Nurture and Heal: Healthy Hair

Whereas women with brown skin who are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds have many of the same skin concerns, their hair concerns vary greatly. Women of African, Asian and Latina descent have many different types of hair with different hair care needs and hair problems. Some of their hair concerns will overlap, whereas others will diverge.

It is important to understand the structure of the different types of hair. Each individual hair is formed from a single hair follicle that is embedded in the scalp. It is estimated that each of us has over 100,000 hair follicles on our scalp. The number of hair follicles varies by racial groups with Asians having fewer hair follicles as compared to whites and blacks. The shape of the hair follicle also varies among racial and ethnic groups. Whereas Asians and whites have follicles that are straight, the hair follicles of blacks and black Hispanics is often curved. A curved hair follicle will produce a curved or curly hair.

The size and shape of the hair also differs among racial groups. If you take a hair and cut it across (a cross section), its appearance is different depending on your racial or ethnic group. Some racial groups have round hairs (Asians), others oval shaped hairs (whites) and still others have elliptical hairs (blacks). In addition to differences in the cross sectional shape, there are differences in the diameter of the hair. The diameter of Asian hair is the largest, white the smallest and Black hair is of intermediate size. The intrinsic strength of the hair also differs according to racial group. Asian hair is the most resistant to breakage, white hair is intermediate and black hair the most susceptible to breakage. The strength also varies depending on whether the hair is wet or dry. For fragile black hair, it is less likely to break during combing when the hair is wet.

Despite these differences, all hair is composed of three layers: the innermost layer or medulla, the middle layer or cortex and the outermost layer, the cuticle. The cuticle layer provides the first layer of protection from the outside environment. Like the tiles on a roof, the cuticle consists of overlapping layers of cells that provide a tight seal for the vulnerable cortical layer. An undamaged cuticle has a smooth surface, that is, the tiles all lie flat and in place. Light will reflect off of these nicely overlapping tiles, producing the healthy shiny appearance of normal hair. The fibers of the cortical layer provide the strength of the hair. When the cuticular layer of tiles become uplifted, displaced or broken, the cortex is exposed to the environment. The cortical layer of the hair is then significantly weakened and the hair splits or breaks. The intrinsic structure of the hair in some people makes it susceptible to damage. For example, some portions of the cuticle layer in Blacks are very thin. This makes it more susceptible to damage from simple, normal styling as compared to white or Asian hair.

For individuals with tightly coiled hair, many grooming practices are designed to straighten the hair. These include the application of heat to temporarily straighten the hair structure or relaxers to more permanently straighten the hair. Asians have developed a chemical straightening process that uses both chemicals and heat. The application of heat and chemicals for straightening the hair decreases the overall strength of the hair, and it also decreases the lubricants on the surface of the hair shaft. Another important factor that dramatically decreases hair strength and lubrication are hair dyes.

Hair of African-Americans, Asians and Latinas also sustains damage in ways that you may least suspect. One type of damage is called weathering. Weathering is in essence a wearing away of the outer layer of the hair. Environment factors, including wind, sun, and cold dry winter air all contribute to weathering. Vigorous combing or brushing, the friction from hats and pillow cases also lead to weathering. The use of inappropriate products on the hair, including hair sprays, gels and mousses can increase weathering and at the same time reduce the natural lubricants on the hair.

Hair Facts:

  • Although we think of our hair as a living part of our body, the hair shaft, despite its shine, body and texture, is not a living structure.
  • There are more than 100,000 hairs on the scalp and it is normal to lose between 50-100 hairs per day.
  • In healthy individuals, hair grows at a rate of 0.35 millimeters per day or 6 inches per year (black hair grows much more slowly). Similar to our bodies, our hair passes through several growth stages. The stages include: the anagen growth phase (3 years), the telogen resting phase (3 months) and a brief catagen transitional phase (2-3 weeks).
  • The hair consists or three layers: the cuticle, cortex, and medulla.
  • The outermost layer, the cuticle is composed of a substance called keratin. It is important to avoid damage to the cuticle or hair breakage will result.
  • The medulla or innermost layer of the hair shaft is not always present.
  • The cortex layer accounts for most of the hair shaft and is responsible for the great strength of our hair.

Proper hair care consists of several factors. Cleansing, conditioning, trimming, protecting and nourishing the hair are important components of caring for your hair. As important as caring for the hair is appropriate care of the scalp. If your scalp is dry and itchy, has red or dark patches, or if bumps or scabs develop, you must see your dermatologist for treatment. If chemicals are to be used, proper application and maintenance must be instituted. It is important to avoid, if possible, multiple processes at the same time on the hair.

The type of hair that an individual has depends a great deal on hereditary factors. The hair may be straight, wavy, curly or tightly coiled. Additionally, hair may be normal, dry or greasy. Take the test below to determine your hair type.

Your hair is most likely normal if:

  • it is neither greasy nor dry
  • it has not been permed or color-treated
  • it holds its style well
  • it looks good and healthy most of the time.

Your hair is most likely dry if:

  • it looks dull
  • it feels dry or rough
  • it tangles easily
  • it is difficult to comb or brush
  • it has been treated chemically (permed, relaxed or dyed)
  • it is dry to the touch and frizzy in appearance.

Your hair is most likely greasy if:

  • it tends to be limp with excess oil weighing it down
  • it looks flat and lacks volume
  • it clings to itself and to your scalp
  • it is difficult to manage because it does not hold a style
  • it gets oily soon after shampooing.

The fundamentals of caring for your hair include combing and brushing, shampooing and conditioning, drying and possibly chemically treating your hair (perming, relaxing or dyeing). Now that you know the type of hair that you have, you can benefit from the following hair care tips.

  • Healthy hair care begins with a clean scalp. The frequency of washing depends both on the type of hair that you have, the hair style that you wear and the chemicals that you use on your hair. In general,
    • Shampooing weekly is appropriate for most hair types
    • Shampooing every-other-day or twice weekly is appropriate for oily hair
    • Shampooing every 10-14 days may be acceptable for some women of African/African American/African Caribbean descent
    • Under no circumstances is it appropriate or healthy to wash once every three weeks or once every four weeks.
  • Conditioning your hair after shampooing is essential for healthy hair. Select a conditioner appropriate for your hair type (dry hair, normal hair, chemically treated hair, etc.)
  • Comb your hair immediately after washing with a wide tooth comb, and with minimal pulling. For women with tightly curled hair, there are fewer frictional forces placed upon the hair while combing when it is wet.
  • Only brush and comb your hair to create your hair style. Over-brushing can lead to hair damage and breakage. Brushing oily hair will make it look oilier. It is not healthy to brush one-hundred strokes per day for any hair type.
  • Minimize the amount of heat that is applied to your hair, whether from blow drying or using flat irons, curling irons or hot rollers. Consider a wet set and then avoid heat applied to your hair for the remainder of the week.
  • Trimming your hair every 8-12 weeks to remove the damaged ends will lead to healthy hair
  • Itching and flaking of the scalp may be a sign of seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis. If it does not resolve with weekly shampooing with a medicated shampoo, see your doctor.
  • If you hair is relaxed, consider getting touch-ups every 8-10 weeks. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions and never allow the chemical to burn, sting or even tingle on your scalp.
  • Avoid the use of both chemical relaxers and hair dye together. Select one or the other, but not both, for healthier hair.
  • If you notice hair loss or hair damage, see a dermatologist immediately. Do not attempt to cover or camouflage the area with braids or hair weaves because they often create more damage.

As women of color, each of us has our own unique type of hair. It may be short, long, shoulder length, straight, wavy, kinky, relaxed, dyed, locked, hot-combed or permed. The goal is to have healthy, lustrous hair.

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