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Hair Basics: All About the Cuticle

Avatar • Nov 1, 2011


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by Jc of The Natural Haven

Hair care has many facets but I am increasingly aware as I make my journey through the science, that hair in great condition is hair with an intact cuticle.

What is the cuticle I hear you ask? Well the cuticle is sort of like the roof that protects the hair shaft (or cortex).

So why does the cuticle deserve so much attention? If your pursuit is great hair, you need the cuticle. Its function is protection, protection, protection, shine, protection and protection. How does the cuticle work?

1. It protects the hair shaft from damage due to swelling, preventing uptake of too much water (J Invest Dermatol 105: 96–99, 1995).
2. It protects the cortex from damage from frictional forces for example combing (Wear, pg 1012–1021, 2005)
3. It is the first line of defence against chemical damage, with hair even preserving its strength after the cuticle is damaged (Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, pg 59–67,1991)

Are you convinced yet? If not then let me tell you how damaging the cuticle affects the hair. There are many sites that talk about pH. Let me make this relevant

Apple cider vinegar is acidic (low pH 2–3),

Hair has a slight acidic pH (5–6)

Water to rinse your hair is neutral (pH 7)

Relaxers are alkaline (high pH 9–10)

Generally low pH up to pH 7 does not really change the cuticle but raising it to 8 and above causes the cuticle to lift up (see the diagram below) and this is when real damage can occur since the cortex is exposed to the elements. Some studies have even observed visible disintegration of hair at high pH (J Invest Dermatol 105: 96–99, 1995).

So what can you do to protect your hair cuticle from damage?

1. To protect it from swelling and damage, try some coconut oil, scientifically proven to reduce cuticle damage during washing (see the science on my blog).
2. Use conditioner when combing your hair, less frictional force to your hair! (Chemical and Physical Behaviour of Hair,Robbins)
3. Avoid using chemicals, bleach and color.

What can you do if you have already damaged your cuticle? Well after you give yourself a slap on the wrist, you can try and patch it up using hydrolysed protein like the diagram below (read the science here).

Great info Jc! Ladies, does this enhance your understanding of the cuticle?

*This article was originally posted on July 7, 2009*

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About The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!

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jenteel
jenteel
11 years ago

my hair loves hydrolyzed protein!! 

your illustrations are always so helpful in explaining the science jc! great job!

broadbandette
broadbandette
11 years ago

Thank you for this! Very helpful.

Alicia
Alicia
11 years ago

Thanks for making it plain! I appreciate your explanation for those of us outside of the science field.

Laquita
Laquita
11 years ago

Great info JC as always :o)

Jc
Jc
11 years ago

Thanks for reading the article 🙂

Chanel
Chanel
11 years ago

yay! always love Jc’s words 🙂

Tiffmo
Tiffmo
11 years ago

Hi JC! Thanks for the informative post. A question for you: is it ever beneficial for the cuticle to open up or does doing so only result in damage? I’m wondering if the hair can benefit from open cuticles which might allow moisture to penetrate the shaft and protein to strengthen the cuticle

Audrey Jazz
Audrey Jazz
11 years ago

That was incredibly helpful, if not a bit “complex” for my tiny little brain. Lol. 

It’s nice to be able to read BGLH again. I haven’t been able to because I gave birth last week!! I have one picture of my little prince up on my blog if you’re interested.

anastasia
anastasia
9 years ago
Reply to  Audrey Jazz

A big CONGRATS to you and your family!! And a bigger ‘Welcome to the world!’ for your lil one! =D

hairepy
hairepy
11 years ago

ok…i have a question…are you saying that when you wash with shampoo you should add coconut oil to protect it from hygral fatigue.
Are should i say how to do you incorporate coconut oil so that it protects the hair from hygral fatigue? If anyone knows the answer cacan they please share..also what products have hydrolyzed protein.
thanks

Jc
Jc
11 years ago

@Tiffmo — I don’t think it is useful to ‘open’ the hair cuticle for the purpose of moisturising. Water and certain oils do penetrate hair in its natural state. Lifting the cuticle is a way to weaken the hair.  @Hairepy — Coconut oil can be applied on the hair prior to washing. The hair will allow some of the oil into the hair shaft. At the wash stage, less water will penetrate into the hair shaft preventing excessive swelling of the hair.  Products that have hydrolysed protein — the most popular one I have been asked about is aphogee, but there are… Read more »

Belle
Belle
11 years ago

Hi JC, thanks for the fascinating post. I’d just like to ask if there are any dangers involved in the use of baking soda for rinsing or when added to conditioning treatments. Some people even leave it on for hours as it’s supposed to act as a natural texturiser when used like that. As it’s so alkaline, can it damage the hair’s cuticle?

hairepy
hairepy
11 years ago

Hey JC…THANKS FOR THE INFO..i read what you wrote about opening up the hair cuticle and how that can weaken the hair…so do you think a hair steamer would be useful for me, becasue steam opens up the pores in your skin does it do the same for the hair…does it open the hair cuticles. Thanks again for the info!!!!

Da Jadedpoet
Da Jadedpoet
11 years ago

Thank you Jc you are my natural hair guru LOL. If I didn’t have you my hair would curse me out 24/7 now its just every other day LOL. * i mishandle it still especially while trying to teach myself how to cornrow and flat twist*

(JC groupie)LOL

Jc
Jc
11 years ago

@Belle — This is a fascinating topic. Baking soda is not too alkaline. My test shows it is somewhere between pH 7 and 8. 

I have not previously heard of baking soda to relax hair. I am not certain this would be possible. 

I have not looked up any research on baking soda use on hair, I must do this soon!

@Hairepy — This is another question I don’t know the answer to. I will have to look it up!

Isis
Isis
11 years ago

GREAT info!!! I have a question, my hair is 3b/3c, but I have a small patch in the front thats 1A it hasn’t always been like that. Is there anything I can do to fix it? I use the baking soda rinse, organic shampoo, but nothing seems to help.

shika
shika
9 years ago

Great info.….Tahnks!

K
K
9 years ago

Great information!!…helped me to better understand y I can’t forgo certain steps in my regimen!

anastasia
anastasia
9 years ago

JC, you are the BEST! =)

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