What is Hair Anyway?

With retention set as my immediate goal, I’m ready to start doing all the right things to keep as much hair as possible on my head and not in the drain of my sink and shower.  But what are the “right” things?  What are the “wrong” things, for that matter?  What does my hair need?

Before we figure that out, let’s ask Professor Google just what the heck hair is anyway…

Hair is basically made up of two (rather complex) components:

The Follicle

Hair Follicle
image credit

A sleeve of tissue covers the hair beneath the skin’s surface.   While it is protected by this sleeve and until it comes up above the surface, the hair is actually alive.  At the base of the follicle is the papilla. Capillaries carry blood and nutrients through the papilla to the hair’s root that help to produce new, healthy hair. Surrounding the follicle are the sebaceous glands. These glands secrete a waxy oil called sebum, which acts as a protective film on the skin’s surface and along the length of the hair, locking in moisture.  If the sebaceous glands become unbalanced as a result of undernourished roots, the glands can either overproduce or underproduce oil, causing permanent hair loss.  Seems that as women age, the sebum’s production diminishes. That’s why gray hair tends to be more brittle.

The Shaft

Hair Shaft
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The shaft is the part of the hair that protrudes from the skin, made up mainly of a protein called keratin. It is the oldest part of the hair. It consists of three layers:

  • The innermost layer, called the medulla, is open and unstructured (whatever that means). I tried to find out what the purpose of the medulla was, but couldn’t find anything. If I had to guess, I would say that it might have something to do with thickness. I did read somewhere that the medulla is often absent from blonde or fine hair. Sounds like I might be right.
  • The middle layer is the cortex. The cortex is what determines the hair’s strength and porosity. This layer contains melanin, which is responsible for colour and texture.
  • The outer layer is the cuticle and is comprised of overlapping shingle-like cells. The cuticle’s job is to protect the two layers underneath. If the cuticle is open, its effectiveness as a protectant is reduced.

Each hair is a bundle of long polypeptide bonds, linked together in chains of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur. These chains are bonded by salt, hydrogen and disulfide. Heat and excessive moisture can cause damage to the salt and hydrogen bonds – aka frizz. The breaking and reforming of disulfide bonds permanently alters the hair’s curl pattern – aka permanent wave/relaxer.  Damage to the hair can manifest itself in its anatomy (i.e., cuticle damage) or in its chemistry (i.e., heat damage).  Some damage is temporary, and some can be permanent.

So What’s the Upshot?

The name of the game is avoiding hair loss from the root.

I’ve already learned that the “live” portion of the hair exists beneath the skin’s surface, so it follows that the nutrients would need to be focused at the root and not so much on the shaft itself.  To maintain the capillary and sebaceous gland activity at a healthy level, I need to feed the hair as much as possible. There are tons of products out there, including shampoos, conditioners, and serums that claim to be uber-nourishing and ultra-super-duper good for hair.  However, it seems that little else is as good as the nutrients ingested from food.  As the saying goes, you are what you eat.  A healthy diet, including protein and water, will show in the hair’s condition… so I hear…

Ok ok… it’s list time… Here’s my To Do (or Not Do) List for improved retention:

  • DO eat a balanced diet
  • DO drink plenty of water
  • DO keep the scalp clean
  • DO keep the hair moisturized and sealed
  • DO be gentle with the hair
  • DO NOT overhandle or overmanipulate the hair
  • DO NOT use excessive heat
  • DO NOT use products containing harsh chemicals
  • DO monitor and distinguish shedding vs. breakage

What other important facts do I need to know about hair?  Anything else I should do, or not do?  What’s your retention advice?

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