges from such a procedure intact, and therefore needs your special attention to recover.
How to Reduce Any Skin Damage After Hair Removal:
1. Use a copper-peptide cream to repair irritation
2. Follow with a biological oil to soothe and moisturize
Importance of Skin Healing After Hair Removal
Allhair-removal methods (tweezing, shaving, waxing, electrolysis, lasers, pharmaceutical creams, and so on) cause skin damage that allows viruses and bacteria to penetrate into the skin. For example, warts seem to develop from injured or broken skin. In adults, warts tend to grow where hair-removal procedures have damaged the skin, such as the beard area of men and the legs of women. To restore the skin after shaving, many choose to apply a copper peptide cream which closes the skin’s surface to viruses and bacteria to help heal the skin.
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