There are just a couple major components making up one strand of hair. The cuticle, the cortex and (on just a small percentage of thicker hair) the medulla.
The cuticle - while only making up 20% of the hair’s strength - is the key to those happy hair days we all get to enjoy on occasion.
The International Journal of Dermatology states:
“The integrity and properties of the cuticle layer have an important role in protecting the cortex from physical and chemical insults and in maintaining the hair in a clean and disentangled state and have a great impact on its appearance.”
That cuticle is “where it’s at” and here’s more information as to why:
Like I had mentioned above, the cuticle makes up only 20% of the overall strength of the hair; however, that cuticle does comprise all of the protection of that other 80%. That means that if the cuticle is damaged, broken, split or exposed, it renders the rest of the hair vulnerable to the many elements that it comes in contact with every day.
There are many things out there declaring war on your cuticle. Three specific types of hair damage that we hairstylists look for when we’re checking out your locks, are:
Environmental - Smog, sun, wind, humidity and climate influence.
Mechanical - hot tools, brushes, elastics, blow dryers
Chemical - color, bleach, perms, relaxers
The health of the cuticle is going to impact what we should do with your hair but also what we CAN do to your hair.
It’s just fully keratinized (hardened) epithelial cells. That’s why it doesn’t physically hurt you when you cut it. Whether or not a haircut has emotionally hurt you is another story…. but I digress…
Basically, once that cuticle damaged or broken, that’s it. It cannot regenerate. All of that air, pollution and more can come on in and set up shop in your cortex and start tearing apart the other 80% of what makes up your updo.
How does this information or evaluation change what we can do in the salon chair?
Simple. Overly porous hair - hair that has a wide open cuticle or really damaged cuticle - will change the way hair color performs and whether we can allow it on the stage at all. It makes a difference on whether or not you need to cut or if we can do many other services.
Hair that is completely over-processed (i.e. “fried”) is hair that has been damaged beyond the cuticle and has (usually from chemical damage), basically, disintegrated throughout the strand. Often called a “chemical haircut”, that over-processed hair starts to break off because there’s just no reason to hold on. Remember, it’s already dead so we’re trying to keep up the preservation along with having some fun with it.
How do you know it's "fried"? If it feels slippery or slimy when shampooing and breaks off like hay when dry.
We, then, apply acidic (on the ph scale) products to close that cuticle back up to seal in your color or other desired results. Now, don’t fret… acidic is purely about its rating on the pH scale. We’re not applying caustic acid on people. That’s crazy talk.
There are, in fact, many acidic oils and other goodies in some fine hair conditioners. Avocado, Jojoba, Sweet Almond and other oils are acidic in nature and, thus, help that cuticle stay closed. It’s the reason why old school stories of using beer or vinegar on hair to create shine actually does happen. Yeast (beer) and vinegar are both acidic and the cuticle closes from their natural pH. Thankfully, many hair lines are now being made with great oils that help so we don’t have to smell like a bad night out or a salad to get some shine.
If you’re looking at your hair and it’s frizzy, guess what? That is an open cuticle you’re looking at. Remember the “pine cone” reference above? That’s what it looks like magnified. Those open shingles of protection cannot hold in moisture and color. They cannot protect the cortex.
Have you ever felt like your hair doesn’t want to dry? That the hair is holding onto the water more than you think it should? Those cuticles are crying out for the thirsty inner cortex. Listen to it.
In the opening quote from the International Journal of Dermatology, it mentions how the cuticle influences style (“disentangled state”) and appearance. Well, a closed cuticle is a happy cuticle.
A closed cuticle will be without frizz, have ample moisture distribution and protection and even have a more even color process throughout. A closed cuticle will bounce light off of it so we see shiny hair. A closed cuticle will also keep from tangling within itself. Imagine a bunch of pinecones together - they’re going to latch on.
If you’ve known of hair that tangles like crazy in the process of just shampooing it, you’ve got yourself an open cuticle and probably a fine texture, too.
So what can you do to care for your precious cuticle? Love it.
Don’t tear through it when it’s wet with that hard brush. Don’t put your hair in ponytails when wet, either. The cuticle is most fragile when wet.
Get regular trims on the ends to keep them from splitting because they’ll keep on running upward if you don’t.
Listen to a stylist who cares about the integrity of your hair.
Get products that don’t barrage your outer layer with added dryness. Sulfites / Sulfates / parabens / silicones can all contribute to dryness and even cause scalp irritation. Scalp irritation can cause problems with hair growth or retention later on.
If you’re a curly girl, you should always be aware of what you’re putting onto your hair. Those beautiful bends are little vulnerable spots in the cuticle.
Use a good leave-in and a heat protectant.
Get a mask that is rich in natural oils that keep that cuticle closed and happy.
Of course, drink plenty of water and take care of that interior for the exterior will often show the problems from within.
I hope this information helps you and, should you have any questions or need hair advice that we can chat about in future articles, email me directly by clicking the “stats” page above.
May you all have happy hair days, ahead!
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