Bob or bun, pigtails or ponytail, Mohawk or Afro, curly, wavy, or straight, blonde, brunette, grey, white, or red... whatever way you wear your hair, and whichever kind of hair you have, you need to take care of it! Other than our skin, our hair is probably the most noticeable outward sign of health we possess. No wonder we feel (and look) so much better when we keep it in top condition.
Untangling the facts
Before we can make an informed choice about hair care, we need to understand some basic facts about hair – what it is, how it grows, and what makes it healthy.
Hair is made mostly of protein, and the one that makes up human hair is from a family of proteins called keratins. Keratins are exceptionally hard, strong proteins, and are usually quite flexible too – amazing materials like silk and spiderwebs are made from keratins, and the beaks of birds are coated with keratins for strength and durability.
Other parts of our bodies made from keratins include fingernails. Individual hairs grow through the outer layer of our skin, but originate in deeper skin tissue, in structures called follicles.
Cells within the follicle produce hair fibres, as well as adding the pigment that gives us hair of a particular colour. To grow hair, follicles work in a growth cycle that begins with growing a new hair, ending its growth after a period of time, and then shedding the hair so that a new one can be grown.
For those hairs that are naturally shorter, such as eyebrows, the natural cycle of growth and shedding lasts only a few months; for longer hairs such as those on our scalp, there can be several years of growth before a hair is shed. In practice, this means that at any given time, the follicles on our scalp (and there are as many as 100,000 of them up there!) are busy shedding hairs, commencing the growth of new hairs, and continuing to grow existing hairs. Some of the hairs on our head may be a few days or weeks old, while others have been keeping us warm for a few years already.
The sebum balance
Right next to the follicles that produce our hairs are tiny glands that produce a natural oil called sebum. Sebum is a bit of a two-edged sword; on the positive side, it coats individual hairs and protects them from harsh conditions, but on the negative side, sebum gives unwashed hair its "greasy" look and feel. Ideally, healthy hair in its natural state tends to have a balanced level of sebum – enough to protect the hair, but not so much that it looks and feels dirty or greasy.
In practice, some of us have hair that is more oily than average, or more "dry" (that is, lacking in oil).
Growing healthy hair
The type of hair we have, how much of it we have, and whether we lose a lot of it as we grow older, are largely determined by genetics – if our parents both have fine, blonde hair then chances are we will too.
But having said that, the way we treat our hair can have a big effect on it. Given what we now know about individual hairs, the way they grow, and how naturally balanced levels of oil can protect them, it's clear that there are two main aspects of hair care to focus on: firstly, we need to make sure that our follicles grow strong, healthy strands of hair; secondly, we need to make sure that we maintain the condition of the hair we already have and protect it from damage – after all, an individual hair will be on our head for years before its follicle sheds it.
For a follicle to grow a healthy hair, it needs to have the right nutrients at hand. And for those nutrients to be available, healthy blood flow to the area is required. One natural approach that may stimulate blood flow (and hence the delivery of nutrients) in the scalp is simple and easy – and it's not just inexpensive, it's free! Massaging the scalp – with the fingertips or even with fingernails, depending on individual preferences – is soothing, helps keep the scalp clean, and may help follicles do their job better.
There are also nutrients that can be particularly helpful for hair; perhaps the best-known of these is silica. Sometimes called "the beauty mineral" because it is so helpful for hair, skin, and nails, silica is concentrated in herbs such as equisetum, also known as horsetail.
Natural Hair Care Maintenance
While new hair growth may benefit from optimising the supply of nutrients to our hair follicles, hair that is already out in the open can no longer benefit from even the very best nutritional choices. This matters, because as we've already noted, some of the hairs may be several years old, and their condition will depend very much on how they've been treated over that time.
This is where the natural oil balance of our hair can really make a difference. While we all like to have clean hair, excessively strong, unnatural shampoos, conditioners, and other hair products can be very harsh, and can completely remove the natural sebum protecting our hair, particularly if they are used frequently. And sometimes, our hair follicles can react to this oil depletion by overcompensating, producing higher-than-normal levels of sebum that quickly gives hair that unpleasant "greasy" look and feel.
This can create a cycle where excessive washing of hair leads to excessive oiliness, which in turn prompts more use of harsh hair products. And of course, some products such as hair dyes and bleaches can be more aggressive than even the strongest shampoos. One way to break this cycle is to turn to hair products that are more natural and hence gentler. Many of these contain both cleansing agents and natural plant oils that can help with hair's natural oil balance.
Ingredients derived from plants, such as cupuacu butter, jojoba, avocado oil, and calendula oil are good ones to look out for when choosing a shampoo or other hair product. Remember, it's just as important to take note of what's not in a product as what's in it – if you're looking for something natural and gentle, watch out for chemical ingredients that may be listed on the label.