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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!

(2010)

(2011)

(2014)

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:

  • Aging

  • Change in hormones

  • Illness

  • Family history / genetics

  • Burns

  • Trauma

  • Untreated ringworm of the scalp

  • Vitamin A excess

  • Nutrient deficiency

  • 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.