Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Secret to Healthy, Beautiful Hair

Well, there is more than one and they're not exactly secrets, but it seems like a lot of people really have no idea what to do, or not do, with their hair.  First, genetics plays a certain role.  Not everyone can have a five inch ponytail circumference.  Everyone has a predetermined length that is their maximum hair length before it falls out, takes a break, and grows again.  That aside, anyone who has hair can have beautiful, healthy hair by simply understanding what their hair does and does not need.

I'm writing this article under the assumption that people (male and female, young and old) want thicker (both in volume and individual strands), shinier, and overall healthier hair.  Just like a dog's coat, the condition of our hair is a direct indication of our our health.  Healthy is beautiful.  I'm also assuming the understanding that everyone has a genetically predetermined maximum potential in every category of their lives, and that the goal is to reach that potential.  It is a good strategy for life is to at least improve our weakest points so that they are at a personally acceptable level, and then play our strong points to our maximum potential.  Whatever your goal is with your hair, this should help you get there.

Hair Needs

1. Nutrition.  This is key to anything relating to your body.  If your diet is lacking in the essential proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that it needs to optimally function, than you will be robbing yourself of your full potential across the board.  Healthy hair starts with eating right.  If you not receiving what you need from your diet alone, than it is a good idea to supplement with a good quality regular vitamin that contains whatever it is that you're lacking.  Give your body the right building blocks to grow healthy hair.  Also, give your body water or at least liquid.  You need it.

2. Circulation.  Without this, nutrition is useless.  Your body brings nutrients to all areas of the body through your blood stream.  Staying active can actually improve your hair growth and condition.  For those of you who have a hard time staying active due to physical impairments or if you just want a little extra boost for your scalp, give yourself a scalp massage daily.  This not only feels wonderful, but helps circulate the blood through the scalp, which can lead to healthier growth.  I personally advocate gentle traction as well.  Grab a handful of hair close to your scalp and pull gently.  Hold for a few seconds and move on to a different area.  I do a little massage and traction when I lay down in bed most nights.  It helps me get to sleep and it helped thicken up that area on top of my head that was thinning for some reason.

3. Moisture.  It's not a good plan to shampoo and not use conditioner or at least oil.  However, I've met a few (mostly men) who just didn't really think about that.  Hair likes to stay moist.  Your hair, like driftwood, does not enjoy being soaked, then dried, then soaked, then dried...  By dried, I mean over dried.  We'll get more into that further down.

Hair Care Basics

1. Washing.  Washing is a big subject.  You really should only wash your hair as often as it needs it.  It is important to note that shampoo strips your hair of it's natural oils.  For me, this was the cause of relentless frizzy hair.  Most shampoos contain sodium laurel/laureth sulphate, which is a fairly harsh detergent.  Their are some milder shampoos that contain similar but slightly gentler detergents.  If you are one who likes to shampoo daily, you are probably better off switching to a gentler shampoo.  You should definitely change your shampooing to shampooing only the scalp area.  The rest does not really need shampoo, believe it or not.

You also might want to reconsider whether shampoo is really that important at all.  An interesting thing that many people don't know, is that conditioner alone gets your hair and scalp very clean without drying it out.  The oils and creams in conditioners actually do a much better job of dissolving the oil (sebum) from your scalp without stripping it.  I didn't believe this for a long time and then finally tried it.  I will never go back.

To do a conditioner only wash, apply the conditioner to your scalp area and scrub it into your scalp just as you would a shampoo.  You can work it down your length or add more depending on how long your hair is.  Let it sit while you soap off the rest of your body and then rinse thoroughly.  If you have a particularly oily scalp, you can do a second application.  I do this if I skip a wash day or if I sweat excessively.

There are those who wash their hair with water only and are really happy about it.  I don't know much about this honestly because I've never done it.

It is important to note that most conditioners contain silicones, especially the ones that came to be "moisturizing".  What is really happening is that they silicones in the conditioner (and sometimes shampoo) coat your hair so that it smooths it out and gives it a slippery texture.  This makes it appear moisturized and makes it much easier for many people to detangle their hair.  Some types of silicone are water soluble and are of little danger to your hair.  Others are not, and require being stripped from your hair by a heavy shampooing.  These types of silicone tend to dry out your hair because they do not allow water to pass through and they also require repetitive shampooing.  When these types of silicones buildup on your hair, they can cause your hair appear dull and have a rough texture.  If you want to wash your hair with conditioner only, such a conditioner is not recommended.  You can identify a silicone ingredient by checking the labels on your shampoo and conditioner bottles for any ingredient that ends in -cone.  Dimenthicone is probably the most common.  The best part about silicone free conditioner is that it's usually cheaper.  Speaking of awesome...

Awesome Tip of the Day:  Is your scalp too oily?  Over use of shampoo may be the culprit.  By constantly stripping your hair and scalp dry, your scalp reacts by overproducing sebum.  You can reverse this process by switching to a milder shampoo and/or slowly stretching washes to every other day or longer.  Conditioner only washes also work.  It may take a month for your scalp to readjust, during which your hair and scalp will probably be oilier than you like.  Just wear it up when it gets oily and wait it out.

2.  Drying.  It is always best to let your hair air dry naturally whenever possible.  Heat damage is one of the worst things you can do to your hair, second only to chemical damage.  Heat damage can cause breakage and frizziness.  If you must blow dry, use a cool setting.  You will see great improvement in your new growth if you simply give up the blow dryer.  If you need your hair to be dried a little faster, you can actually use your hands to dry it.  To do this, pick a section of your hair and smooth it out with your fingers.  Continue to run your fingers through it until for 30 seconds to a minute and move on to another section.  You are effectively squeegeeing your hair while heating it slightly with friction.  I used to get my hair pretty much dry in about fifteen minutes on the bus this way.  I would just run a brush through it once I reached the transit center and go about my life.  No electricity required.

3. Combing.  Your comb may be the culprit when it comes to breakage.  Plastic combs are moulded such that their is a tiny (and sometimes surprisingly sharp) seam all along the edge, including in between the teeth of the comb you are using to detangle your hair.  Every time you run the comb through your hair, your comb is creating friction that can accelerate the wear and tear of your hair.  You can fix this by running a fine sand paper between the teeth of your combs.  There will, however, be an inherent friction (and static) due to the plastic material.  It is ideal to detangle with a wide tooth comb only that is seamless.  Wood combs are relatively inexpensive and static free.  I bought one of these for my mom and she loves it.  If you're willing to spend a little more, a horn comb is the best option as the horn material is very similar in make up to your hair  These people also carry a wood comb in the same style.  I have the horn comb and I wouldn't trade it.  If you're picky, like I am, you will probably still run some ultra fine sand paper between the teeth even though it's already smooth.  Be sure to check both eBay and amazon for deals.

I comb wet hair, but many people with finer hair find this too damaging.  It may be better to simply finger comb until your hair is actually dry, then you can comb it out fully.

4. Brushing.  Depending on your hair type, brushing may or may not be a good idea.  If you have straight hair, brushing is a wonderful thing to smooth your hair and distribute sebum.  If your hair is medium wavy to really curly, brushing can leave you with really poofy hair.  This is one reason that many people with wavy or curly hair are uncomfortable with their natural texture.  Brushing could be the problem.  If you do want to use a brush, fine-haired folks can use a boar bristle brush.  They are available pretty much anywhere that sells brushes.  Make sure it is 100% boar bristle.  Many brushes have nylon strands mixed in to make the brush stiff enough for thicker hair.  If your hair is thick by individual strands or by simply by amount, a boar bristle brush may not be stiff enough to do you any good.  In that case, I would suggest a wooden paddle brush.  These feel amazing on your scalp and do a fine job of distributing the sebum while smoothing out your hair.  It costs about the same as a regular paddle brush only it is seamless, natural, and it doesn't have those stupid little balls on the ends that break off and then you scratch your head.  Bonus.

5. Styling.  There are three basic kinds of styling.  Mechanical styling is done with a contraption that changes the texture or shape of your hair.  Examples would be curlers, irons, etc.  Any heat styling has the same basic effect and constant blow drying.  It is very damaging to your hair.  If you must use a flat or curling iron, you must use a slippery product to ease the process and use the lowest setting for your hair.  Back combing works by lifting the cuticle layer of your hair, which is in place to protect the inner layers and is also the part that makes your hair shiny when it lays flat.  Avoid.  Chemical styling is basically perms (think battery acid) or this "Brazilian blowout" thing I keep hearing about (which is formaldehyde and ironing/blow drying).  I had a little talk with common sense on this subject and it said, "Don't."  Product styling refers to hair sprays, mousses, and serums.  All I can say is to use them sparingly.  Most "moisturizing" or "anti-frizz" hair serums and just heavily siliconed products and alcohols so that they dry fast and coat your hair.  Hair sprays and mousses are pretty similar.  If you want to learn to make your own, natural products at home, there are recipes available via Google search.  Continually drying out your hair and then trying to replace it with moisturizers after the fact doesn't really work and eventually will stop working altogether.

6. Moisturizing.  If you have particularly thirsty hair, you may find that a little moisture will help you.  Oiling is the easiest and most natural way to moisture your hair.  It works just like a leave in conditioner.  Put a drop or two of oil between your palms and rub it until your hands are shiny.  Now run your hands through your hair, focusing on your length from your ears down.  You may want to brush or comb afterward to help distribute the oil.  If your hair looks greasy afterward, you used too much.  Some people instead put a tiny amount of oil into a spray bottle with water and spray it directly onto their hair.  I used to do this with rose water, although I didn't know at the time that that's what I was doing.  The scent comes back out when your hair gets wet, which is great if you intend to sweat.  Check the label to make sure there are no perfumes.  It should be rose oil/extract and water.  You can also make your own.  Olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, grape seed oil, and other cold pressed, edible cooking oils are all good choices.  Experiment to see what your hair likes.  If you have really coarse hair, you may like shea or cocoa butter.

A quick tour of YouTube with the keywords "hair wrapping", "rag curls", and "plopping" will show you that there are some great ways to set your hair in different ways without the use heat or chemicals.  You can use these methods daily without causing damage to your hair.

7. Cutting. When you cut your hair, it should only ever be done with sharp hair scissors that are only used for hair and cut perpendicular to the hair shaft so you can get a clean cut.  Razor cuts or anything else that cuts to that effect is only damaging your hair and causing split ends or breakage.

8. Hair Ties/Elastics/Bands.  These should only ever be metal free.  Even then, they are still a little abrasive.  If you make a ponytail frequently, you will probably notice breakage or shorter hairs in that area.  This is why.  To solve this problem, I took the time to make some mini scrunchies out of some silk I had laying around and some very strong elastic from the craft store.  These are wonderful because they are very smooth, they don't break, they are stronger than most hair ties, custom sized, and not bulky or brightly colored like most scrunchies.  I hate that.  Typically, I just use these to hold my braid, which is a sad one now that I have layers.  I use metal U pins most of the time to hold buns.  My hair laughs at bobby pins and spits them out.  U pins stay most of the time and I can use four instea of a thousand.
As I'm sure you cleverly deduced, less is more.  The less you actually do to your hair, the healthier it will be.  Constant bombardment with advertisements makes many people feel that the right products will make their hair shiny and beautiful.  The truth is that most products just cover up unhealthy hair.  No product in the world can actually "repair" damaged hair.  It doesn't matter how much you pay for a blow dryer or a straightener, it's still frying your hair.  If you can get away from damaging things, your hair will grow out beautiful naturally you will be able to give up the expensive maintenance for life.

9. Coloring.  Any chemical dye or bleach has the same effect as a regular perm.  Fortunately, there are natural dyes that actually condition your hair.  Google henna, indigo, and cassia for more information on these.  Beware of henna dyes that come in a box as there are often very dangerous chemicals that can burn you and/or interact with conventional chemical dyes.  Better yet, this is a great time to let grey hair go natural.  It seems to be in fashion at the moment for women to actually age.  Live it up.

If you can give up at least one or two main unhealthy hair habits, you will see dramatic differences in your overall hair texture and may even be able to grow your hair longer than you thought possible, if that's your goal.  Many people think they have to have short hair because it "looks terrible when it's long" or "never grows past ____ anyway".  That is just a false terminal length.   If you mistreat your hair, it will simply break off before it can get longer.  It's still growing at the roots.

For Fine Hair.  You are probably most worried about breakage and greasiness.  Your hair will show greasiness sooner because of the silky texture of your hair.  I strongly suggest following the Awesome Tip of the Day to control scalp oiliness.  You will benefit from sticking to lighter conditioners and avoiding oiling unless it's a very light oil.  To avoid breakage, try to keep your hair in a protective style, like a braid or bun anytime you don't specifically want it down.

For Medium Hair.  Probably any average conditioners will work for you, but your hair probably splits.  As above, you may benefit from protective styling.

For Thick/Coarse Hair.  You probably don't have to worry too much about breakage, but you should look into heavy or rich conditioners and maybe forego the oils althogether for butters instead.

For Straight Hair.  Thick or thin, your biggest problem is probably flat hair, or flyaways.  Two things will help you with flat hair.  The first thing is stretch shampooing.  When I shampoo, my hair lays very flat, probably because it's too slippery.  This will also help with flyaways, but a light oiling will also go a long way.

For Wavy/Curly Hair.  You should probably shampoo as little as possible because (I think due to the structure of curlier hair) your hair probably dries out faster.  I have some wavier/curlier areas and they are more prone to splits and breakage due to driness.  Use of a heavier conditioner or oil will be a good idea.  To avoid poofiness, I suggest not brushing unless it's before a wash.  Use a wide tooth comb only, preferably when your hair is wet.  It will dry in it's own natural wave or curl pattern better if you mess with it less.

For Really Curly/Kinky Hair.  I really suggest you stick with conditioner only washes and use a nice, rich conditioner.  Otherwise, the above advice applies.  I know that many ultra-curly ladies and gentleman have been made to think that their hair will never be soft, luscious, and beautiful in it's natural state.  That is simply not true.  I have seen it exactly like that (and long) with my own eyes.  It's really a matter of maintaining a hair type specific hair care routine.  For more information on how to embrace your curly hair, is a popular site.

My Personal Hair Story

My hair is naturally medium to thick (individual strands, ponytail circumference, and overall volume) with some straight areas, some wavy/slightly spiraled areas, and some stray kinky areas.  Yes, my genetic background is very diverse.  I've always had relatively nice, healthy hair structurally, I just never did much with it.  It was also extremely greasy (like joking about running a car off the oil from my head) and I was shedding like crazy.  All I ever did with it was shampoo and condition daily with whatever was available.  Most of the time it was wet and braided.  As it turns out, this was more or less the right thing to do.  If I would have known about conditioner only washes, it would have pretty much been perfect.

Recently, I spent a few months out of the country in a place where there was a lot of chlorine in the water (I could smell it).  It ate the entire length of my hair.  When I came home, I started the regrowth process.  This was April last year.  Around that time is when I came across The Long Hair Community, which I suggest strongly if you want more information on hair care, product reviews, community answers to individual questions, or just a generally kind and courteous online community that requires its members to use good judgement and punctuation when posting.  It was there that I learned about combs, product ingredients, conditioner only washes, how to oil, etc.  Some of the members make great, hair friendly styling tutorials on their YouTube channels.  Torrinpaige taught me how to French and Dutch braid my own hair.

The first thing I tried was stretching washes, which was a disaster.  It was too big a step for me and it gave me horrible dandruff that would not go away, which I had never had before.  I went back to my old routine and it didn't help.  I eventually had to use Head and Shoulders Clinical Strength for a few days.  It smells terrible but it got the job done.  Once my head was back under control for awhile, I started experimenting with milder shampoos.  This made life easy, since I could continue my daily washing routine, but it was much less damaging.  I also noticed my hair become less greasy over a couple of weeks and my frizziness was improving.  I figured out how to trim my own hair, and I started cutting off damage every month or two as my hair was breaking off all over the place anyway and tangling, which it doesn't really do unless it's damaged.

While I was at it, I decided to see about that shedding problem.  I measured my ponytail circumference at 3.5 inches.  Then I started looking for things that caused excessive shedding.  For me, sls shampoos were the first thing.  If I use heavy shampoos, my hair falls out.  Silicone conditioners also seem to cause this for me.  Hot water in the shower makes my hair fall out as does over handling.  If I over brush or screw around with it, trying to figure out how to make some kind of hairstyle, there will be a carpet of my hair on the tile.  I cut out these things and now my ponytail measures 4 inches in circumference.  I think that is about my maximum circumference, but I'm happy with that.

Soon enough, I started noticing that my hair wasn't really that bad if I didn't wash it, so I jumped in and tried the conditioner only thing.  It was amazing.  Within a week, I was pretty much frizz free, and I understood what all the hype was about.  I now use a mild shampoo just on my scalp area maybe once a week.  The rest of the time I use only conditioner every to every other day.  I have the best hair of my life.  I also recently learned how to cut layers and how to cut bangs (coming soon).

Happy hair growing!  Just remember, whatever you do to change your hair care routine right now may make noticeable changes, but won't work miracles.  If your hair is extremely damaged, it will really be a matter of growing it out while trying not to further damage it.  You don't have to chop all your hair off.  Just salvage what  you can and it will all get trimmed off eventually.  I'm finally pretty happy with my hair, but it took a year and a half.  Depending on your hair length and growth rate, that could be a much shorter or much longer time.  Assuming that, on average, hair grows about a half inch per month, you can assume that you won't have noticeable healthy roots for about three months.  After about six months, you will start to see a difinite change in your new hair.  It will probably take about a year for all of your new hair to reach your ponytail.  It will be a good year and a half to two years for your braid or ponytail starts to really look thicker.  Have patience and enjoy putting less overall effort into your hair.


  1. Thank you for such a thorough explanation :)

  2. This is great, thanks so much :) Just out of curiosity, is your ponytail circumference still at 3.5? That's what mine is at, and I'm just starting to try out non sls shampoos, which also has given me dandruff...need to get me some head and shoulders :(

  3. My hair is thinning badly you could literally see my scalp through the hair. This is mainly due to stress and bad nutrition. My nutrition has never been that great, but I only started taking vitamins after if began falling. Naturally my hair is very smooth and soft, but for the past two years it started to become very frizzy and dry, which is also around the time when it started to falling out a lot. I do not really know why; is it the low nutrition or is it just dry?

    Recently as well, dandruff has become a serious issue for me and my scalp has become itchy. I have noticed, however, that when I apply oil on my scalp and hair and let it sit for a few hours, that the dandruff actually reduces. I wanted to ask you if you know about the causes of dandruff and what actually works to get rid of it.

    And thanks for the post!