All About Damaged Hair: Technically Speaking

Hair breakage is the ultimate, frightening (think-The Scream) result that occurs because of hair damage.  And, it appears that every proverbial road of broken hair strands leads to only one word-stress.  As you can see below, you have six stressors that you should avoid as much as possible to prevent damaged hair and ultimately hair breakage.


The Root Cause Analysis for Hair Breakage

Here’s how I, the scientist, think about hair breakage.  Hair breakage is the defect.  The root cause of the defect (hair breakage) is damaged hair.  Hair becomes damaged because of excessive stress on the hair system.  There are six types of stressors (also called failure modes) that lead to hair damage:


  • Mechanical Stress
  • Thermal Stress
  • Chemical Stress
  • UV Stress
  • Hydral Stress
  • Environmental Stress

Fortunately, hair breakage can be measured because it is something that you can readily see. However, on the other hand, hair damage might be a little more difficult to discern because you simply might not know the definition.   So what is hair damage exactly?


The Definition of Acutely Damaged Hair

Your hair is damaged when it is missing cuticles, has cracked cuticles, has a misalignment of cuticles, or has raised cuticles.  Again, in order to avoid damage to the hair, and ultimately, hair breakage, you must prevent the damage from occurring.  Remember the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?“ Well it applies to hair as well and the only way to prevent hair damage is avoid or minimize stress to the hair system.


Again, stress is the driver for hair damageThe most prevalent types of stressors in the natural hair care community are mechanical, thermal and chemical stress. When hair is damaged, look for the following signs and behavior:


  • Increased porosity and hair dryness
  • Increased split ends
  • Increased brittleness due to decreased elasticity/suppleness


Let’s delve a little further into the three types of stress for natural hair care styling: mechanical, thermal, and chemical stress.


Mechanical Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling

Mechanical stress is caused by the increased styling efforts to maintain natural hair.  Whether you’re doing a two strand twist out, bantu knot, wash and go, coiled twist, cornrows, or sister locs, you are physically manipulating the hair and applying mechanical stress to the hair system, which ultimately boils down to your hair becoming more prone to being damaged.  Curly hair (especially type 4 hair) is susceptible to breakage due to the curl pattern.  Regardless of how carefully the physical manipulation is done, there still remains the potential for incremental damage to the hair system. 


Thermal Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling

Thermal stress is caused by the practice of using heat to style and manipulate the hair system. This includes flat ironing, blow-drying, and hair dryers.   Heating the hair follicles causes the cuticle to be lifted from the hair shaft, which exposes the cortex.   Once the cuticle is raised and the cortex is exposed, moisture readily evaporates from the hair.


Chemical Stress in Natural Hair Care Styling


Most natural divas are quick to tell you that they have not used “creamy crack” on their tresses in X amount of years.  However, “creamy crack” is only one of many types of chemical stress. Other chemical stressors include hair colorants and shampoos.


Many natural women are using hair colorants.  Whether permanent or demi hair colorant systems, most products use some type of alkaline ingredient such as ammonia to lift the cuticle and allow the dye to penetration the hair shaft.  Under high pH conditions, the cuticle is forcibly lifted to expose the cortex, which can result in acute damage to the hair system.  The damage might show up as moisture loss, brittleness or possible hair breakage. 


Shampooing the hair can also cause chemical stress.  The natural hair care regimen requires that we wash our hair more frequently.  Depending on the shampoo this could lead to disastrous results.  Most people know to avoid SLS and SLeS shampoos because they tend to strip the hair of its natural lipids. However, no one is talking about the importance of optimal pH levels for shampoo regardless of the surfactant system.  I have seen “no poo” shampoos on the market that have a pH of 8-9.  They are marketed as natural but are possibly worse than SLS in shampoo because under high pH conditions, the cuticle is forcibly lifted to expose the cortex, which can result in incremental damage to the hair system.  Again, the damage might show up as moisture loss, brittleness or possible hair breakage.  Yes I purposely repeated myself to drive home a point.  Are you beginning to see a correlation between high pH levels and damaged cuticles?


So as you can see, the three amigos-mechanical stress, thermal stress, and chemical stress can cause hair damage, which will ultimately lead to hair breakage. I’m being redundant on purpose because I really want to drive this point and make sure you fully understand what damage is and how it occurs.


Tip of the Day:  The optimal pH of a shampoo is 5.5 – 6.5.  Regardless of what product you are using, get a pH strip and test the product before using it.  If the pH is between 5.5 – 6.5 and does not contain SLS, SLeS or ALS then it is probably OK to use.  Remember, at a pH of 6.9 you begin to open hair cuticles.

Now that you know “everything in the world” about damaged hair, lets discuss how to fix it.  In part two of this article , I’ll tell you everything about reconstructors.



When to use Glycerin Products Based on Dew Points: Technically Speaking

A.E. Wrote:

Good afternoon Joe!
I was wondering if you could answer my question about dew points and glycerin? It seems like every product that I use contains glycerin or vegetable glycerin and I’m not sure if I should be using them or not. The dew points here are currently around 80. Is that too high for glycerin? And if it is, is there a way to modify the products that I already have so I can keep using them?
Thanks so much for your help!

Great question!  Let’s tackle this in three parts-I’ll discuss the definition of dew point, the definition of glycerin, and the effect of glycerine on the hair when it’s formulated in hair care products.   Lastly, we will discuss what to do.

Dew Point

The Dew point is the temperature at which the water vapor in air begins to condense to a liquid.  It is an absolute measure for how much water vapor is present in outside air.   The greater the dew point temperature, the more water vapor available to condense into liquid water.  Conversely, the lower dew point temperature corresponds to lower amounts of water vapor available to condense into liquid water.  A good rule of thumb for dew point is as follows:

  • Humid Conditions            60F to +80F

  • Optimal Conditions          40 F to 60F

  • Dry/ Arid Conditions       Less than 40F


 Now, moving on to Glycerin-I’ll discuss the technical definition of glycerin, how it’s made and its function in hair care products.

 Vegetable glycerin is a colorless, clear, viscous liquid (it has the consistency of molasses) that is extremely water-soluble.  It is produced from the hydrolysis of coconut and palm based glycerol fats with water under high temperature and pressure.  The product is then distilled to remove the excess water to produce glycerin at +99.3% purity.  It is primarily used as a humectant in cosmetics and personal care products. 

Now you’re probably asking, what is a humectant?

Humectants have two primary functions in hair products: It absorbs water from the air and slows down the rate at which water evaporates from your hair.  In other words, in hair products, glycerin brings the hair shaft in contact with water and limits the water’s ability to evaporate.  Thus, your hair has a greater chance of absorbing water and staying hydrated, which is the key to having healthy hair and minimizing breakage.   Therefore, having a humectant in your hair products is advantageous but, as I hinted above, there are trade offs, especially for curly hair because it tends to be more porous and will need the extra moisture to stay hydrated.  The key to getting optimum performance from glycerin based products is using them at the correct dew point temperature.

Now that you know the definition of dew points and glycerin, let’s discuss the effect they have on your hair- or more specifically, what is the correlation between and dew points and glycerin?

Glycerin Based Products in Low Dew Point Climates

Under dry, arid conditions, glycerin struggles to find enough water in the air to properly hydrate itself (remember glycerin needs water and will therefore, bind to it).  Thus in arid conditions, the only benefit that glycerin will give your hair is that it will slow down the evaporation rate of water from your hair back into the environment.  Simultaneously, glycerin will struggle to remove the small available amount of water from the arid air.  However,  once all the available free water is consumed from the air, the glycerin in your hair product, will then remove the available water from the product itself.  Once that is gone, it will remove the water from the cortex of your hair because glycerin is a humectant and needs to stay hydrated.  Needless to say, using products formulated with glycerin is counterproductive to achieving healthy hair when applied in arid conditions. It leads to overall dryness, coarseness, frizz, fly-aways and an increased probability for greater damage by causing split ends.

Glycerin Products in High Dew Point Climates

Under humid conditions, glycerin causes the hair to become over saturated with water and therefore, disrupts some of your hair’s structure/hydrogen bonding.   I don’t want to get into the chemical structure of hair in this discussion, but I must digress so that you’ll get the complete picture.   Again, when hydrogen bonding is disrupted, your hair losses some structure. Don’t be alarmed because every time you shower, shampoo or go into a high humidity climate, you are disrupting hydrogen bonding in your hair.   When you wet your hair, you are breaking hydrogen bonding.  Your hair looses structure and becomes elongated.   During the drying process, water evaporates and the hydrogen bonds reform.  Your hair’s natural structure is reformed and the hair elongation is reduced so it goes back to its natural state.  This is called shrinkage.   Also, during the elongation process, the hair becomes swollen and the cuticle raises, which causes tangling. Hint, this is why your hair gets tangled when you wash it.

Now, having explained the process of water/humidity with respects to the elongation and shrinkage of your hair, let’s take closer look at glycerin.  The problem with using glycerin based products in high humidity is that it slows down the drying process and increases the chances of damaging your hair while it is elongated.   When your hair is wet or elongated, it is weaker and more prone to breakage.  Obviously, using glycerin based products in humid climates consistently keeps your hair in an elongated state.  Therefore, it increases the probability of damaging it. It can also lose its curl pattern and become frizzy due to having swollen cuticles and tangling, as I mentioned above.  Lastly depending on the concentration of glycerin in the product, your hair might begin to feel stickier.

So, what’s the optimal time to use glycerin products?

  1. Only use products with high glycerin concentrations during optimal dew point temperatures (40F to 60F).

  2. Use Glycerin free products for humid conditions.  In particular, look for the polyquats to detangle and address frizzy hair (typically in the summer and dew point is above 60F)

  3. Use leave-in or deep conditioners (standard oil/water emulsions) for low humidity conditions, which is typically in the winter and dew point is below 40F)

 Please note that products formulated with low levels of glycerine, will not have these dramatic effects on the hair and to best “guestimate” glycerine levels, look for products that list glycerine on the back end of the ingredients list.


Pre-Poo Before Shampoo: Technically Speaking

Our post today will address a question from “Ask the Chemist.” J. D. asked the following question:

Hi Joe,
I have been do hot oil pre-poos most of the summer using castor, olive, and coconut oil combination sitting under dryer with plastic for 30-45 minutes. I have noticed lately when I wet hair to shampoo, my hair feels straw-like. A moisturizing sulfate-free shampoo does not coat hair enough. Once I apply conditioner, my hair seems fine. Should I start looking for another shampoo? Please advise.

This is an excellent question that, especially since it allows me to address pre-pooing.


All About Pre-Pooing

Let’s start with the pre poo.  The purpose of a pre-poo is to give your hair elasticity and suppleness.  When you apply oils to the hair and add heat (remember to use low to medium heat), you are doing two things: (1) lifting the cuticle, and (2) making the oils less viscous.  This allows the oils to penetrate the cortex of the hair.  Now when you follow up with shampooing your hair, you will cool the hair back down and consequently, seal the cuticles and trap the moisture from the pre-poo and the water from washing your hair.

Now having said that, olive and coconut oils are great for pre-pooing because they are rich in oleic acid, which will give your hair elasticity and suppleness.   Elasticity and suppleness prevents breakage and drives healthy hair.


About Castor Oil

You should limit the amount of castor oil.  Remember oils are composed of essential fatty acids.  Castor oil is rich in a ricinoleic acid, which will coat the hair and give it softness and sheen; however soft, shiny hair is not indicative of healthy hair.  To give you and example, think silicone-it makes the hair soft and shiny, but it does not make the hair healthy. Therefore, castor oil is not the best choice for a pre-pooing; however it is an excellent styling agent.


All About Shampoo

Continue using non SLS shampoos.  They are far less aggressive at removing your hair’s natural lipids (oils) than a traditional SLS shampoo.  Using a SLS shampoo will defeat the purpose of pre pooing your hair because SLS is a harsh de-greasing detergent that is actually used at car washes to get rid of oil. So you definitely would not want to get rid of all the oil in your hair.

To address your question about how the shampoo will condition and moisturize your hair- when formulating, I tend to stay away from coco betaine due to conflicting studies on skin irritation and toxicity.   Look for shampoos with decyl glucoside. It is a great surfactant that will cleanse without stripping the hair.   In our Hydration Supreme Moisturizing Shampoo, we use a blend of decyl glucoside and sodium lauroyl lactylate.  This blend has an Eco cert.  It also has superior foaming and moisturizing/conditioning properties.

Finally, look out for excessive amounts of protein.  The comment about your hair feeling like straw might indicate that your hair has too much protein.  Proteins are found in oils, shampoos and conditioners so please read your labels.

Hope this helps,


CUSH/Nappturalite Radio Show Recap: Transitioning from Permed to Natural Hair: The Dos and Don’ts for Preventing Dry Hair

This is the recap of our guest appearance on the Nappturalite Radio Show. The show was about transitioning from permed hair to natural hair and the gist of the discussion was on how to prevent dryness and retain moisture. Here is the recap:

 The Dont’s

  • Do not use petrolatum-it blocks the absorption of moisture
  • Do not use mineral oil-it blocks the absorption of moisture
  • Do not over use silicone (in shampoos, conditioners, or styling products) -it blocks the absorption of moisture. Only use them for special occasions.
  • Do not use SLS-it is the same detergent used to wash cars at the car was, and it dries the hairout by stripping out your natural sebum (oil). Instead, use CUSH’s no-poo-Hydratation Supreme Conditioning Shampoo
  • Do not use Betaine-it dries the hair
  • Do not use alcohol based gels-these are very drying and damaging (SD alcohol, SD alcohol 40, Alcohol denat, Propanol, Propyl alcohol and Isopropyl alcohol)


The Dos

  • Do pre-shampoo your hair with oils that penetrate the hair shaft like avocado oil, argan oil, and coconut oil, etc… These oils have a small molecular structure that can penetrate the hair shaft.
  • Do use a shampoo that is hydrating and is a “no poo.”  These shampoos are very gentle on the hair and do not strip away the natural sebum.
  • Do use a deep conditioner-preferably a leave-in. Again, moisture, moisture, moisture. Try to get it from everywhere. CUSH’s Huile Supreme Styling Cream is  a great choice.
  • Do use a reconstructor once a month to add structure back into the hair.
  • Do Use a moisturizing sprit as needed.
  • Do use a clarifying shampoo if you have applied silicone to you hair.

If you don’t have a regimen or your current regimen is not adequately performing-check out CUSH’s Moisturize and Repair Hair Regimen: