If you treat your hair gently, it does pretty well. If you manipulate it too much, it always looks worse
An interview with Kenneth A. Arndt, M.D., associate professor of dermatology, Harvard Medical School and chief of dermatology, Beth Israel Hospital by Mags Kavanaugh
The main thing is to use common sense. Take the whole question of how often you should wash your hair. This really depends on what kind of hair you have. Some people have a more generous secretion of oil onto the scalp and so they need to wash their hair daily. Some, at the opposite end of the spectrum, can go for a week or more without a shampoo and their hair always looks fine. Requirements vary a great deal.
If you have a tendency toward dry scalp, or if you have brittle hair, it is best to back off a bit. Wash less often and use less shampoo. Finding just the right shampoo can be something of a problem—I don’t think you can simply go by the fact that a shampoo is labeled for oily hair or dry hair or normal hair. Sometimes, one formulated for oily hair or scalp seems to work best; other times, one formulated for dry hair or scalp does. So it really is a matter of trying various reputable products.
Protein shampoos, and protein rinses and conditioners, can be helpful temporarily smoothing out cracks in the cuticle (the outer layer of the hair shaft) caused by too much manipulation of the hair. The hair may get dirty and sticky a little more quickly, but that is all right, too, because it is simply a reminder to keep your hair clean. These protein-containing products are extremely effective for women with thin, or thinning, hair—they make the hair look thicker and better as well as making it easier to take care of.
Normal brushing and combing is completely harmless. It is hard to do damage, especially if you use a natural-bristle brush and a wide-tooth comb. Excessively harsh brushes—those with blunt-end nylon bristles in particular—can cause breaks in the cuticle, however, and this results in some loss of spring and luster. Fine-tooth combs with sharp edges can also be a problem because they catch the hair and pull it. But all this is only temporary damage.
Brushing or combing the hair when it is wet does call for extra care. When hair is wet, it absorbs water; it becomes much softer and stretches more easily. If you brush or comb wet hair too vigorously, you can damage it slightly. So try to be as gentle as possible.
“Gentle” is really the key word. If you just make a point of always going easy, you should have no trouble. What causes damage is all the excessive manipulation people go in for—they are so bent on changing the appearance of their hair and making
it look better that they overdo it and end up making the hair look worse.
Permanents are a good example. Permanent-wave solutions, when used properly, cause remarkably little damage. And a permanent can actually protect the hair against damage—if a woman goes from straight to curly hair, it often means she is manipulating it less, and it may grow better simply because she is keeping her hands off.
However, permanents can cause varying degrees of chemical injury to the hair if they are done too often, or on hair that has been heavily bleached or tinted—or if the solution is too concentrated or left on too long. If the damage is severe, it can result in chemical dissolution of the hair, leading to temporary hair loss.
Hair straightening, too, can cause abuse if not done with a great deal of care. People who straighten their hair use solutions that are as a rule quite alkaline, and they occasionally use heat at the same time. This can be quite damaging, especially if the process is too harsh or too frequent. And it can lead to permanent hair loss.
Hair dressings are usually quite harmless. If too greasy, though, the hair dressing can clog the follicles, causing a condition called oil folliculitis. And sometimes, if the grease gets too close to the hairline, it can mean a flare-up of acne or the appearance of an acne flare-up. If this happens, use a gel or water-based product.
Black women are apt to use heavier pomades, and they also tend to do more in the way of straightening and hot combs. There is one problem: if you use a preparation that is greasy and you then comb your hair with something hot, it does heat up the grease. The hot grease runs down the hair shaft to the scalp, and this can induce inflammation and lead to injury. If it occurs repeatedly, it can result in a permanent loss of the functioning hair follicle.
The difficulty, of course, is that the less grease and heat you use, the less effective treatment becomes. So you have to strike a balance between doing what gives you the desired effect and what gives you an undesired effect. Unfortunately, you do not find out until quite a while later that you have overdone it. Then it may take months, or even years, for the hair to come back to normal. And, of course, the way to get the hair back in shape is to treat it very gently and do very little. But when people can’t do things to their hair, they get very upset.
Most blow dryers are harmless. If, however, the heat is too high, they can also cause abuse. After all, hair is protein—it is dead tissue, but it is protein—and when you heat it too hot too often, it gets brittle.
The same is true of excessive sunlight-particularly for anyone who has fair skin and fair hair and spends a certain amount of time at the beach. The damage here is simply the result of constant exposure to sunlight and water. Wet hair absorbs water and swells. Then it dries in the sun and shrinks. And when you go back in the water, it swells all over again. And all this swelling and shrinking leaves your hair looking exactly like straw after a while.
Hair that has not been bleached or tinted can withstand the sun much better than hair that has been colored. But there is no protection I know of other than physically covering the scalp with a scarf or hat or a product that keeps it from drying out.
Traction is another matter entirely. Peopie who pull their hair back too tightly— those who wear ponytails and those who braid their hair in corn rows—can get scarring around the roots of the hair. The condition is called fibrosis, and it causes permanent hair loss. Here again, it all has to do with using common sense—and moderation. Do not bind or braid your hair so tightly that there is a constant pull.
Hair-care myths are everywhere. Massage, for instance. The blood supply to the scalp has always been a prime concern for a great many people: their hair is starting to thin and they think their circulation has something to do with it. So they massage the scalp. Well, massage does not work. Diet-presuming your diet is adequate to start with—doesn’t work. And hormones don’t work—there is no application or injection that does one single thing. Some people say counter-irritants work. They have tried phenol—stimulating solutions, that is. These are no help either, and sometimes actually hurt the hair. The fact is that there is nothing that stimulates hair to grow. I think this is important to emphasize because people are forever looking for some magic elixir, and it does not exist.
Remember that it is normal for people to lose as many as one hundred hairs a day, and for each hair that comes out, a new one will be coming in. There often appears to be a cyclic pattern of growth—with hair growing more in the warm months and less in the cold months. And hair seems to be shed more at certain times of the year, when the weather changes from hot to cold or from cold to hot—although the reason for this is not clear. Pregnancy, certain medication, fever, or shock can cause noticeable hair loss; this is almost always temporary.
All told, we have about five million hairs I on the body—a million on the face alone and some hundred thousand on the scalp. And you can lose up to twenty-five thousand or thirty-five thousand hairs—roughly a quarter of all the hair on your scalp— without any noticeable difference in appearance.