Importance of the HAIR Cuticle
-Dr. Neil Persadsingh
What is the hair cuticle?
The cuticle of the hair is the outside protective layer of a hair strand. The cuticle resembles shingles on a roof in the way that its different layers overlap. The protein scales of the cuticle overlap to lock moisture within the hair strand.
What is the cuticle protecting?
The cuticle is protecting the brain of the hair called the cortex. The cortex tells the hair strand what to do. Every attribute of a hair strand from its color, texture, curl pattern, thickness and so on- is dictated by the cortex.
Chemical treatments to the hair are only effective because they can go inside of the hair strand--pass the cuticle layer--and reform the cortex.
For example, manufacturers of highly alkaline hair products such as relaxers, perms, and hair dye can alter your hair because they understand how to constructively manipulate the cortex.
A relaxer opens the cuticles, moves into the cortex, and breaks the bonds that make a hair strand curl.
Once the characteristics of the cortex are altered, the process can not be undone.
The cuticles help to prevent damage to the cortex. A damaged cortex is a damaged hair strand that can not be repaired.
How does the cuticle layer of the hair work?
When the cuticle is strong and healthy, the hair is strong and healthy.
Although hair is dead, the cuticle layer is made up of protein-based keratin scales that either rise open to receive an ingredient or close to lock the ingredient within the hair strand.
Once the fibers of the cuticle are lifted, substances (such as your favorite ingredients) can become deposited within its structure. When closed--the cuticle can prevent moisture-loss as well as act as a shield to protect against damaging environmental forces.
How can you make the cuticle of the hair work for YOU?
Having the capacity to manipulate the scales of the cuticle allow you to control the appearance of your hair. The condition of the cuticle directly affects how your hair look and feel.
If your hair is dry and brittle; then the cuticle is likely open and a lot of moisture has evaporated into the air. If your hair is soft and shiny; then it is likely that the cuticle of the hair is closed and keeping moisture within your hair.
The best thing about making sure that the cuticle is closed is you can experience soft, moisturized hair for several days at a time. This is the most efficient way to moisturize your hair and prevent constant dryness.
How do I close the cuticle layer of the hair?
There are two simple ways to close the cuticle layer of the hair strand. The first and easiest way is to use your hands to smooth products onto your hair in a downward motion.
The second and more efficient way to close the cuticle of the hair and seal in moisture is to make sure your hair products are slightly acidic and within the correct pH.
If you learned to control when the protective layer of the hair (the cuticle) is opened and closed; then you will never HAVE TO be surprised about how your hair will look throughout the day.
- You WILL NOT be surprised with dry, matted hair.
- You WILL NOT be surprised with weighed-down oily, greasy hair.
- You WILL NOT be surprised with dull, brittle, inflexible hair.
There are TWO easy ways YOU can get the hair cuticle to REACT:
- MILD heat: opens cuticles to receive moisture
- hooded head dryers (15-20 minutes)
- wrap hair in drying towel after shampooing (45 minutes).
- pH of hair products: closes cuticle to seal moisture in
- alkaline (8-14) product causes cuticle to raise open
- acid/Base (0-6) product causes cuticle to seal shut
- neutral (7); water
- Products that are too acidic or too alkaline can be extremely damaging to the hair cuticle. Your hair products should fall within a pH range of 4.5-5.5.
Substances that are not mild or appropriate forms of heat for the hair:
- Curling-iron, blow-dryer, flat-iron
- Plastic caps, scarves
Substances that are mild, appropriate heat:
- towel wrapped around wet hair
- hooded head dryer
- heat steaming
- hair therapy wrap
Mild heat can help to open the cuticles of the hair so that your hair products can penetrate the hair shaft and effectively attach to its protein structure.
Using mild heat is a great way to help your hair products to become deposited into the hair strand. You have probably noticed, after deep conditioning, that your hair look and feel healthier.
This is because through mild heat your hair is able to effectively receive the restorative ingredients from your hair products.
I often use my hooded head dryer throughout the week. There are times when I apply a moisturizer to my hair and it doesn't seem to do much for my hair. In such situations, I sit under my hooded head for about 10-15 minutes.
Once done, I can see an immediate difference in my hair. It is softer, less frizzy, and more shiny. The cuticles are put to rest and lying smooth and tight.
When using mild heat, timing matters.
You should leave hair products on your hair between 10-45 minutes to see the best results. Hair products left on the hair strand for a long enough time will reveal better results.
Most people rinse hair products from their hair too soon. If certain ingredients such as protein, oil and such, are not allowed to thoroughly penetrate the cuticle; then they will not strengthen your hair.
Often times, we apply hair products in a manner that allow only a light coating on our hair. Ideally, you want your hair products to move into the hair strand and become attached to it so that the ingredients will not be easily wiped away.
Have you ever touched your hair and had a lot of product on your hands?
Coating your hair is not the same as moisturizing your hair.
Simply coating your hair with hair products is risky. As soon as anything touches your hair, it will lose moisture because the product is just sitting on the hair strand waiting to be wiped away.
Greasy hand are usually the first sign that your hair products are only coating your hair. If your hair is moisturized correctly; it will not be greasy. The product will become absorbed into the cuticle of the hair.
Have you ever experienced dry hair right after you just moisturized your hair?
Firstly, your hair was not moisturized correctly. The immediate dryness probably resulted from the cuticles of the hair not being closed. Your hair could not hold the moisture from your hair products long.
If the cuticles of your hair remain open--even after you've moisturized--your hair will become dry shortly after. Open hair cuticles allow moisture to quickly leave and evaporate into the air.
Most people who experience chronic dry hair do not know how to keep the hair cuticles closed.
pH of Hair Products: (close cuticle)
pH means potential for hydrogen
Every liquid substance that you place on your hair has a specific pH level. It is helpful to understand how pH works on the cuticle and your overall hair.
It will benefit you to keep every product that you place on your hair within an acidic pH between 4.5-5.5, which is similar to the body's natural moisturizer, sebum.
You will never really know the pH level of your hair products unless you purchase pH strips and test them. They are so simple to use.
Placing the hair within an acidic pH range of 4.5-5.5 is a practical way to gain control over the softness and flexibility of your hair. The correct pH level will close the cuticle and seal in the water from your moisturizer.
Your hair will remain soft and flexible longer because a closed cuticle prevents moisture from leaving the hair strand. Therefore, when the cuticle is closed, the hair is within its strongest defensive state.
When the cuticle is tightly sealed, it will reflex shine and feel soft.
Alkaline substances, such as a relaxer, have the opposite affect on the hair.
Chemicals such as relaxers, perms, and hair dye all weaken the hair and involve opening the cuticle of the hair and breaking structural sulfur bonds within the cortex.
Highly alkaline substances go straight to the cortex (brain of the hair strand) and re-program the chemistry of the hair strand, completely change its characteristics. For example, relaxers destroy a curl pattern; and permanent hair dyes change hair color.
Chemicals that are highly alkaline are effective because they break through the cuticle and move into the cortex where they can re-design the original structure of the hair.
If slightly acidic substances with a pH of 4.5-5.5 help the cuticle lay tight and intact; then, imagine the affect of a product that is three times more acidic or alkaline on the hair.
Most relaxers are within a pH range of 12–14; with 14 being the highest on the Alkaline scale.
Alkaline substances cause the cuticle of the hair to rise open.
Any substance that causes the cuticle to raise open is potentially damaging.
Hair with widely opened cuticles is more susceptible to damage because an opened cuticle cannot hold appropriate moisture to prevent dry hair.
Imagine what the protective layer of the hair strand (the cuticle) would look like after applying a substance three times more alkaline.
The cuticle would open as wide as it possibly could, and reveal the extremely vulnerable cortex. Once the cortex is exposed there is not much of a defense for the structural sulfur bonds within the cortex. The structure of the hair can now be reformed.
The effect of alkaline hair products, such as a relaxer is so dramatic that the hair could not recover from the process and would never revert back to its original curly pattern.
During strong chemical processes, such as a relaxer, the bonds that once made curly hair broken down and made straight.
Is it possible to apply highly alkaline substances to the hair and not damage the cuticle?
Few people are skilled at applying chemicals to the hair without causing damage. Chemicals, just as heat, require specific timing to prevent damage to the hair. Often times, the hair is over-processed.
It is smart to seek a professional hairstylist to avoid over-processing. Or, carefully read and follow the instructions thoroughly with no short-cuts.
Eliminate the guessing game with your hair.
Learn the scope and limitations of hair products and hair chemicals on your hair.
The more you learn, the more you will realize that it is not entirely necessary to spend a bunch of money on elaborated hair products that could be essentially doing the same job on your hair as basic, less-expensive hair products.
There are limits to what hair products can accomplish on the hair. Understanding the fundamental structure of the hair cuticle will allow you to become more familiar with such limitations. You will also become more savvy at selecting hair products that work best for your hair type and hair condition.
The Hair Cuticle and Hair Products:
...cosmetic companies have intensively researched and identified many ways of protecting the cuticle and enhancing its effect-Dr. Persadsingh
Every hair product that you purchase has been formulated by chemists. The main goal of a hair product chemist is to create a substance that will help the cuticle do its job of protecting the hair better.
Everything we do to our hair whether it be washing, conditioning, moisturizing, and/or protective styling are all geared toward preserving the protective layer of the hair.
If the protective layer of the hair (the cuticle) becomes damaged it can never be repaired--EVER.
Your only option for keeping a damaged hair strand will be to use hair products and/or hairstyles that prevent further damage.
Once the cuticle layer of the hair is completely depleted; you will see the hair on your head falling onto your sink because it will inevitably break-off.
Without the scales of the cuticle intact the hair cannot even survive mild movement from the wind, let alone constant touching and styling.
Very porous hair is dry and will break easily and contain split ends-Dr. Persadsingh
Hair that has a damaged cuticle is often referred to as porous hair. It becomes filled with holes, when the scales of the cuticle are missing, due to abusive grooming habits, such as overuse of heating appliances, pulling on the hair, or allowing objects to constantly rub and tear the hair. Such activities will slowly chip the layers of the cuticle off until the hair eventually breaks.
Once the hair cuticle becomes porous; your only remedy will be using hair products that can mask the missing scales of the cuticle.
Have you ever heard a hairstylist advise you to do deep protein treatments; or, suggest that you use hair products that are heavy in protein?
Protein deposited between the scales of the cuticle will also give a smoother appearance and more shine.
Protein treatments are usually the first treatment recommended for damaged hair. It has been proven that protein can attach to the hair cuticle (which is essentially made up of protein) and fill in any chips, breaks, and/or gaps that may exist.
Please note-- Protein applications are a temporary fix for damaged hair. Hair products rich in protein can help create the illusion of better, stronger hair. Protein whether it is within your hair conditioner, hair creams, or hair lotions cannot repair damaged hair.
...the effect of coating the cuticle is only temporary, lasting only to the next shampooing-Dr. Persadsingh
Protein deposits provide a thick coating to the hair that help protect a porous hair cuticle from further damage. Certain proteins, such as panthenol, can fill the holes and gaps of a porous hair strand.
Protein deposits onto a damaged cuticle can add strength to the hair. The hair strand is not fixed. However, it stronger until the protein deposits are removed.
Once you wash your hair, the protein attachment will be rinsed away just like most other ingredients placed on the hair.
Once the hair is clear of all the "protective" hair products, such as protein, silicones, and oils, the damaged cuticles are--yet again, vulnerable to breakage. To preserve porous hair, you must constantly add hair products containing protein and/or silicones.
How does protein help protect the hair cuticle?
Silicones, oils, and/or protein have a chemical makeup that enables them to fill in the gaps of a damaged cuticle layer. These supplements allow the hair to function as though the cuticle was never ruptured.
Adding protein, silicones and/or oils can also--help prevent further damage to the cuticle. The longer you can keep the cuticle of a hair strand intact the longer the hair strand will remain on your head. The longer the hair strand stays on your head-- without breakage; the longer your hair will become.
Protein deposits allow damaged hair strands to reveal longer length. If treated with enough protein and moisture a porous hair strand could grow just as long as a healthier, less porous hair strand.
It is impossible to eliminate the weathering of the hair cuticle.
Hair is a fiber, similar to the fibers of the clothes you wear. Imagine wearing a shirt everyday, applying chemicals to it, then constantly pulling on the shirt to change its appearance and style.
I am sure you would expect the fibers of that same shirt to show wear and tear throughout the years. The hair strand is not eternal. Each individual hair follicle has a life cycle that can range from three to six years.
Regular cleansing with shampoo, touching, and exposure to the environment, eventually wears the hair down. You cannot eliminate the inevitable weathering of your hair strands.
You can significantly slow the weathering process down by using appropriate hair products and maintenance habits. Have you ever heard of people speak of low-manipulation hair routines? Or, protective styling?
Hair with damaged cuticles will remain short.
The more you practice abusive behaviors toward your hair, the faster you will damage the cuticle. The quicker you destroy the cuticle layer of the hair; the less opportunity there will be for you to experience longer hair.
The more rips and holes you create, the more porous your hair will become. The more porous the hair, the more incapable the hair will be at retaining moisture/water. The less moisturized the hair is, the more prone to damage it will become.
Damaged hair will most likely result in broken hair that will not reveal longer length.
How to keep the hair cuticle healthy?
If you are cleansing your hair with mild substances and keeping manipulation to a minimum; then there is no reason why your hair will not reveal length, pliability, strength.
One of the best things that you can do is keep your hair regimen simple.
You should focus on the basic needs of the hair cuticle. Develop a hair routine that includes regular cleansing, detangling, and use of protective hairstyles.
Make observations and note and obvious changes within your hair. Is it shinier? Does it appear thicker, healthier....longer?
Give yourself a chance to see what your hair is like with low-manipulation. Start by eliminating as much damage as possible and learning how to effectively moisturize your hair.
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