Beauty store shelves are full of products promising you healthy, shiny hair. However, the fact is that you don’t have to change your diet or your shampoo to get the best out of your hair. Your hair follicles are doing the hard bit already, growing hair. The rest is down to you, simply looking after your hair as it lengthens, keeping it conditioned and protecting it from damage. In this article learn how your hair gets damaged and what you can do to prevent it so your hair can stay it’s natural, healthy best.
How does hair get damaged?
Our hair, generally speaking, consists of two parts: the cortex (and in some women, also the medulla) at the centre, and the cuticle. The cortex is a very fragile structure made of long stringy proteins, porous like a sponge, that contains the elements that give your hair most of the qualities that are unique to you: strength, colour, elasticity and texture. This delicate material needs protecting, and that is the job of the cuticle. Split ends are actually where the cuticle has completely broken away, uncovering the unravelling end of your cortex. No product in the world is going to glue your split ends permanently back together. This is why the only cure for split ends is a hair cut, followed by a good hair care routine that maintains and protects the cuticle.
The cuticle is a series of layers (usually about seven) of scales made of the protein keratin, which overlap like roof tiles. This arrangement allows the hair to swell and shrink with moisture content. These scales are there to take a beating, and when we talk about damaging your hair, we are talking about damage to these cuticle scales. These scales are not living. They cannot grow back or repair themselves. Once you have blown through all the layers of the cuticle, there is nothing left to protect the cortex, the damage is irreversible and the hair breaks. As far as you and I are concerned, care of the cuticle is the very foundation of maintaining healthy hair.
The Four Most Common Causes of Damage
Colouring and perming chemicals do the most damage, because the way they work is by swelling the hair to such an extent that the cortex can be altered, either by changing the pigment when you colour it, or by chemically destroying the sulphur bonds that give your hair its naturally curly or straight texture. This process roughs up the edges of all the scales right through the entire cuticle, not just the outside.
For this reason, in my opinion, all hair colouring, relaxing and perming should be done by a trained stylist and not at home. You only want to subject your hair to this process once, and thereafter only touch up from the roots. You should only do either a perm or a colour process if you have fine hair, but never both.
A good professional hairstylist will never agree to do both procedures to fine hair. Ideally, for really healthy hair, you should not subject your hair to any chemical treatment at all.
But it’s fun and a lot of women don’t like their hair going grey, so there are good reasons to colour or perm your hair. And if you decide you’ve had enough with the chemicals, you can just grow your hair out and start again.
So don’t believe any company that tells you they have a gentle colouring or perming product. There is no such thing. And conditioning afterwards will not reverse the damage.
Even if you are quite saintly and never colour or perm your hair, most of the damage to your cuticle is caused by the hairs rubbing against each other. This is where your good conditioning habits will pay dividends.
Friction includes wearing your hair down loose, especially on a windy day, brushing, backcombing or teasing and just ‘messing’ with your hair too frequently during the day. If you find your hair knots or tangles frequently, this is a typical sign of damage to the cuticle. The scales are literally ruffled up and catching on each other, causing your hair to snarl.
To minimise damage while getting the tangles out of your hair, never brush your hair when it is wet, even with conditioner in it. Use your fingers and wiggle them as you very gently comb them through your hair. Your hands are the best grooming tool you possess, as the skin on your hands cannot damage your cuticle.
To further protect your hair during the day, the best thing you can do is use very good quality hair accessories to wear your hair up. The kindest type of accessories to use are the ones that do not bind your hair at all, such as combs, forks and hair sticks. Another great way to protect your hair when you are outside is to tuck it up into a hat.
The next best alternative, if your hair is too slippery, are either very fat hair elastics or hair claws which have smoothed and polished edges. Lastly, barrettes and hair slides can cut into the hair’s cuticle. To prevent this, choose barrettes using only the best clasps which are still only made in France from steel with hand smoothed edges.
The good news is that very good quality French hair accessories, while expensive, should last for several years, so are actually good value as well as kind on your hair.
Styling using straighteners, curling tongs and blow dryers cause quite a lot of damage. Hair dryers can actually strengthen hair, but only when used on medium or low heat and held at least six inches away from your hair. Most people use dryers as a way to straighten their hair, though, and this causes a lot of damage.
What happens when using these tools on wet or damp hair is that the water in the cortex of the hair can start to boil and the steam will actually blow holes in the cuticle. There are products that claim to “heat protect” your hair. They can do a little, but as most women use driers and irons on a high setting combined with pulling their hair straight with brushes, this is more than these “heat protecting” products can stand up to.
My recommendation is to learn to work with your natural hair texture. This can be a steep learning curve. All hair textures have their own unique advantages, the most valuable of which is that when you respect your hair’s natural tendencies and ensure that it is kept healthy and undamaged, you spend almost no time styling it in the morning.
UV rays affect your hair in two ways. UVA rays gradually break down the pigment molecules in your hair leaving a yellowish tinge inside the hair, which is why sun faded hair can look brassy. UVB rays, after a lot of exposure, break down the sulphur bonds in your hair, which eventually affects the strength and texture of your hair.
However, this is really only relevant if you spend a lot of time outdoors when the sun is most intense, use sunbeds very frequently or live in a very sunny country. Hair styling products containing sunblock are not effective. They either wash out or fall out of your hair very easily.
You only really need to be concerned about sun damage if you colour your hair, have naturally white or grey hair, or if you have longer than shoulder-length hair. To protect your hair colour, the only effective solution is a hat or scarf. For long hair, it is helpful to wear your hair up in a chignon, pleat or twist style so that the ends of your hair are covered and secure.
Protecting your hair from damage is the single best way to have healthy looking hair. Fortunately, this is completely free. The more disciplined you are about looking after your hair, your hair will reward you by not only behaving more often on a day to day basis but by also responding well to more extreme styling when you need it for those formal occasions.