Tips for Beautiful, Healthy Hair
(This is the blog post to accompany my video on the same topic. See here)
I get a lot of comments and questions about my hair care routine - almost as many questions as I get about my skin! For as long as I can remember people have always told me they liked my hair – mostly because it was very long and healthy-looking. I always kept it long because I felt like it was easier to manage. Not to mention I certainly don't have a hard time growing it out!
Hair is considered to be a major component of one’s general appearance. Our hair, like our skin, is something very personal to us. Many of us use it as a statement - as a way to express ourselves and how we are feeling/who we are.
No matter how we use our hair, whether it's just something we don't pay much attention to and we chop it really short so it isn’t a nuisance, or we are constantly changing it as we grow as a person, we all want healthy, strong hair, because healthy hair is a generally viewed as a sign of a healthy person. Thus, the psychological impact of hair damage/thinning/loss/lackluster/brittleness results in a change in self-esteem and is associated with images of reduced worth.
It is not surprising that both men and women find less-than-healthy-looking hair to be a stressful experience.
Rather than tell you specifically what I do for my hair (because my hair isn’t the template for all the different hair in the world) I would rather give you some general guidelines that I have found helped me over the years of getting to know hair in general, and my hair in particular (with some tidbits from my own routine obviously thrown in).
First of all, we don't all have the same hair. That’s obvious. We are born with a certain genetic code that will dictate a lot of how our hair looks and acts and there's very little we can do to change that, although environmental factors may play a manipulative role.
Remember, that for most genes, you have two copies of each gene that you inherited from your mother and your father. For most "traditional" genes, there is a dominant and a recessive version. What this means is that if you have either one or two copies of a dominant version of a gene, you'll look like that gene. To look like the recessive version, you need two copies of the recessive form.
There are two versions of the hair type gene, curly (C) and straight (s). Hair type is an interesting case of something called incomplete dominance. What this means is that with hair type, if you have one of each version of the gene, you get a mix of the two, or wavy hair. So for hair type, CC gives curly, Cs gives wavy and ss gives straight hair. Of course, wavy and curly is in the eye of the beholder, and there are varying degrees which depends largely on the size and shape of the hair follicle (is my hair actually “curly” or is it just really wavy?)! If you’re a curly-headed person who actually had wavy hair, he or she would be a Cs. A wavy-haired person can contribute either a C or an s gene. If paired to a straight-haired person (ss), then the kids would either have straight (ss) or wavy hair (Cs).
Damn, I love genetics.
The thickness and texture of our hair also depends on the size and shape of our follicles (which are largely determined by genetics, but can be affected by environmental factors). They help to form and contour our hair as it grows. Our hair thickness results from a combination of both the size of the follicles themselves and how many of them line our scalp. The size of the follicles determines if the individual hair strands are thick or thin. Large follicles produce thick hairs. Small follicles produce thin hairs.
Similarly, hair thinness and thinning are genetically-based. Thinning hair anywhere in your family is a likely sign of your own risk for thinning hair as you age. The most common form of hair loss is the result of your body becoming increasingly sensitive to androgens, a type of male sex hormone. This is true for both men and women (although women to a lesser degree). Normally, each strand of your hair grows for two to six years, and after a resting stage, it falls out and then is replaced by a new strand of hair. With male pattern baldness, the hair follicle becomes smaller. Growing shorter and finer strands, the follicle eventually gives up and grows no more hair.
Most people have around 100,000 hairs on their head, and shed 50 to 100 hairs a day—which is normal.
The speed of hair growth varies based upon genetics, gender, age, and hormones. It may be reduced by nutrient deficiency (i.e., anorexia, anemia, deficiency) and hormonal fluctuations (i.e., menopause, polycystic ovaries, thyroid disease), but generally scalp hair grows about one-half inch a month. Both your monthly growing rate and your total growing period, or phase, are determined to a large extent by your genetics. Environmental and personal health factors may also influence both rates.
As people age, the rate of hair growth slows, also, and thinning hair is very common to see as we age.
To break it down, hair loss, thinning and damage is believed to be primarily caused by a combination of the following:
Change in hormones
Family history / genetics
Untreated ringworm of the scalp
Vitamin A excess
Rapid weight loss
*If you’re losing hair (male or female), keep in mind that everyone loses hair routinely and naturally so the fact that your comb looks a little bit clotted does not necessarily mean you’re going bald. I lose a ton of hair in my hair brush, during the day, and in the shower – it’s kind of gross, really – but for me that’s normal. I’ve always lost a lot of hair, because I have a lot of it. Importantly, though, if your hair is falling out in strange clumps, more than usual, or is leaving you with bald spots, you may be having some extreme stress response or some form of illness. It’s safe to say that if you’re losing hair (and especially if you’ve got new hair loss coupled with new acne, new weight gain, hirsutism, etc) then you may want to visit your doctor to have hyperandrogenism or other health problems ruled out as a culprit.
My hair appears to be very curly, especially when given a little help with the right TLC – but it is also naturally very resilient, strong, and dense (I have a lot of hair, not thick strands of hair – my hair strands are actually fairly fine). While I can't change that my hair naturally grows a certain colour and dries curly, I can change how I treat my hair to determine how it will react (smooth, frizzy, flat, full of body).
For most of us, growing our hair out healthily without actively taking steps to maintain it often ends in disappointment; but sometimes even excellent care has us wondering why we appear to be making no progress at all. An old friend of mine complained that she could never get her hair to grow past her shoulders (and I truly never saw her with hair past her shoulders). Many factors go into dictating whether or not a person will be able to achieve a healthier, lengthier head of hair.
1. Let your natural oils penetrate.
By this I mean: don’t wash your hair more than it needs to be washed.
I know some people who shower twice a day. My hair (and skin) cringe at this thought!
When I wear my hair straightened (flat-ironed), it gets oily within about a day and a half to two days. Things get greasy pretty fast for straight-hair Sam, which is partially why I hate straightening my hair, because it feels like a waste of my time (however, it’s kind of a catch-22 because I usually can’t wear my hair curly for more than two days (if that) because of how messy and tangled it gets – I lose the curl if I try to tame it while dry). But when I wear my hair curly, it takes almost a week for my hair to get to that same oily stage that only takes my straight hair 48 hours. Why is this?
Because the way our hair is structured will determine how easy it is for sebum to make it from the scalp down the strand. Straight hair is easy – it rests close to the scalp, and it’s a straight-and-easy-stretch down the strand. Curly hair, on the other hand, is often associated with more volume, pushing the strands away from the scalp. And thanks to gravity, the sebum has a harder time making it out onto the strand, and it has winding strands of hair to infiltrate when it gets there. Curly hair produces plenty of protective oils, more than straight or wavy hair – however it is only due to the tight curls that the oil fails to spread evenly along the hair fiber. People with curly hair seldom let their hair get oily “enough” between washes because curly hair gets unruly and messy very quickly, and the only way to make it beautiful again is to wash it – often prematurely – stripping the hair of the oils that haven’t even gotten down the strands. This is why people with straight hair tend to have “oily” hair, and people with curly hair tend to have dry hair.
I make note of every time I visit a hair dresser with my hair naturally curly – they will always (and I mean always) comment on how healthy my hair is for someone with curls – because it is so uncommon to meet a curly-haired person who doesn’t have quite a bit of “dry” hair blues.
So the trick is, with curly hair especially, not to over-wash – only wash your hair when it feels oily. This might mean having to do more loose up-dos when your curls aren’t looking so hot, or it might mean using more product, sleeping with your hair resting above your head rather than under your head, etc. Anything to keep the look, without needing to wash it so frequently.
I understand that for some people (like those who workout daily, or people with jobs that might make certain undesirable scents linger in their hair) need to shower daily. Just know that this strips your hair of its natural oils, and if your hair doesn’t get oily fast enough, it doesn’t give it any time in between to nourish the strands from root to tip. For these people, it is the hair treatment that is going to matter most. For those of you who have such oily hair that when you shower in the morning and by the evening your hair is super oily – you may want to see a doctor about that and discuss how your hormones and lifestyle may be impacting your sebum production.
2. Learn to work with your hair, not against it.
What does this even mean?
Well I only learned what this meant a few years ago. Ever since high school (and probably before that to be completely honest) I hated my hair. For various reasons – I didn’t like the colour, I didn’t like my waves or my curls, etc. I always found a reason to dislike my hair (and bad haircuts certainly didn’t help). At that time straight hair was the thing, and so I took to ironing my hair (yes with an actual iron for clothing - people did stuff like that back then), and using steam hair irons in an attempt to straighten it. These things kind of worked, but they really didn't do wonders for the health of my hair. My hair may have been a little straighter but it was also a lot frizzier and a lot coarser. I longed for silky-smooth hair, while I was stuck with hair not unlike poor little Hermione Granger's.
When the age of awesome flat irons came, I jumped on the bandwagon and would flat iron my hair every time I showered (and with my hair long it would take me over an hour to do, not to mention it hurt my arms holding them up for that long). These flat irons kept my hair silky-smooth while giving me the desired appearance. And that’s fine, if that’s your thing.
I will still straighten my hair occasionally because sometimes it’s easier to manage, or I just want to go for a different look. For me, it just seems like a giant waste of time. I can spend 15 minutes doing my hair to have my natural curls looking their best, or I can spend at least a solid hour beating the crap out of my hair until it does what it’s told only to wash it and have it go back to its natural form anyway (Cosmos forbid it rains or gets humid outside).
But I realized only recently that the reason I hated my natural hair was because I was always working against it, not with it. If you’re actively working against your hair of course you’re going to have problems with it. And so I started working with my hair.
How? Knowing my hair was naturally curly, I began to embrace my curls with products that were light but super nourishing, products that would help hold a curl instead of trying (in futility) to flatten them out.
I also bought a diffuser (which changed my life, (not kidding) and I highly recommend it to anyone with curly hair) which helped lift my hair from my scalp to give it more body, and dry it the way my curly hair longed to be dried. A diffuser works because when it is attached to the hair dryer the air circulates or diffuses around the curl, instead of being blown straight onto it. But doesn’t all hair dry the same way?
Curly hair dries in the opposite manner that straight hair does. For example, when wet, curly hair tends to be straight in appearance. It then uses the moisture from the water to absorb into the hair and contract to create curls. Conversely, when straight hair dries, it must shed moisture to be straight. This is why using a diffuser works for those with frizzy or curly hair. If those with this hair type used a regular hair dryer with no nozzle attachment, the hair has a tendency to become frizzy in appearance because the hair was not able to retain the moisture it needs to curl fully. Also, extreme amounts of heat applied directly to the hair can break down the chemical bonds, causing the hair to relax. A diffuser is often used on a low heat setting, which allows curly hair to retain its chemical bonds, preventing the hair from relaxing and appearing frizzy.
Best $30 I ever spent (thanks, Sears). My hair suddenly went from being lifeless, poufy and dry-and-damaged-looking to being bouncy, full of life and body, smooth and shiny, and much easier to manage. All it took was a little paying attention to what my hair needed.
Knowing your natural hair, and knowing what that natural hair needs to thrive, will be important in keeping it healthy.
3. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables.
Proper nutrition is an important factor in hair wellbeing (and overall wellbeing, for that matter).
This is because the living part of our hair is under the scalp where its root is housed within its follicle. It derives its nutrients from blood, so what you eat can and does directly impact the health of your hair. Think of every meal as nourishment; it’s not enough just to feed your body, you need to nourish it.
It is important to note that many of the metabolic requirements of follicle cells (minerals and vitamins) must be satisfied for optimal hair growth. For this reason, people with certain nutritional deficiencies tend to have dry, stringy and dull hair, and sometimes experience hair loss.
Hair-health diets should contain adequate protein, carbohydrates and fat. Any diet that restricts healthy protein (like beans), healthy carbohydrates (like vegetables), or healthy fats (like avocados, nuts and seeds), is likely to take its toll on your hair – and your health.
Biotin is a favourite in the health industry for hair supplements, but its promotion is kind of baseless in a society that doesn’t really suffer from a biotin deficiency problem. A deficiency in biotin intake may cause brittle hair and can lead to hair loss, but all of the studies proving this only studied people with a biotin deficiency, which is actually quite rare (and can be life-threatening). Supplementing with biotin doesn’t seem like a great idea at this point as it isn’t proven that it will do much of anything for the average person. In order to avoid a deficiency, individuals can find sources of biotin in cereal-grain products, soy flour, and yeast. In this case, opt for the food over the supplement.
Folic acid is another healthy industry favourite that doesn’t have any real evidence except some anecdotes to back it up. Prenatal vitamins have developed a reputation as effective for promoting hair growth. However, it is believed that any benefit is due to some shared ingredients with hair-healthy vitamins (like those mentioned below). In addition, the association between folic acid supplements and hair growth may have come about because thick hair growth is a natural side effect of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Pregnant women usually take prenatal vitamins during this time, leading to the misperception that these supplements, and not natural surges in pregnancy hormones, are the cause of hair growth, shine, or strength. Taking folic acid for hair loss/damage will only help if, like is the case with biotin, you are deficient. And if you’re deficient in folic acid (folate), hair loss will probably be the last thing you would notice. Folic acid is found in abundance in citrus fruits, dark leafy greens, and many fortified grains and cereals, so if you’re eating a well-balanced diet, then it’s unlikely you’re deficient, and you’re not going to benefit from a supplement. In this case, opt for the food over the supplement.
Omegas, on the other hand, are key players in the business of hair. Omega 3 & 6 supplementation showed an improvement in hair loss by improving hair density and reducing the telogen percentage and the proportion of miniaturized anagen hair (4). This study was done over the course of 6 months (you need to give diet and lifestyle changes time to work), and objectively measured improvements were also confirmed by participants’ perceptions of improvement. I would have liked to have had a placebo control in this group, however.
Oh, wait. That study has been done, too!
A double-blind placebo-controlled study over the course of 90 days supplementing with a marine protein supplement (MPS) saw that MPS-treated subjects achieved a significant increase in the number of terminal hairs which was significantly greater than placebo. MPS use also resulted in significantly less hair shedding and higher total Self-Assessment and Quality of Life Questionnaires scores.
Thus, it seems that a high quality MPS omega supplement promotes hair growth and decreases hair loss in women suffering from temporary thinning hair. I like this supplement, or this one. In this case, opt for the supplement.
Iron is another supplement you may consider taking for your hair woes if you find it difficult to get enough of from your diet; iron is involved in many critical physiologic processes within the hair follicle, suggesting that iron deficiency could disrupt hair synthesis (7). Several studies have noted an association between low iron status and hair loss/damage (6)(8). For instance, one study found that, in women, the major cause of hair loss before the age of 50 is nutritional, and that increased and persistent hair shedding (chronic telogen effluvium) and reduced hair volume are the principle changes occurring, and the main cause appears to be depleted iron stores, compromised by a suboptimal intake of the essential amino acid l-lysine (1). Correction of these imbalances stops the excessive hair loss and returns the hair back to its former glory. However, it can take many months to redress the situation (as was noted in the previous study). And unlike biotin, iron deficiency is very common; the overall prevalence rate of patients with iron deficiency who need supplementary iron therapy ranges markedly from less than 10% to as high as 70% among various ethnic and socioeconomic groups (9). In this case opt for the supplement. I recommend this brand.
The role of the essential amino acid, l-lysine in hair loss also appears to be important. Double-blind data confirmed the findings of an open study in women with increased hair shedding, where a significant proportion responded to l-lysine and iron therapy (2). In this case, opt for the food (spirulna, soy, brewer’s yeast, beans).
A balanced diet is clearly necessary for a healthy scalp and hair, and so you may consider adding these supplements into your diet, or eating more foods that contain these particular ingredients. Keep in mind that excessive intakes of nutritional supplements may actually cause hair loss and are not recommended in the absence of a proven deficiency (2). Supplement wisely, with the supervision of a medical professional, and treat all supplements like medication.
4. Try to take control of your stress.
Stress can wreack havoc on your body, in ways you probably can’t even imagine. While stressing out over exams isn’t likely to make your hair look unhealthy or fall out in clumps, stress can cause hair damage indirectly.
When you are stressed (especially chronically), you tend not to take care of yourself. You lose sleep, you don’t eat well, you don’t practice good hygiene – and these things can impact your hair health.
5. Pick hair products that are right for your hair.
Again, this goes back to working with your hair instead of against it. Buying a “straight” hair product for your curly hair isn’t going to do you any favours. Trust me, I know. I used to buy straight-hair products thinking it would smooth out my curls and frizz when all it did was make my hair look ridiculous. Similarly, you might need an intense moisture treatment for dry or damaged hair, and certain treatments may not offer that.
It’s also important that you use a gentle shampoo for oily hair. Harsh shampoos can actually lead to more oil because your scalp tries to compensate. Use a shampoo that’s gentle enough for everyday use. Just like drying out your face may be a short-term solution to acne (with long-term repercussions), so too can drying out your scalp provide short-term relief with long-term consequences.
Don’t be afraid to ask someone in the business. While asking a new hairstylist that just graduated might not be a great idea, you can ask a seasoned hairstylist if any of their clients have similar hair and what products they find work for them.
6. Be mindful of how you wash.
Washing your hair can directly impact how healthy your hair looks and is.
As I mentioned earlier with sebum making its way down the strands of hair, it’s important to only wash the oily parts of the hair (namely, right near the scalp). It’s generally unnecessary to wash the rest of your hair, especially if it is curly (plus, the shampoo will cleanse the rest of the hair as it is being rinsed out). Deliberately washing the hair away from the scalp may just result in fly-aways and dull, coarse hair.
It’s also important to mind the temperature of the water you wash with. Too hot of water can easily strip your hair and your skin of natural oils (a hot shower sure does feel nice, but your skin feels tight and dry after, doesn’t it?). So try to shower in tepid water rather than scalding water.
7. Condition, condition, condition.
I don’t know why so many people don’t use conditioner (neither my mother nor husband do – weirdos). Without it, my hair would be a hot mess - heavy on the mess, light on the hot.
I used to be a “2-in-1” kind of girl (super low maintenance), but this was a part of the “working against my hair” problem of my teen and early adult years. For people like me, with very demanding curls, I need a conditioner that’s up for some heavy lifting. And a 2-in-1 product totally does not lift, bro.
Conditioner can significantly improve the look and texture of your hair. It increases shine, reduces static, improves strength, and smoothes the frizzies.
Even people who feel like conditioner “weighs down” their hair should still be using it. I use conditioner every time I shower (and as a leave-in!) and my hair isn’t weighed down in the least!
But, conditioner can weigh down hair, especially if it is fine. This is why, unlike shampoo, conditioner should not be used anywhere near the scalp. Conditioner should be reserved for the ends of the hair only – the parts most prone to dryness and damage.
8. Consider using cotton.
The towels that we have may be cotton, but sometimes even that isn’t enough.
When you have curly hair especially, although even straight and wavy hair can benefit, you need something soft – something to absorb the excess water, but not to provoke any fly-aways.
It’s for this reason I recommend an old t-shirt to be used to wrap your head rather than use a towel to “rub” the hair dry.
It may also be helpful to wring the hair out like you would wring out a wet cloth, rather than vigorously rubbing it with a towel. Do people still rub their hair dry? I don’t even know.
9. Only style your hair when dry.
Your hair is always susceptible to damage, but more so when it is wet. Blow-dry your hair on low settings when possible, or let your hair air-dry completely before styling it with a hot tool.
Some people suggest only brushing your hair when it is dry, also. Personally I find my hair easy to brush when it’s wet if it is properly nourished, and don’t have any issues with this causing breakage. But if your hair is susceptible to breakage, keep this in mind.
Coconut oil might be a good idea for a hair “mask” every now and then.
And here’s why: in one study (5) comparing coconut oil, mineral oil and sunflower oil, coconut oil was the only oil found to reduce protein loss remarkably for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product. Coconut oil, being a triglyceride of lauric acid (principal fatty acid), has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft.
Some people like to leave it on their entire head overnight, and others like to use it sparingly on the ends of the hair so it is non-greasy looking but still nourishing enough to wear throughout the day. It’s all personal preference, but it may help your hair look and feel healthier.
11. Use a heat protecting spray.
It’s not feasible to ask people to keep heat away from the hair. At least I don’t think it is. When I want those naturally flawless wavy curls that only my Nume curling wand can offer; and when I want those perfect natural curls of mine only my diffuser can give me; and when I want a sleek and straight look that I can only get from my trusty FHI flat iron – yeah, I need heat.
And heat isn’t necessarily bad for the hair, either, when used properly. Using high quality styling tools and keeping tools clean, while following instructions, will mitigate damage.
And just in case, use a spray to help form a barrier between the hair and the tool.
While your hair may have different needs, here are some of my favourite products:
(Keep in mind that these products are based on my hair needs and may not be suitable for you)
A wide-tooth comb is crucial in keeping the shape of the curls as well as keeping the curls smooth (versus a brush breaking them up)
I hope you've found this helpful! Don't forget to check out my video on this topic here!
Leave your thoughts and comments below and what you do for healthy hair!
(1)Rushton, DH., Norris, MJ., Doyer, R., and Busuttil, N. (2002), Causes of hair loss and the developments in hair rejuvenation. Int J Cosmet Sci, 24(1): 17-23.
(2)Rushton, DH. (2002), Nutritional factors and hair loss. Clin Exp Dermatol, 27(5): 396-404.
(3)Rees, JL. (2003), Genetics of hair and skin color. Annu Rev Genet, 37: 57-90.
(4)Le Floc’h, C., Cheniti, A., Connetable, S., Piccardi, N., Vincenzi, C., and Tosti, A. (2015), Effect of a nutritional supplement on hair loss in women. J Cosmet Dermatol, 14(1): 76-82.
(5)Rele, AS., and Mohile, RB. (2003), Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. J Cosmet Sci, 54(2): 175-92.
(6)Park, SY., Na, SY., Kim, JH., Cho, S., and Lee, JH. (2013), Iron plays a certain role in patterned hair loss. J Korean Med Sci, 28(6): 934-8.
(7)Elston, DM. (2010), Commentary: Iron deficiency and hair loss: problems with measurement of iron. J Am Acad Dermatol, 63(6): 1077-82.
(8)Moeinvaziri, M., Mansoori, P., Holakooee, K., Safaee Naraghi, Z., and Abbasi, A. (2009), Iron status in diffuse telogen hair loss among women. Acta Dermatovenerol Croat, 17(4): 279-84.
(9)Sato, S. (1991), Iron deficiency: Structural and microchemical changes in hair, nails, and skin. Semin Dermatol, 10(4): 313-9.