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Do You Need Science To Understand Black Hair?

Avatar • Oct 15, 2011

By Jc of The Natural Haven

The last deep conditioning post generated a lot of debate and as one reader wrote, ‘who knew deep conditioning could be controversial?’. A couple of the comments struck my attention mainly because they were questioning the validity of science, in essence putting science on trial:

I can either listen to scientists who tell me deep conditioning doesn’t work, or I can listen to my hair which acts a fool when I go too long without deep conditioning’

I’m always surprised at the limited amount of data and study by which a few trichologists, derms or other doctors and scientists use to indisputably prove, or even disprove as some do in the article, the efficacy of various hair practices and products their success for some and not for others. For me, not enough study has gone in to any one practice, ingredient, folk method or study (even penetrative oils) that can beat that it simply ‘works for me’. ’

My response as a scientist:

1. Science by its very nature is rarely ever ‘indisputable’

2. Science supports and encourages scepticism

3. Small studies are valid: What is your next best option?

1. Science by its very nature is rarely ever ‘indisputable’

The core concept of science is to establish facts. In order to do so, many other surrounding factors have to be eliminated. For example in order to establish if coconut oil penetrates into hair, the hair is washed with shampoo first and then a pure coconut oil droplet is added to it. The study will most likely use an SLS shampoo (yet many will choose a gentler shampoo or not at all) and will not account for whether you use an oil mix (you may use an olive oil/coconut oil mix and not pure coconut oil). Side factors also include the temperature of the lab where the experiment happens, the fact that coconut oil from India is different from coconut oil from Tanzania or Ghana, the list goes on.

In short: Every study has to be controlled.  All a science experiment tells you in the simplest way is, ‘I have carried out this experiment, in these set of conditions and this is the result.’ The best experiments eliminate every factor except for the test factors (in this case coconut oil and hair). If you are not following test conditions (i.e real life), you may get a different result.

2. Science supports and encourages scepticism

One of the key skills for any scientist is ‘critical thinking’. What does that mean? It means that in order to establish anything as a fact, you need to consider everything in opposition to that fact. For example in the article I clearly stated that I looked for evidence as to what penetrates hair since this is the reason many people/hairdressers give to justify why hair requires a longer time with conditioner.

Having failed to find evidence of that, I still posed the question, in the absence of evidence of penetration, ‘Why do so many people say that deep conditioning is good.’ This is because despite there being no evidence of conditioner penetrating hair strands, there is still evidence that some people do find leaving conditioner on for longer beneficial.

In short: You are right about identifying ‘works for me’. Science, especially cosmetic science is purely a guide as to what is likely to be beneficial. It is not and never will be dictatorial with the exception of toxic or known cancer causing agents. Your best guide is and always will be the response of your hair.

3. Validity of small studies : What is your next best option?

A study which accounts for a few individuals, with good controls and a clear report is very valid simply because even if you are testing hair from as little as 5 different individuals, your results are much better than testing on one person. Youtube and forums have a wealth of information but remember that person is likely and expert only on their own hair or on their relatives hair (which is likely similar). 5 different people most likely means 5 different diets, 5 different parents, 5 different exercise routines, 5 different environments.

The vast majority of hair studies are done on the small scale and are rarely ever repeated simply because unless there is a glaring error in the method or result, there is no funding body that wants to pay for work that is not novel (i.e if a fact is already established, what is the compelling reason to redo the same work again?)

In short: Honestly this is my biggest gripe with us as a community of women with natural hair. Unlike our Caucasian and Asian counterparts, we have failed to fund research into our own hair. Bottom line is that it takes very little money (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to billions spent on the space programmes and IT research) to answer many of the questions that we have but we just haven’t mobilized ourselves to get the funding.

In truth there are probably more studies on relaxed hair compared to natural hair simply because companies fund what is popular and what will earn them money.  Natural hair companies just do not do the same level of research and it is my hope that we will move towards wanting actual proof, scientific facts and not just be satisfied with dubious claims.

Ladies, what are your thoughts? Do you rely on science to understand how your hair works? Or do you depend solely on intuition? 

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About The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!

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Dasia
9 years ago

I depend on both but, science a bit more. I’ve always wondered why certain things worked and others didn’t, what makes up the hair structure, the growth phase, etc. Science has given me answers to a lot of my questions. Because of science I now know what penetrates the hair and what doesn’t, how to moisturize the hair, and so on. I apply what I’ve learned through science to my regimen. I still do what I feel is needed for my hair. But, since I have been into the sciencey stuff lately I notice the health of my hair is… Read more »

mangoamadness
mangoamadness
9 years ago

Science helps inform my hair care proctices (coconut oil pre-poos, finger-detangling, using leave-ins with glycerin, not deep conditioning, etc) but my intuition (and that of others whose experiences I’ve read online) refines it.

Shelli
9 years ago
Reply to  mangoamadness

+1

bee
bee
9 years ago

I appreciate the information you provide jc. Without science alot of what is available in our society just would not be there including technological and medical advancements so why poeple may be up in arms about the results of the experiments and science itself I dodn’t know. I figure if you don’t believe in the science then ignore it and do what you want to do as in what you believe is working for you but getting bothered about the fact that the science is there? makes no sense and you are right more funding should go into testing for… Read more »

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  bee

Thanks bee 🙂

EG
EG
9 years ago
Reply to  Jc

The reason why I disagreed with your article is because Cathy Howse did her research and she has proven that deep conditioning for 20–40 mins max does benefit afro textured hair. Given how she has won the who’s who in the world for her research in afro-textured hair, I trust her finding versus yours. Sorry.

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  EG

EG — I have never seen a published scientific study from Cathy Howse who by the way I think has done a lot for hair. I would love a reference if you have one but I would think that you are talking about anecdotal work from her book. Ofcourse we are all biased in our own ways. My goal is to present scientific research (i.e a published journal where the method and technique is outlined so anyone can copy it if they wish or not.). This is my definition of fact finding. I accept that many women like to read books… Read more »

Sey
Sey
7 years ago
Reply to  EG

Hi, in my opinion my opinion that is scientific research, this is supported by the fact that at least hundreds of women have reported (via youtube for example) that deep conditioning has improved the condition of their hair. It is not necessary for it to be published in a scientific journal for it to be scientifically sound.

Aina
Aina
9 years ago
Reply to  Jc

I was the author of the comment: ‘I can either listen to scientists who tell me deep conditioning doesn’t work, or I can listen to my hair which acts a fool when I go too long without deep conditioning’, and I was referring to a lot of articles I had read on the subject in the past, all with scientists suggesting, as well as some of the comments that had been written, and not merely solely that particular article. I was certainly not up in arms about anything, and was, to be honest, quite bemused by the rather hostile tone… Read more »

Aina
Aina
9 years ago
Reply to  Aina

That should have read “all with scientists suggesting Deep conditioning was a waste of time”

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  Aina

Aina — I think your words refelected many similar comments and was simply phrased well which is why I selected it for a response. I do not understand where you saw ‘hostile’ because I always enjoy a debate. I wanted to put across the fact that as you said listening to your hair is exactly what a scientist would tell you to do. I am not the type of person to make personal attacks and this post was never intended as one. I do apologise for causing you offence, it was not my intention. I do believe your words are and… Read more »

ScrewyHair
9 years ago

@mangoamadness: Well said. Science should be the cornerstone of everyone’s hair regimen; whether or not you’re aware of it, hair will obey scientific principles. Unfortunately, there’s no magic involved. There is, however, what I consider incomplete knowledge, especially with regards to black hair. As Jc says, black hair studies are underfunded. She’s also right in saying that science is rarely indisputable. Example: When I was in college 12 years ago, the food pyramid was still a carbs-heavy diagram. A girl I knew believed in high carbs-low protein-moderate exercise just because the FDA said so, even though common knowledge tells us that,… Read more »

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  ScrewyHair

Thank you for the lovely comment — love that ‘sometimes science takes a while to catch up to common knowledge’

Wow, really?
Wow, really?
9 years ago

I use a combination but lean more on my experience. I don’t know why some things work for me that science says should and I DON’T CARE. After a lot of trial and error I have found what works and I will continue to do that until it no longer does. If it’s the opposite of what science says I’m supposed to do so be it. Before the internet and hair studies black women around the world have taken care of their hair. A big part of science is observation.

Giovanna
Giovanna
9 years ago

“Remember that person is likely an expert only on their own hair or on their relatives hair (which is likely similar). 5 different people most likely means 5 different diets, 5 different parents, 5 different exercise routines, 5 different environments.” — EXACTLY. It took me about 8 months to figure this out! Websites and youtube vids are VERY resourceful but at the end of the day one must find out what works for them and create a sort of filter. I’ve found a lot of online tricks and tips very beneficial, while others were not. Copying regimens are okay if… Read more »

Dele
Dele
9 years ago

I still might argue against the validity of a study that has only 5 people. Honestly to properly detect any effect or conclude that there is no effect, sample size DEFINITELY matters and a sample size of 5, 10 or 20 even doesn’t not truly cut it for me (as an epidemiologist). To assure you have enough randomness in your study and to reduce bias (also related to validity) you wouldn’t be able to settle at a small sample and as well as you’d take into consideration how this sample is selected). Great post though :).

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  Dele

I liked your reply. I would argue that in many other scientific disciplines even just one duplicate is sufficient (for example some mechanical testing and engineering) , for others just 3–4 repeats are good enough (for example cell culture) and for others such as epidemiology thousands are required.

The question is sometimes rather about reproducibility (i.e human hair even across ethnic backgrounds is virtually identical in structure therefore how much variation can you get by essentially retesting the same material hundreds of time?)

Dele
Dele
9 years ago

Whoops typos galore in that 2nd to last sentence. That’s what I get for trying to post on my phone…should read: “To assure you have enough randomness in your study and to reduce bias (also related to validity) you wouldn’t be able to settle at a small sample and you’d need to take into consideration how this sample is selected as well.” Still a great post!

Monique, Sofull Sista
9 years ago

I definitely like to use science as a general guide. The tests and studies run still pose interesting views regardless if the conclusion is agreeable with my personal hair choices.

I remember for the DC panel, I said I DC before I wash, and while that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of scientific sense, it surely works wonders on my hair! I still appreciate the study that says otherwise, and accept it as a valid study. Jc — you know I appreciate all the work you do with science & the natural hair community!!!

Jc
Jc
9 years ago

I do 🙂

June
June
9 years ago

I like science, but I also know sometimes science is open to interpretation. If I listened to some naturals interpretation of science, I would have been scared of water. I am not sure how many times I heard about hygral fatigue. I ignored all that and I am doing what is best for my hair. My hair is thriving.

I like JC’s blog, but she pushes this idea that kinky hair cannot grow unless it is constantly in protective styles. Any study she presents has to be filtered through the ideas she has about natural hair.

MasukaM
9 years ago
Reply to  June

Really? I love JC’s blog and I have never gotten that impression at all. If there is anything JC pushes, it is that there is very little scientific evidence to support a number of things that the natural hair community holds as sacred truth

shana
shana
9 years ago

science. you have to understand the science, though, and how it applies to your goals for your hair. presumably, results that are interpreted as deep conditioning does not benefit your hair are not the same thing as deep conditioning will not make your hair look and feel better. the two are not necessarily the same thing. for example, lotion is thought to improve skin. however, if it’s improving skin, why with many lotions you have to apply it daily? arguably, it’s because you bathe daily, but if the lotion was absorbing into your skin and improving it, could it be… Read more »

ScrewyHair
9 years ago
Reply to  shana

: She IS saying that deep conditioning does not benefit your hair.

shana
shana
9 years ago
Reply to  ScrewyHair

not really. she basically said that leaving deep conditioners on your hair for 20 minutes verses 5 minutes is not going to improve absorption through cutin layer into inner fiber structure of hair, especially products not containing coconut or olive oils (or more particularly small enough molecules). it says nothing about usefulness of deep conditioners to coat hair, protecting it from elements and giving it a “healthy”-looking sheen.

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  shana

Thank you so much Shana — I really could not have explained it better.

begginbad
begginbad
9 years ago

who is this “Science” though? i don’t know who that is… i can trust good ol’ “trial and error” and “dont mess with your hair too much”… because this “Science” person is costing me a lot of money for its inaccuracy.

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  begginbad

One of the most prominent scientists studying hair is Nonhlanla Khumalo in Cape Town, South Africa who is responsible for ‘don’t mess with your hair too much’ with her in depth studies on why hair of African origin is more susceptible to break due to mechanical force.

Trial and error is a very popular scientific principle and the reason why many of us are still alive (penicillin)

Science is me, blogging for the love of it 🙂

Shelli
9 years ago

I have to say that I agree with the first couple of commenters (maybe more) who read about the science, use it to incorporate products/techniques, then evaluates my hair’s response to these things, the good, the bad and the ugly. Then, sometimes I’ll try things taking the “scientific” approach (leave DC in 15 minutes, no heat recommended) and compare it to my intuitive approach (leave DC in an hour, with low/medium heat) to decide what works better for me. I know that I am my own hair’s best “scientist/expert” but read the science to help inform my decisions.

EG
EG
9 years ago

JC, you are more than free to contact Cathy Howse hersef or the folks who gave her the recognition, I am sure they would love to share why they chose her, and how you seem to have proof to refute her works 2. I am not biased, to the contrary. I looked at the evidence and decided that I would side with the person whose research received world wide recognition rather than the person who conducted a small study, and then later published it. Getting a study published is not that hard, if you remember, the asian scientist claiming that bw… Read more »

Jc
Jc
9 years ago
Reply to  EG

EG — To be brutally honest, your comment is extremely and I mean extremely distorted from reality. Where exactly did you read that I personally published a study about deep conditioning? I have not ever claimed to have done so! I write articles which are based on already published and peer reviewed sources.….….i.e work which has been conducted in a lab, written up by scientists, analysed by atleast 3 other expert scientists in the field and then published in a scientific journal. You can easily check up any of the references that I put up by going to the journals. You… Read more »

Kali
Kali
7 years ago

The youtube channels and forums are excellent for inspiration and reviews for how other black ppl handle there own hair and also how products react to there own hair. But science gives us explanation to why. And that is what our community lacks. And there is not enough information out there and I appreciate women like Audrey writing sound science information on hair. And we need more minorities in this field of study to do sound research. All of the research out here is not controlled and is on relaxed hair. Change is coming and more females are becoming more… Read more »

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