Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cuticle killers

I've been curling up with my new book and in between totally incomprehensible sentences designed for chemically literate people, there are some excellent insights and observations, many of which I'll be sharing here during the coming weeks and months.

Today, though, I'll start with some basic stuff that may actually surprise you -- like the many ways in which your hair cuticle can suffer damage. (The cuticle is the shingle-like outer coating of your hair. Healthy cuticles lie flat and have minimal "shingles" broken. Unhealthy cuticles are chipped, exposing the hair shaft to further damage from the loss of lipids or even protein.)

1. Shampoo

The mere manipulation of the hair during this process is enough to erode the cuticle to a significant extent. I had always thought that wet hair was more pliable than dry, thereby possibly adding some protection but wet hair is quite susceptible to damage, says author Clarence Robbins, who provides several studies in which this phenomenon is repeatedly proven. When the hair is wet, it stretches while you shampoo it, and between the stretching and the abrasion of rubbing against others hairs, you get chipped cuticles.

Wet hair also swells up a bit as it absorbs water. So, even though it feels slicker to you, the cuticle is actually raised and if you are too rough during the shampoo process (no matter what kind of shampoo you're using), you are contributing to cuticle breakage.

I found this interesting because even though I do not use shampoo, the way I wash my hair with my Suave Naturals conditioner is producing a similar degree of damage to my hair. I am going to be gentler going forward.

But there's more ... the conditioning agents in whatever you're using can lift the cuticle still further and make hair even more susceptible to breakage. Robbins quotes studies that indicate cationic surfactants such stearalkonium chloride or cetrimonium chloride raise the cuticle far more readily than neutral conditioning agents such as cetyl or stearyl alcohol. If you use products to cleanse that contain cationic surfactants, you can somewhat mitigate their lifting tendencies by ensuring that the product also contains the neutral conditioning agents. (This information really helps to explain why hair feels fuller -- or in my case, flyaway -- after using conditioners with these cationic surfactants -- the scales of the cuticle have been lifted.)

2. Combing and brushing

No real surprise here except ... combing wet hair is more damaging to the cuticle than combing dry hair! Again the factors described above come into play. Brushing, however, is even more damaging than combing.

It's important not to confuse actual breakage of the hair with chipping of the cuticle. Combing or brushing dry hair is far more likely to break the hair completely than combing or brushing wet hair. If you combing combing or brushing wet hair, just keep in mind that you are not performing as harmless an act as you thought you were.

3. Exposure to sunlight

This "weathers" the hair and "ages" it (and not like a fine wine). Like anything that is subjected to the sun for too long a period, the hair dries out and gets brittle, and when it gets brittle, cuticle chipping happens.

4. Drying hair with heat

When heat is applied to hair, it rapidly removes the water that the hair was holding on to. The hair contracts quickly to adjust to this abrupt change in moisture and this contraction -- or relieving of pressure -- results in cracks to the cuticle surface. These cracks lead to fragmentation over time.

If you comb during heat styling, you're doing even more damage.

Obviously, chemical treatments such as bleaching, dying, straightening, etc. also do damage but you already knew that, so I won't go into that here.

My next post will look at how this cuticle fragmentation can allow beneficial as well as damaging chemicals to enter the hair shaft.


Kelly said...

About combing wet hair...that is a surprise. From what you've read is there any information on if combing your hair only when it's wet AND has conditioner in it any better? I would think so, since you've got the conditioner making it slippery and smooth, providing a buffer for the cuticle. ? Or maybe that's another false assumption.

Sage Vivant said...

That's a really good point, Kelly, and I think it *would* make a big difference to have conditioner in one's hair before combing to protect from damage. The book doesn't mention it, but it certainly makes sense that that would be the case.

Katrina said...

Lemme ask... do we have a cheap-o co-wash sort of condish we like that DOESN'T have the aforementioned chlorides? Suave and V05 both do... *sigh*

Sage Vivant said...

The problem, Katrina, seems to be that cheap = chlorides! I haven't found one yet, and my wallet seems to take precedence over my hair (who woulda thunk it?) and I am unwilling to co-wash with anything that costs more than $5. Silly, I know.