Your hair cuticle challenge: Look fly, not fly-away


The hair cuticle is your first line of defense, your last resort for moisture retention and your source of shine in your finished hairstyle.

Not only does the cuticle protect the cortex from undue harm, it also works overtime regulating the passage of moisture into and out of it. The cortex is at the mercy of the cuticle, with resilience or elasticity directly affected by any chinks in the armor. With such great responsibility, the cuticle has the power to make or break your hair flair.

Some say the best offence is a good defence, so let’s find out what we can do to keep our cuticle cute, cared for and under control.

But what is the hair cuticle?

The hair cuticle is the outermost protective layer of your hair strand. It is made up of a series of layered keratinized cells that work together to shield the cortex from damage. Since the cuticle has no melanin cells, or melanocytes, it does not contribute to the color of your hair.

Keratin protein cells, or keratinocytes, go through a life cycle of their own. They are produced in the hair follicle through a process of cell division and replication by the hair matrix. As the cells separate from the hair matrix, they die and are pushed up to fill the hair shaft. The dead cells harden and form various components of the hair shaft, some of which are designated to the cuticle. When referring to the cuticle, we specifically mean the shingle-like formation that builds the outer sheath.

Based on your hair type, you can expect to find a variation in the number of layers of cuticle. Not just from one head of hair to another, but also between strands on the same head of hair.  In fact, on some individual hair strands, that variation can occur from one side to the next.

An average straight hair strand has 6 to 10 cuticle layers, which are applied in a relatively uniform fashion. If you’re dealing with curls, however, you may have as few as 2 cuticle layers on the inner side of the curl and up to 10 on the outer side of the curl.

Depending on which way your curl rolls, straightening of that curl may cause the less protected side of the hair strand to be exposed to the elements. This could be one of the reasons why changing someone’s natural hair pattern opens it up to exposure to more damage.

The cuticle layers point in the direction of the tip of the hair strand, which makes total sense when you think about brushing your hair. And the reason why teasing your hair creates volume. You are essentially grooming against the grain, roughing up the cuticle and simulating the expansion of your hair strand’s natural thickness.

Opening and closing the cuticle

A nice tight, smooth cuticle provides the best reflective surface for the appearance of shine and healthy hair. We often sacrifice this layer in our attempts to change our hair into styles that are not innately natural for us.

Open to possibilities

When the call for change sets in, we have to lift the cuticle to gain access to the cortex where the genetic template to our hair type lives. Opening or lifting the cuticle requires alkaline substances to be directly applied to the hair.

The easiest and most common way to lift the cuticle is to wet your hair. Water naturally has the ability to penetrate the cuticle layer and enter the cortex to cause some swelling of the hair shaft. That swelling keeps the cuticle slightly open, or ajar and allows cleansing agents and shampoos to penetrate.

On dry hair, alkaline substances open the cuticle. Relaxers, perms and hair color have an alkaline base, which is why they are applied to dry hair. When the cuticle opens, it allows for a concentrated chemical solution to enter the cortex and make changes to the curl pattern or color.

Closed for successful styling  

Healthy Hair Cuticle

Healthy hair cuticle

The issue of closing the cuticle arises after every wash day. As stated earlier, water has opened the cuticle and, depending on your wash day routine, is now waiting to be closed up to resume its role of protection.

Conditioner is said to have the necessary pH to close an open cuticle and the best ones are designed to do just that. Your hair will actually feel softer when the cuticle is laying flat, or tightly closed.

Another way to close your cuticle is cold water. A cold water rinse after conditioning is reported by some to clamp shut those cuticle layers, while others say it has no effect but to make your shower unpleasant. Let me offer some anecdotal evidence that may persuade you to try your own experiment.

Living in a particularly cold climate, I often leave the house with wet hair. I’ve always let my hair air dry as an attempt to minimize frizz. On one notable occasion it was cold enough outside to cause my hair to freeze slightly, much like when you have a sculptural gel applied. Later in the day, while inside the warm comforts of my destination, I noticed a remarkable difference in the amount of shine and curl definition. Decidedly, a great hair day. Still looking for a way to replicate this without braving an icy cold shower, but I believe the cold works.

One other alternative way to close the cuticle that may rescue you from the cold rinse option is an apple cider vinegar rinse. Apple cider vinegar is acidic and helps to balance the pH of the hair. The perfect pH for hair is  5.5 – 6.5. recommends a hair rinse recipe, consisting of 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar to 2 cups of water, to achieve a closed cuticle and increase overall shine.


Do you have hair-raising cuticle damage?

Since the cuticle makes up the external layer of your hair strand, when it’s damaged you know it. Hair that feels rough to the touch, dry or brittle is more than likely suffering from a damaged cuticle. Existence of split ends provides definitive evidence of a damaged cuticle.

Damage to the cuticle happens, in part, through exposure to environmental factors, but is most likely due to personal styling practices, including chemical treatments. Damage tends to build up over time and can start out with minor chipping in the cuticle that later expands into greater weakness of the hair strand because of the gap created in the armor.

When you first see signs of split ends, the best thing to do is have your hair trimmed above the point where the split end starts. This will prevent the separation from traveling up the shaft and along the length of your hair.

Other signs of cuticle damage can be identified through hair breakage. When the cortex gets dried out, the dryness also permeates the cuticle. To look at it up close, you would see definite signs of cracking. Any point of cracking is like a fault line. This means where a crack appears, a break can, and probably will, follow. Excessive blow dryer use and hot styling tools tend to be the cause of these extreme drying conditions.

Minimize the hurt on your hair

There are a few things you can do to try to keep your cuticle in good shape. First and foremost, go easy on the applied friction. This is anything from the extreme of dry brushing to the simple act of going to bed without first covering and tying your hair down.

You may want to include some of the following practices in your hair care routine:

  • Aside from covering and tying your hair before bed, use of a silk or satin pillowcase will reduce night-time friction.
  • Change the way you brush or comb your hair. Try dividing your hair into smaller sections before attempting to brush out those tangles. Be gentle as you comb or brush out the knots, trying not to tear haphazardly at your mane.
  • When dying or relaxing your hair, be careful to only apply the product to virgin hair or new growth. This means when you’re touching up, your product should only cover the base of your hair, close to the scalp. Any overlapping of product can create excessive damage to previously treated sections.
  • Minimize excessive heat from styling appliances. Many of us use extra hot curling irons to improve the curl setting action. Experiment with your heat settings until you find the lowest one capable of giving you the outcome you’re looking for.

Porous cuticle problems

Black hair has a tendency to be porous. In curly hair, the convex side of the hair shaft has a thinner  cuticle than the concave side of the same shaft. That means you can have as few as two layers of cuticle protection on the outside of your curl and the inner side will have between six and 10 layers. Fewer layers means less protection from harm and abuse.

Some porosity issues have to do with the natural curl shape and how the cuticle characteristically lays as it follows the curve. If you think about what it’s like to try to pry open a box lid that has been nailed shut, a gap beneath the nail head makes it easier to pry open. As the cuticle “shingles” follow the bend of the curled shaft, they would naturally lift a little to navigate the turn. That structural gap can allow for penetration of wayward elements and either the escape of moisture or the penetration of chemicals or environmental toxins.

The best way to combat a lifted cuticle is to use some of the hair rinsing methods outlined above to close the cuticle as tightly as possible. If excessive damage is the culprit of your porosity issues, protein treatments are essential in repairing large holes and gaps in the hair strand.

Keep in mind that applying protein is not a long term fix because the actual hair strand is dead. It may fill the gaps temporarily but will wash out easily since there are no living protein cells to fuse with and rebuild the wall.

Although you can’t change the number of cuticle layers assigned to your hair type, a more permanent improvement of cuticle strength can arise out of proper diet and nutrition. Providing your body with the right nutrients gives the hair follicle more stable building blocks to work with as it processes and produces the hair fibre.

Make it a habit to inspect your cuticle regularly. Early intervention of self-inflicted damage can spare your hair from more trauma than is necessary. Remember to get your hair trimmed regularly and often.

Have you developed any tips and tricks when working with your cuticle? Share with us your successes and failures. We’re eager to hear from you!

The sebaceous gland: Oil shortage or overdrive?

frizzy greasy limp hair

If you’ve ever experienced excessively dry, or possibly oily hair and scalp,  it’s more than likely the sebaceous gland played a part in it. Tasked with providing moisture and lubrication to our skin and hair, it holds the key to that healthy glow everyone raves about.

While trying to achieve your own definition of balanced hair greatness, discover the challenges you may face, ways to combat them and means to support healthy production from the sebaceous glands.

Skin deep source of moisture

Sebaceous gland anatomy

The sebaceous glands are microscopic multi-lobed glands, which attach to the hair follicle’s duct beneath the surface of the skin. One or more glands may surround each hair follicle. Their purpose is to produce a waxy, oily substance called sebum, which is regularly deposited into the follicle where hair is being produced.

The glands deposit sebum into the hair follicle duct on the hairs, and bring it to the skin’s surface along the hair shaft. Located all over the human body, with the exception of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, this process is dominating your square footage.

The rate at which the sebaceous gland produces sebum varies from one person to the next and is subject to certain hormonal influences. For example, in children, the sebaceous gland is not active until the onset of puberty. Presence of androgens, male sex hormones like testosterone, increase sebaceous gland production, whereas the presence of estrogen is reported to inhibit sebaceous gland production. Since both men and women have their fair share of both these sets of hormones, over production is not gender specific.

Also known as a lipid, sebum is composed of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, and metabolites of fat-producing cells. There are a number of responsibilities the sebum performs:

  • moisture for the hair fibre – as the sebum is deposited into the hair follicle duct, it naturally coats the hair, as it travels with the growth of the hair out to the skin’s surface.
  • lubrication of the skin – sebum keeps your skin waterproof since lipids don’t dissolve in water. Not only does it protect you from taking on too much water, it also protects you from excessive water loss. The film sebum makes on your skin regulates the passing of water so that dehydration is kept at bay. This property comes from the wax esters in the composition of sebum.
  • protection from wayward bacteria – a very fine, slightly acidic film forms on the surface of the skin as a result of the sebum, and acts as a barrier to bacteria, viruses, and other potential contaminants that might penetrate the skin
  • distribution of vitamin E – as a fat-soluble antioxidant, vitamin E is brought to the skin to protect tissue from damage caused by substances called free radicals, which can harm cells, tissues, and organs. They are believed to play a role in certain conditions related to aging. Vitamin E: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

Sebum overload

If you have an overly active set of sebaceous glands, you may experience either greasy looking hair, clogged follicles or at times both.

Greasy hair tends to be associated to fine hair types and the fair-haired. When this plagues you your hair will appear limp and oversaturated or heavy. It will not respond well to styling efforts.

Although this is not a typically natural occurrence for black hair, you could experience these symptoms from overuse of products and build up of applied oils and creams.

If you hair is particularly greasy, find a cleansing product that will support the rebalancing and distribution of oils on your scalp and hair shaft. Be cautious here. You don’t want to completely strip your head of oil. When you dry out your scalp, the sebaceous glands read that signal as requiring more oil to be produced and do the opposite of what you want.

Your scalp will display excessive oil in another way. It can cause scaly patches, red skin and stubborn dandruff. This is often referred to as seborrheic dermatitis. Excessive build up on the skin’s surface can also lead to plugged or clogged follicles. If not treated, the plugged follicle may stop producing hair and you may experience temporary hair loss.

In a dry spell

If you hair is looking dry and flyaway, you may or may not have under-producing, or blocked sebaceous glands. With curly hair, the sebum will not necessarily travel along the hair shaft because of the twists and turns. It’s possible you have normal sebum secretion, which is unable to travel without assistance. When that happens it sits on your scalp, potentially waiting to be reabsorbed.

Dry scalp is also directly related to a reduction in the production of sebum. As a result, the skin can become tight and itchy. The reduction in production of sebum may be due to blockage of the sebaceous glands, but that is not always the case.

Sometimes the scalp becomes itchy due to contact with allergens. Contact dermatitis is caused by irritants in soaps and shampoos. The difference here, contact dermatitis will flare up immediately after contact with the offending substance.

Dry hair will look dull and be more susceptible to breakage. If you are unable to stretch your hair without it snapping in two, you have overly dry hair. Intervention is required. You can try oils that are compatible with the chemistry of your hair and easily absorbed by your scalp without causing build up.

One of these oils is coconut oil. It has been discovered that the chemical makeup of this oil,  encourages penetration into the hair strand and passes with ease through the cuticle’s defense system. The lauric acid naturally occurring in coconut oil has a low molecular weight, and is able to penetrate the hair shaft, nourishing the hair with vitamins, minerals and the medium-chain fatty acids.

Aside from that, coconut oil is rich in antioxidants, and has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. When used on hair, it improves scalp health, fights infections and fungus, supports hair growth, all while adding volume and shine without the common harmful chemicals.

Another good oil is olive oil. Olive oil is a source of squalene, one of the lipids found in human sebum. Squalene is said to assist in anti-oxidation, generates oxygen, stimulates immunity and regulates fat. Olive oil is an emollient, which means it’s able to penetrate the shaft to create a shinier appearance and improve elasticity. This is a great option that you may already have on hand in your kitchen.

Somewhere in between

The quest for normal hair is one pursued by many. Much attention is usually given to the problem areas relating to healthy hair growth, but we can’t forget the “normals” out there.

If you have regular or average sebum production along with strong, resilient and shiny hair, make note of your maintenance routine, give thanks and move on. You have been given a gift. Just stay on top of any changes as your hormonal balance begins to shift and adjust accordingly. You are the envy of many.

But what if you’re in between, but in a bad way. Schwarzkopf calls this a mixed condition. You may be experiencing overactive sebaceous glands, poor scalp condition and an overabundance of sebum. Best case scenario, this can be absorbed back into the scalp without clogging any follicles or preventing hair growth. However, you still have an issue with excessively dry, frizzy ends, subject to breakage. A dry hair/oily root situation is not ideal and requires a divided approach.

First, you need to apply some oil to your dry ends, ideally prior to washing. If you can allow your hair’s cuticle to absorb some moisture 2 to 12 hours prior to washing, it will protect it from further depletion. Then when washing your hair, focus your attention on the scalp area. Cleanse to remove excess oil but not to strip to the point of dryness.

Application of coconut oil post-wash may be the best course of action. In the case where the oily build up on your scalp is due to bacteria, the coconut oil has a built-in ability to fight infections and fungal deposits.

How to support healthy sebaceous glands and sebum production

It was stated earlier that male sex hormones, or androgens, stimulate sebaceous gland production. If you want to keep your sebaceous glands operating at their best, you can try including some of the following vitamins and supplements or eating a balanced diet of healthy foods. reports Vitamins A, B1, C and E, chromium, folic acid, and Ginkgo biloba are believed to increase androgen. There are also supplements like L-arginine, L-tyrosine, magnesium, nitric acid, selenium, and zinc, which have positive effects, as well. Androgen production is also believed to be stimulated with the inclusion of bananas, figs, and raw oysters.

Sebum production is believed to be supported with the inclusion of apricots, foods rich in antioxidants, beta-carotene, brewer’s yeast, legumes, liver, natural fruit and vegetable juices, nuts, papaya, persimmons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat and whole grain products.

Common allergens and some poor food choices can lead to the wrong type of oil production and skin inflammation. These include certain dairy products, foods containing iodine, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, salt, seaweed, shellfish and trans-fats. Ingesting these can cause clogged pores or allergic reactions, if you are susceptible to them.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is drink plenty of water. Clean, filtered water will keep skin pores hydrated and flush away toxins that can lead to skin issues.

A healthy relationship

Buried in the skin, the close relationship between the sebaceous gland and hair health is undeniable. Good things grow from good ground. Keep your skin and pores healthy  and the subsequent hair will thrive and also be healthy.

Have you ever faced any challenges with out of balance or oily hair? Do you have irregular sebum production? In the comments below, let us know your hair type and what you did to combat these issues.

The Cortex: Providing Substance for the Human Hair Shaft

If you’ve ever wondered why your hair is fine or coarse, brown or black, you’ve actually been questioning the contents of your hair cortex. Although the human hair shaft is comprised of the cuticle, cortex and, depending on the size of the strand, the medulla, it’s the cortex that makes up the bulk of the hair strand. It is also responsible for the display of your hair’s genetic code, which includes color, hair type and texture.

It’s this part of the human hair shaft that is the target for chemical alteration in regards to natural color and curl pattern and the most in need of protection by the cuticle.

What’s in your hair’s genes?

The cortex is a complex system of cells. There is a mass of cells called the dermal papilla which acts as the boss to the entire hair growth system. It is instrumental in the development of the original hair follicle and dictates the size of the hair fibre that will eventually be produced. (For more information about the hair follicle and how it reproduces hair, see Human hair follicle: Your hair growth factory.)

The larger or more broad the dermal papilla surface, the thicker the hair strand that will form within its respective hair follicle. Not every follicle on your head is exactly the same, however. This is why it’s possible to have varying textures or hair types on different parts of your head.

The hair matrix takes its direction from the dermal papilla. The cell division and replication that occurs within the hair matrix create the hair shaft and produce the necessary cellular material required to form the hair fibre.

Keratin and melanin cells both originate from this cellular process. These cells undergo a process of keratinization, which is fancy for die off and harden. The keratinized cells get pushed up into the follicle duct and advance the hair strand upward. In other words, they add to the base of your hair strand creating the growth you see above your scalp line.

Protein packs a punch.

Human hair is made up of a type of fibrous protein called keratin, which consists of a combination of 18 amino acids essential to hair health. It is an insoluble protein, which contains large amounts of cysteine. This particular amino acid is responsible for the rich sulfur content and plays an important role in the structure and cohesion of hair.

Within the cortex, the keratin is organised into protofibrils, composed of 4 chains of keratin. The protofibrils can be compared to a rope-like structure, where its strength is dependent on the bonds or bridges between the atoms of individual chains. These bonds are of variable strength.

Disulphide bonds are the strongest bonds, formed out of the attraction between amino acid cysteine and other sulfur containing molecules. The placement of these bonds form the shape and structure of your hair strand. Cysteine amino acids are capable of bonding with other cysteines further down the hair shaft and is the contributing factor to any curling of hair.

Curly hair has more of these bonds than straight hair. The follicle’s shape and resulting angle that it travels towards the surface of the skin allows for different parts of the hair shaft to come close enough together to allow a bond to form.

Acting on the sulphurated parts of the keratin amino acid chain, disulfide bridges can only be broken with the use of chemicals. Weaker bonds, such as hydrogen bonds, are ones that can be altered with the addition of water alone.

Found amongst these keratinized cells are pigment cells, or carriers of melanin.

Are you high on melanin?

The color of your hair depends on the shade and amount of pigment located in the cortex, with some influence coming from tiny air spaces found within the hair itself. Melanin represents only 1% of the total composition of your hair, so its influence is impressive despite its volume. There are two melanin types found to represent the spectrum of available hair colors; eumelanin and pheomelanin.

Eumelanin provides black and brown pigment and is particularly abundant among black populations. The absence of eumelanin dictates whether hair is blonde or not.

Pheomelanin provides pink and red colors and is the main pigment found among red-haired individuals. Aside from providing color, melanin’s functional purpose is for protection against UV-radiation. Pheomelanin is nowhere near as protective as eumelanin.

Are you starting to find white hairs? That means pigment is absent from the cortex. The contained air becomes reflective of light and is responsible for the whiteness. The difference between white and gray hair is generally associated with the overall mixture of white and colored hairs you have.

What shape do you subscribe to?

Mechanically speaking, the cortex is largely responsible for the elasticity and tensile strength of the hair fibre. It is made up of cortical cells, which when counted as one unit, comprise 75 to 80% of the strand’s overall volume.


Until closer examination, the general thought was that every hair strand had a round shaped circumference. These cross-sections, representing various hair types, highlight the fact that hair strands are as unique as the head they come from. The composition of the cortex and the shape of the cortical cells included in it, define the outer shape of each hair strand.

It’s possible for an individual cortical cell to be one of two different classifications, where the combination of these differing cells dictate your hair type and resulting curl pattern.

Cortical cells define ethnic differences.

Not all cortical cells are shaped the same. Dr. Ali N. Syed does a great job explaining the complexities of the cortex. There are two main types of cells, ortho-cortical and paracortical. Para-cortical cells are shaped like spindles and are fairly consistent in shape, although overall size can vary from one to another.

If you have straight hair of Asian or European descent, your cortex will be primarily made up of these. Bone straight hair only has para-cortical cells, as they organize themselves in a uniformly stacked fashion. When hair starts to become wavy, or expresses some curl, you can expect to see the introduction of ortho-cortical cells in its structure.

Ortho-cortical cells do not have a uniform shape to them and one might even call them random in their makeup. Much like its para-cortical counterpart, they are also generated in various sizes.

Curlier hair types have a cortex filled with a majority share of these ortho-cortical cells, with a small amount of para-cortical cells, typically lining one side of the hair shaft. Considered an example of mixed race hair, you can expect larger, fuller curl patterns as a result of this composition.

The curliest hair types have equal shares of both otho- and para-cortical cells. It may be the struggle for cortex domination occurring between the two types that causes the exaggerated curl definition found in African descent hair.

An interesting hair type cross-section comparison between straight and curly hair shows the uniformity of straight hair clearly. The curly haired strand presents itself in a whorl pattern, much like you would see in a fingerprint. If you think about the vast number of fingerprints in the world, this could be some indication of the vast number of hair combinations that are actually possible. Left, curly hair – Right, represents straight hair.

Dry, broken and lacking elasticity.

The extent of the dryness of your hair can be attributed to something called cell membrane complex. There are two forms in the human hair strand. One type is found at the cuticle layer and another within the cortex used to bind the keratinized cells together.


Cell membrane complex is a lipid material formed out of essential fatty acids, ceramides and cholesterol. It performs an important role in structure, tensile strength and elasticity. Let’s try to apply an analogy here to improve your understanding.

Think of the internal cell membrane like window putty. In older windows, when seating a pane of glass, they often used a putty because it was flexible and would allow for expansion and contraction of the glass during changes of temperature, without compromising its function. If that putty were to dry out, the glass would become loose and rattle if windy or possibly even fall out if moved.

Cell membrane complex operates in much the same way. It binds the cortex together, allows for flexibility in the hair shaft and provides a built-in pocket of moisture to keep the hair strand pliable and responsive to manipulation.

The cuticle has its own version of cell membrane complex with a slightly different composition. Responsible for protection and moisture retention, the cuticle is the first line of defense when washing your hair. A study was conducted measuring the effects shampoo had on the lipid layers of hair.

One shampoo application can be responsible for extracting approximately 50% of cuticle layer fats, with repeated shampooing increasing the reduction to between 70 and 90%. When the cuticle is doing its job, it is believed that the internal fats found in the cortex are not affected to the same extent.

When an extreme depletion occurs, the internal fats migrate from inside the cortex of the hair shaft to the outside cuticle layer in an attempt to remedy the depletion. You can imagine that if this cycle happens enough, the cortex will become dry and brittle and you will experience breakage.

Because the hair shaft is dead, the lipids don’t have the ability to restore themselves. Much like the window analogy, when the cell membrane complex is dried out it loses its functionality.

The sebum produced from the sebaceous gland would be ineffective in trying to coat the curly hair shaft since it would not have the benefit of gravity to help it slide along the shaft.

In most cases of extreme dryness, new growth is the best replacement.

There are reports that coconut oil has a natural penetrating ability when applied to human hair because of the chemistry of its fatty chains. Applying coconut oil may provide some temporary relief from dried out hair but the jury is still out on whether or not it would revitalize a cortex depleted of all its built-in moisture.

Water: Friend or foe?

We tend to have a love/hate relationship with moisture. On the one hand, we crave it to keep our hair looking healthy and free of frizz. On the other hand, when moisture asserts itself into your hair situation when you least expect it—think high humidity—you are less than impressed with what it does to your style.

So what’s a girl to do? Knowledge is the first line of defence. The proteins that make up the human hair have a natural affinity for water. When water is introduced, either directly or indirectly, as in the atmosphere, your hair strand seeks to soak it up.

Dr. Andrew Avarbock, who writes for the New York Times, claims that the better hydrated your hair is the less it will react to environmental moisture conditions. He explains that the swelling of the hair strand, evidenced by the appearance of frizz, is a direct result of dry, or porous hair soaking up water from the atmosphere. The introduction of water alters any existing bonds between your keratin proteins.

Many a battle has been lost with humidity, but if optimal cortical health plays a part in conquering this one, improved care is so worth it.

Give your cortex a head start

Knowing that your hair is made of protein, water and essential fatty acids, direct attention to your diet can provide positive results. Most people are not deficient in protein so we’ll focus on the increase of essential fatty acids and water.

One of the key essential fatty acids is Omega-3. You can find this abundantly in foods like salmon, mackerel, tuna, white fish, sardines, egg yolks, walnuts and hemp seeds. If these food sources don’t appeal to you, you can always try taking an omega-3 or fish oil supplement.

Increase your water intake. The more water you drink, the better your skin looks. Since hair is a direct descendant of your skin, keratinized protein, it makes sense that it will improve how your hair looks and functions as well.

Not sure you can see a difference? Watch your fingernails for clues. Also made of keratinized protein, your fingernails will display hydration deficiencies that are easy to recognize. If your fingernails begin to break more, look dry or lose their natural luster, you can be certain your hair will do the same, if it isn’t already.

As with most things, what you put into it is what you get out of it. Our bodies are no different. Try increasing your essential fatty acids and water intake and watch the natural shine and elasticity of your hair come back to life.

Have you made any observations about your hair’s cortex and how it responds to treatment? If you’ve got some hidden gems, please share with us below. It’s our goal to make everyone’s hair life better than ever.

Human hair follicle: Your hair growth factory

ATTENTION CONTROL FREAKS. You’ve cut. You’ve colored. You’ve curled. You’ve straightened. You’ve coaxed. And sometimes…you’ve even cried. There’s only one thing that has more control over your hair than you and that’s the follicle. Every defining feature of your hair originates from these micro-sized factories embedded in your skin.

The human body is actually covered with 5,000,000 hair follicles, excluding the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet. An average head will have 1,000,000 hair follicles on it with 100,000 of those covering the scalp area. That’s 100,000 reasons to try to understand why your hair is the way it is. From curl pattern to color, you’ll find out all you ever wanted to know about the production of your hair and more.

How hair is produced and grown

The hair follicle is first developed in the womb at about the 3 month mark. Epithelial cells grow downwards to form a plug in the skin and join up with the dermal papilla at the base of the follicle.

The dermal papilla is responsible for hair generation, size and color, since it directs the matrix cells used to build or form the hair strand. The larger the dermal papilla, the larger the hair fibre it will produce.

The matrix cells go through a process of cell division and differentiation and push upwards forming three enclosed cylinders; the outer root sheath, inner root sheath and what will later become that hair fibre you know and love.

The outer root sheath separates the hair fibre from the rest of the skin. It’s the inner root sheath that forms the mold that matrix cells feed into. This is actually where and how your curl is defined. This molded path determines the size of strand and amount of curve the completed hair will exhibit. Because every follicle is responsible for its own output, you can begin to see how variations in your curl pattern can occur on different areas of your scalp.

As the inner root sheath reaches the sebaceous gland, it begins to break down, leaving the hair strand free to exit the skin and ready to be styled. The resulting hair strand is a keratinized version of the hair follicle cells; a by-product of the hair follicle processes, which become factory output.

Due to the fact that the exposed hair strand is dead, as far as biology goes our efficiency ratings must be through the roof. Reduce, reuse, recycle has nothing on human cell use.

Stages of hair growth and development

For those of you stressing over the length of your hair, hair does not grow continually. Also of importance, growth stages can be vastly different from one person to the next. Understanding this may help to alleviate any anxiety you may have in this area.

The follicle is a tiny but powerful factory, which throughout the human lifespan hardly ever stops working. This hair shaft factory is unique in that it is the only organ in the mammalian body which, for its entire lifetime, undergoes cyclical transformations.There are 4 phases that a mature hair follicle passes through. These define the path of growth and development:

  • growth (anagen)
  • regression (catagen)
  • rest (telogen), and
  • shedding (exogen).

The hair growth phase (Anagen)

Hair growth is dependent on the individual’s age, hormones, and nutritional status, as well as physiologic and pathologic factors. The length of time spent in this phase determines the length your hair can achieve.

The human scalp hair follicles can stay in this phase from 2 to 8 years, thus producing long hairs. While in this growth phase, the matrix cells are continually dividing. As new cells are formed they push the older ones up the inner root sheath and eventually out beyond the scalp.

Normal hair growth during this phase is claimed to be 1cm every 28 days, which doesn’t sound like much. Again, your hormones will play a part in this production rate. As a result, you may experience slower or faster growth rates, depending on your specific biology. If you fall outside of the norm in failure to produce fast enough, it may be worth a trip to the doctor for a diagnosis of any underlying conditions or causes.

The good news is growth is not a synchronized event, so each hair passes through the three phases independently. At any given time, it has been estimated that approximately 86 percent of scalp hairs are in anagen, 13 percent in telogen, and 1 percent in catagen. Excessive hair loss may indicate external factors, such as stress, nutrient deficiency or chronological age.

The hair regression phase (Catagen)

This transitional phase is sort of like the clean up phase after a large remodel on a home. All the construction is done for now, but in order to say the house is complete and ready to stand on its own, a clean up process has to happen.

All of the cellular activity that was in overdrive is now slowing down and easing back from its place of prominence during the growth phase. The old hair shaft factory is dismantled so that a new shaft can be produced at the beginning of the next growth phase. This process is called apoptosis.

Apoptosis is a highly controlled form of cell death carried out by implosion, and is a critical factor of the hair cycling process. After cell fragmentation, the cells are essentially eaten, or reabsorbed.

As soon as follicle growth stops, degeneration starts. That is the typical or normal cycle of events. However, there are indications that the catagen phase can start prematurely and/or abort the growth phase. Some of these causes are chronic or severe stress, external trauma, hormone issues or chemical influences, such as prescription medications.

It is said that during the catagen phase, the dermal papilla finds its place of rest next to the epithelial bulge just south of the sebaceous gland. Scientists muse that if the dermal papilla does not manage to reposition itself in this way, out of the fats and into the dermis, that premature death of the follicle is possible.

Time for a rest phase. (Telogen)

The telogen, or resting stage, is when hair follicles stop making hair. At this point in the process, they dump their last cells on to the end of the existing hair fiber, forming a lump. This lump of cells acts as an anchor to hold the hair fiber in the tube of the hair follicle. This non-living hair is attached to the skin with a “club-like” root, but will eventually be pushed out or pulled out during combing or washing and replaced by a new growing hair.

The telogen stage typically lasts for two to three months before the scalp follicles enter the anagen phase and the cycle is repeated all over again.

Shedding the dead hair weight. (Exogen)

Five to 15 percent of scalp follicles are in the telogen stage at any given time. On average, people lose anywhere from 50 to 150 scalp hairs a day, so shedding this amount of hair may be considered normal. Shedding in excess of this may be due to an increase in the follicles of scalp hair in the telogen stage and should be addressed to contain hair loss.

It is not yet clear whether shedding is an active, regulated process or a passive event. If it’s passive, that would mean shedding occurs as a result of the new hair growth in the anagen phase dislodging the old hair from the follicle as it presses upward.

Hair growth and loss in humans is random and not seasonal or cyclical. At any given time, a random number of hairs will be in various stages of growth and shedding. In older people, the hair cycle shortens, the follicles gradually give up producing long, strong hair, and the hairs eventually become thinner and shorter. The overall result may be either a general thinning of the hair density, or even a degree of baldness.

Follicle health issues that prevent growth or create hair loss

When the growth phase stops prematurely, it results in unfavorable conditions like alopecia and telogen effluvium. Armed with this information, scientists are seeking cures by trying to control the onset of the next phase (regression) in their attempts to combat hair loss and disease. Preventing early onset of the regression phase, allows the growth phase to properly fulfill its commitment to new growth.

Here is a list of possible reasons, or ailments, that can bring about hair loss, thinning or poor onset development. If you are concerned that you exhibit signs for any of these, please consult your physician:

  • traction alopecia. Traction alopecia is similar to trichotillomania but occurs after using inappropriate hair styling techniques.
  • alopecia due to physical injury. Any physical damage to the skin such as burns or frostbite may cause localized alopecia.
  • loose anagen hair syndrome. As the name suggests, people who have loose hair syndrome have hair that is easily pulled out by brushing or even by rubbing on a pillow at night.
  • congenital triangular alopecia. This form of hair loss is the result of incomplete skin development and differentiation at the temples.
  • aplasia cutis congenita. This form of hair loss is the result of incomplete embryonic skin development.
  • alopecia due to neoplasms / cancer. Cancer in the skin can directly destroy hair follicles. Cancers elsewhere in the body may also indirectly affect hair fiber growth.
  • alopecia due to hemochromatosis. Most people know that iron deficiency causes hair loss, but not many people know that too much iron in the body is toxic and can also cause alopecia.
  • permanent surgery induced alopecia. Surgery can promote alopecia at the site of incision or, in some plastic surgery procedures, extensive alopecia can develop.
  • alopecia due to celiac disease. Failure to follow a gluten free diet can lead to diffuse hair loss in celiac disease affected individuals.
  • Infectious Hair Diseases. There are a wide range of potential pathogens that can infect the scalp skin, hair follicles, or the hair fiber itself:
    • scalp ringworm . Scalp ringworm, or tinea capitis, is a common infection of the scalp skin that cause cause hair loss.
    • kerion. A kerion is not an infectious agent in itself rather a kerion is the skin lesion that develops when an infectious agent that normally causes scalp ringworm (tinea capitis) becomes more aggressive.
    • lice. Hair lice are a common complication, particularly in children.
    • demodex folliculorum. A very common infectious parasite suggested by some to be involved in hair loss.
    • seborrheic dermatitis. Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin of unknown cause or origin, characterized by moderate erythematic, dry, moist or greasy scaling and yellow-crusted patches on various areas of the body.
    • bacterial folliculitis. One of the most common causes of infectious folliculitis is bacteria. This page reviews the nature of bacterial folliculitis and treatments.
    • candida viral or parasitic folliculitis. Though folliculitis is most commonly caused by bacteria and fungi, candida yeasts, viruses, and parasites can sometimes cause folliculitis.
    • furuncles and carbuncles. Normally infectious folliculitis is a relatively mild and limited scalp inflammation. However, sometimes the infection can be more severe and widespread. When this occurs, furuncles or carbuncles may develop.
    • syphilis. Syphilis typically has three stages; primary, secondary, and late (tertiary), with different symptoms at each stage of the infection. In the secondary and tertiary stages of syphilis, hair loss is common and obvious.
    • black piedra and white piedra. Piedra, meaning stone in Spanish, is an asymptomatic fungal infection of the hair shaft, resulting in the formation of nodules of different hardness on the infected hair. There are two basic types; black piedra and white piedra.

If you’re interested in learning more about Trichology, the study of hair, check out What is Trichology (And When You Should See a Trichologist) 

Color me curious

Wondering how your hair color plays into all of this? Simply put, you could say it piggybacks on the keratinized cells but it actually has its own process before that can happen.

Melanin is contained in granules inside melanocytes, but in this state it is unable to provide any color; it must be transferred to the keratinocytes. The melanocytes are mostly located in the bulb and cortical layer of the hair, sandwiched between the numerous keratinocytes.

The hair bulb at the base of the hair follicle is populated with melanocytes alongside the keratinocytes. These melanocytes are responsible for planting pigment, or melanin granules, into the cells that form the cortex of the hair shaft.

Pigment comes from two types of melanin, eumelanin and pheomelanin. Whatever your specific hair color, its determined by the ratio of each granule dispersed into the cortical cells. Until the melanin is absorbed by the keratinocytes, it is effectively dormant and incapable of reflecting color.

As far as the growth cycle goes, pigment production also turns on and off outside of the anagen phase. Pigment cells are meant to turn back on when the next growth phase starts for new hair. If the pigment fails to restart production, that’s when hair starts to turn grey.

At the close of each growth cycle, some pigment-producing melanocytes become damaged and die off. There is a melanocyte stem cell reservoir at the top of the hair follicle, which can replenish the bulb and keep pigment production going. When that reservoir of stem cells is exhausted, however, pigment production stops and hair turns grey.

Are grey hairs on your horizon?

Genetics are important factors in determining when we might turn grey. Currently, there are no reports linking it to stress, diet or lifestyle. A tiny fraction of the population can attribute greying to autoimmune disease, such as vitiligo and alopecia areata. Both of these can damage pigment cells and bring about greying prematurely.

You have approximately 100,000 follicles to nurture, influence and protect so that your hair keeps coming back again and again. Whatever your hair challenges, if you think they stem from an issue with your hair follicle, leave us a note in the comments. Seeking information on a specific topic not covered here? Let us know and we’ll get to work gathering the details.

Hair Anatomy 101: The Foundations of Human Hair

Have you ever had one of those days? You find yourself standing in front of the mirror, staring at the marvel that is your hair, asking yourself, “Why?” Why does my hair grow like that? Why are my curls so random? How did I ever end up with this color? Do your questions have questions?

Hair Structure - medulla, cortex, cuticle, hair shaft, sheath, matrix, hair bulb, sebaceous gland

Knowing our hair, the specifics of what we are actually dealing with and how it functions in the grand scheme of things, can make all the difference in the world when trying to achieve the latest look.

We regularly wage war with the tip and shaft of the hair strand, while the root and bulb do their thing below the surface. Starting from top to bottom, we’ll take a closer look at the anatomy of human hair and how its parts function together to create a healthy head of hair.

The hair shaft defines you

First and foremost, all hair, from root to tip, is made up of a water insoluble protein known as Keratin, which consists of many amino acids as its primary units.

Home of the split end, the tip of the hair is the part that we regularly trim off in order to keep the rest of the shaft healthy. It is possible for the split end to travel along the shaft and effectively sub-divide the natural thickness of your hair. When that happens, your hair will become weaker and more susceptible to breakage. Regularly trimming is recommended by hair professionals everywhere.

Within the shaft of your hair strand are the three main components, or building blocks, of human hair; the cuticle, cortex and medulla. It’s the internal chemistry and makeup of these which define the characteristics and manageability of your hair, in general.

You could say, the hair shaft holds the key to combating whatever hair insanity you regularly deal with. Excited to slay that dragon, we’re going to examine these building blocks now.

The building blocks of human hair

Cross section of hair - medulla, cortex, cuticle

There are three main components to the human hair shaft. Each of these are further subdivided and have their own complexities and challenges. Starting from the outside in, the shaft is comprised of:

  • a cuticle
  • cortex, and
  • medulla.

What’s so cute about the cuticle?

The cuticle layer is clear and absent of any hair color or pigmentation. It is the reflective element light bounces off of to radiate shine. The tighter closed or more smooth the cuticle layer is the more shine your hair will display.

Every cuticle is formed out of a series of layers of dead cells. If you think about the shingles on the roof of a house, you can easily visualize how the cuticle layers might overlap on an individual hair strand.

It is important to note, not every hair cuticle is created equal. There can be variations in thickness from as little as 2 layers up to 10. Surprisingly, these variations can occur on a single strand of hair, as well as between different hair strands on the same head of hair.

The gatekeeper and first line of defense.

As a protective layer, the cuticle acts as a gatekeeper and strives to keep unwanted elements external to the hair shaft, while keeping beneficial elements, like moisture, inside.

Because of the multiple layers, there is a substance between each which binds them together so that they operate as one unit. The damage of that substance through chemical treatments, styling products and styling practices causes the layers to separate and reduce the overall protective quality.

As the first line of defense for your cortex and an important element in the finishing of your crowning glory, you can see why it’s important to keep the cuticle healthy and at its best.

Let’s see how the cortex works alongside the cuticle.

Sometimes the core. Always the cortex.

Because the medulla is not present in all hair types, the cortex can sometimes act as the core or centremost part of certain hair shafts. Whether the medulla exists or not, the basic structure of the cortex remains the same.

Much like the cuticle, there are multiple cells that work together to form the cortex. The cortex is the thickest part of the hair when considering the diameter of a single hair strand. It is made up of a series of protein-based rod-shaped cells that run parallel to the length of your hair. These cells are not always a uniform shape. TODO The cortex: Giving substance to the human hair shaft  – explores these differences and more in greater detail.

Defining your hair color.

Within the cortex, you’ll find the major source of your hair color. Your individual pigmentation or melanin content resides here and dictates the hue of your tresses.

It is the cortex, where keratin protein accumulates, that needs to be accessed in order to change hair color  with dyes and chemicals. The keratin cellular chemistry is what is changed to create new colors and styles.

When the medulla layer is actually present, there can be some melanin cells found there as well. Read on for more information on this “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” layer.

Maybe the medulla. Maybe not.

The medulla, found at the core of some hair strands, appears to be the greatest mystery to hair care specialists and scientists today. As you search the internet, you’ll discover the definitive conclusion that the medulla layer is not present in fine hair, whatever the color.

The underlying function of the medulla is still in question. Dr. Ali N. Syed, chemist and founder of Avlon Industries Inc. with over 30 years experience developing hair care products, states that the medulla is full of air pockets and suggests it may be responsible for any potential volume found in particular hair types.

It’s the criminal forensic scientists that get the credit for documenting different types of medulla. They have discovered a variety in the structure of the medulla across different hair types and have created four categories for medulla classification:

  • continuous
  • interrupted
  • fragmented, and
  • absent.

They also claim that Native American and Asian hair types have been found to have continuous medulla as well as coarse hair, since instances of double medulla has been found in men’s beard hair.

Medulla may not be so mysterious.

Black Hair Spot would like to be the first to draw some conclusions from the data they have gathered. First, take into account Asian hair and Native American hair tends to be bone straight and highly resistant to chemical restructuring, in the case of perms and waves. Then add to that the fact that beard hair, where double medulla had been identified, is typically classified as very coarse. We can deduce that the medulla layer plays a strong role in the pliability of the hair shaft and overall structure in hair typing.

A good metaphor for comparison might be a spinal column, since a medulla runs through the centre of your hair shaft, when present at all:

  • continuous or unsegmented would be likened to rebar, inflexible and straight.
  • interrupted and fragmented would show signs of variable flexibility dependent on the frequency and space between naturally occurring gaps.
  • complete absence of medulla would experience flat, lifeless hair that is difficult to hold shape or style; you might say, spineless.

With this assumption in place, it appears that the most extreme classifications of the medulla layer, continuous and absent, prove to be the most difficult to alter chemically.

We’re excited to see where the scientists, who are pursuing this subject, land. Whether or not the medulla is critical to the shape and style of your hair, one thing is for certain. Your hair would be nothing without the following supporting actors.

Introducing the supporting actors in your hair health story

It’s no secret that your hair health is contingent upon what nutrients you supply internally and what you expose it to externally. Those hair headliners of yours may claim the credit, but they don’t do it all by themselves. They have the benefit of some strong supporting actors, which help you to command the attention you deserve for those beautiful tresses. In truth, your hair wouldn’t even exist without these below the surface supporters.

In particular, your tresses are supported by:

  • the hair follicle,
  • hair bulb, and
  • sebaceous gland.

Time to take a closer look at how they help your hair to steal center stage.

The fortitude of the hair follicle.

The hair follicle is more in control than you might think. While we’re frantically trying to restyle the hair north of our scalp, the hair follicle is hard at work replicating that same genetic template we’re working overtime to defeat.

According to, the entire inventory of our hair follicles, their distribution and spacing across our entire body is formed in the earliest days of our womb experience. That means whatever you’ve got is what you’ve got, for the duration. Keeping them all functioning is your best hope for maintaining hair density. See Human hair follicle: Your hair growth factory for more information about the follicle and reasons why it may fail to produce hair.

One might assume all follicles look the same and differentiation in hair type only shows itself once it emerges from the scalp or skin. Not so.

Think of follicles like tiny hair factories with preset molds inside. As the hair grows, it travels through this genetically designed mold  and comes out the other side with your established  curl pattern. So if your hair has tight tiny curls, the embedded path reflects that. Large curls? Same thing, different path.

The follicle’s main job is to produce and “house” the hair. It has its own system for growth, shedding and regeneration, so it’s always on the job replicating your trademark tresses. The hair fibre is rooted inside the follicle until it is shed for new growth.

Hair bulb: the anchor of your hair strand

The hair bulb is located at the very bottom of the hair follicle and is the anchor that roots the hair into the skin. It contains the living cells, which divide and replicate, and reproduce the hair strand.

According to, blood vessels nourish the cells in the hair bulb and deliver the hormones responsible for common modifications of hair that occur at different stages of your natural life. Graying hair or change of texture and density are common as we age.

It is the hair bulb that has a mass of nerve endings. These are the source of the pain you feel when someone pulls your hair. They do not travel along the length of the hair shaft, which is why you don’t feel pain when your hair is cut. That part of your hair is actually dead.

Those nerve endings are also responsible for the goose bump feeling you get or even the ability to notice when someone has brushed up against your locks when you aren’t looking.

Sebaceous glands: our built-in oil refinery.

Responsible for keeping your skin and hair moist, the sebaceous gland is a sac that is located in the skin. It produces an oil called sebum, which empties into the duct of the follicle. This provides lubrication and moisture as the hair shaft grows up to maturity.

Not all sebaceous glands produce oil at the same rate. Another dictate of genetics, a person can expect anywhere from dry, moderate, oily and very oily effects from this gland’s output. See TODO The sebaceous gland: Oil shortage or overdrive for more information.

Also not uncommon are variations in the amount of secretion throughout the anatomy of any one person. If you’ve ever experienced dry scalp but have an oily T-zone on your face, you’ll understand completely.

Sometimes your hair follicle can be blocked with dead skin cells. When that occurs, the sebaceous gland doesn’t know to stop production so sebum fills up the duct and a plug forms. If you’ve ever had hair bumps, or acne, this is an example of your blocked follicles at work.

On the plus side, sebum is responsible for protecting the body from bacteria, while keeping moisture locked in.  When it finds its way to the scalp, or epidermis, it begins to perform this protective role. Vitamin A is reported to be beneficial with sebum production and may be important if you’re trying to have a more supportive relationship with your sebaceous glands.

There is much more to our hair than meets the eye. This broad overview is intended to start the journey, unwrapping the mysteries that both confuse and astound us, as we go.

This exploration is far from over. Check back with us as we continue to share more educational content in this series.

If you happened to learn something that you didn’t already know, please leave a comment sharing how we blew your mind today. Even if your mind wasn’t blown, if you were alerted to something new, we’d love to hear from you.