In this section we look at some real-life cases of hair that is obviously not in good condition.
This person's hair looks dull and lifeless. It doesn't shine, and it is obviously difficult to manage. Examining a few hairs under the microscope would reveal what has happened to it, and suggest what might be done.
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of blaming the last product put on to the hair as the single cause of a problem. Much more often, hair condition is lost as a result of a combination of mis-treatments over a long period.
A classical split end, with gross disruption of the cortex
Damage from weathering
Weathering, as you saw in Chapter 1, is the gradual wearing away of the cuticle of the hair shaft. The damage exposes the cortex, which becomes worn down as well, and the hair can eventually break. Fortunately, hair is tough by nature: hairs taken from ancient Egyptian mummies and even from the bodies of our Stone Age ancestors look remarkably well preserved after thousands of years. Many of us have hair that withstands reasonably well most of the abuse we seem determined to throw at it.
But in spite of this resilience, badly weathered hair is quite common. All too often it results in disappointment and an unhappy client for the stylist and the technician to sort out. But whatever their expertise, repeated attempts to restore the hair to good condition by further experiment may be doomed to failure. All hair has its limit: once that limit is passed and the hair has seriously broken down, the only thing to be done is to cut it off.
Very highly magnified electronmicrograph of normal cuticles, showing how the scales overlap (the scale run from the base of the hair towards the tip)
The tip of a normal hair that has been normally weathered
When new hair first grows up out of the scalp, the cuticle consists of up to ten layers of long 'scales'. Even so, it is incredibly thin - only 3 or 4 µm - and it has to last for may be six years or more. As the hair grows, the layers are little by little worndown. At the end of the hair, especially if it is long, they have worn almost completely away.
This wearing is a perfectly natural process, and has little effect on the hair. But it is very much speeded up by some of the things that happen to the hair. These can include wetting, friction, sunlight, heat from hair dryers or the sun, chemicals in swimming pools and salt in seawater, as well as cosmetic procedures of various kinds, are just some of these.
The photograph below shows what a new hair looks like under the electron microscope. It shows the regular layers of cuticle scales overlying the cortex in long, smooth curves.
The photograph below shows what a new hair looks like under the electron microscope. It shows the regular layers of The next photograph shows (on a much smaller scale) an area further down the same hair. Here the scales have started to become chipped and broken in places. This is quite normal: it results from ordinary combing, which rubs the hair down its length, producing friction as it goes. The gentle friction of hairs rubbing against each other also produces some damage.
The continuing destruction of the cortex of a hair: the long parallel bundles of keratin have been exposed and can be seen clearly
The cortex has ruptured and cannot be repaired, so that the only course of action is to cut off the hair
In the photographs above some more serious harm can be seen. Large areas of the cuticle have split away, showing the cortex underneath. This is how the classic 'split end' starts, with a crack beginning to run back up the hair shaft.
If the problem is really severe, the cortex bursts right out of the hair.
In normal hair, this sort of damage is only noticeable near the tips of untrimmed long hair, which may look lustreless and pale with some split ends. The length of time for which hair can grow without the damage becoming visible depends on the natural quality of the hair, how frequently it is damaged, and how much on-going protection has been given to it by conditioning.
The reason why conditioning is so important in slowing down natural weathering lies in the ability of the cortex to retain moisture. Dry, out-of-condition hair lacks moisture, and the correct moisture content (hydration) of hair has to be restored for the hair to regain its condition and its 'healthy' look. Without enough moisture the number of hydrogen bonds may be reduced.
Conditioning allows re-establishment of the hydrogen bonds and improves the moisture content of the hair by improving the weatherproofing of the cuticle. This determines the amount of static charge on the hair and the resistance of hair to mechanical stresses like brushing and combing.
Damage from hair cutting and styling
Cutting hair with blunt scissors results in a cut with a long, jagged edge, at which the cuticle scales will be especially vulnerable to further damage. This is why stylists use good-quality steel scissors, which are very sharp indeed and cut cleanly. It is even possible to tell whether a stylist chose to use scissors or a razor by looking at the record of the hair: razor cutting produces long, tapering sections of cuticle which weather quickly, and even peel back.
The use of good-quality scissors is a vital part of hair care
Some stylists prefer to cut hair when it is dry, in the belief that this will save the hair from heavy brushing when it is damp and therefore vulnerable to damage. A circular or semicircular brush is probably the least damaging to hair.
The stump of a hair that has been badly cut
Unskilled razor cutting can leave a long 'tail' on the severed hair, which may lead to breakdown of the end of the hair
Careful blow drying on a moderate setting should not damage the hair - but if this dryer is set on maximum heat it may be too close to the hair
Some of the tools of the hairdresser's trade - notice the broad brushes, which are 'kind' to the hair
Damage from hair treatments
Shampooing should not in itself damage the hair, since modern shampoos do not lift the cuticle. In the past, when harsh shampoos were often used, acute and irreversible tangling or matting sometimes followed shampooing. The culprits were usually antiseptic shampoos, and they could turn hair into a mass that looked more like sheep's wool than human hair.
This kind of matting is seldom seen nowadays, fortunately, since most modern shampoos contain conditioning agents and help to protect hair. Small amounts of tangling and occasionally matting are still quite common, however, especially in long weathered hair. It generally affects only small locks of hair or even a few adjacent hairs. It may be the result of wetting and drying hair without shampoo, since friction is higher in wet hair than in dry. It can happen when the hair is piled up on top of the head for shampooing -a recipe for tangling if ever there was one.
Repeated bleaching and perming will significantly affect the hair's porosity and make it vulnerable to further damage
Of the common cosmetic procedures, permanent waving, bleaching and dyeing all damage the hair to some extent. Permanent waving, by its nature, disrupts the structure of the hair: indeed, it has to do so for the perm to be successful. In order to change the shape of the hair, permanent waving agents first break the disulphide bonds that give the hair shaft its structure. The hair is then put into its new shape and 'neutralised'. Neutralisation is the name given to the re-forming of the chemical bonds in their new positions, a process that fixes the hair permanently into its new shape. The secrets of satisfactory perming lie in the manufacturer's formulation of the product and the stylist's expertise in applying the neutralising lotion after just the right length of time, so that the perm is fixed but the hair is damaged as little as possible. Permed hair should always look beautiful in spite of this deliberate 'damage'. (We shall discuss perms in more detail in the next chapter.)
The cuticle of this hair has been significantly damaged by repeated and excessive perming
Bleaching and dyeing change hair structure too, because the dyes and the bleaches used have to penetrate the cuticle and get into the cortex where they have their effect. Some degree of chemical damage is unavoidable.
Cosmetic procedures do not damage the hair follicle within the scalp, and so do not cause hair loss. Only a serious chemical burn to the skin of the scalp that destroys the follicle cells can do so. Burns like this can follow indiscriminate over-use of permanent waving or relaxing solutions, and therefore these solutions must be handled carefully at all times.
Damage from the sun
The ultraviolet light in direct sunlight affects the cuticle in a similar way to a bleach, and eventually the keratin protein of the hair breaks down. The result is than the hair is gradually weakened and becomes drier. The effect shows up as light streaks in the hair (sun bleaching). The reason is that sunlight breaks up some of the chemical links within the amino acid groups, in particular those between carbon atoms and sulphur atoms. It does not affect disulphide linkages or hydrogen bonds.
Though hair is so robust, it can still be damaged by over-enthusiastic brushing and combing, especially when it is wet and if there is some degree of tangling. Metal combs are particularly hard on the hair. Backbrushing and backcombing are extremely harmful, since they tug against the scales of the cuticle, which all lie pointing towards the tip of the shaft like tiles on a roof. Once hair has been backcombed the delicate scales are lifted. The next time a comb passes over the scales they will be ripped off. There is no way of repairing this. The effects of these processes can build up over time and cause considerable damage: backcombing is one of the most damaging physical treatments that can be inflicted on hair.
Two views of damage to cuticles, both due to backcombing
Hair that has been treated chemically (permed, colored or bleached) has, as we have seen, already been damaged to some extent. The result is that it is at greater risk of damage from the daily hair care routine. The surface of chemically treated hair is receptive to conditioners and other protective treatments, however, and if applied regularly these products can give real protection to the hair.
We have seen the importance of the moisture content of hair to the hair's condition. Processes like blow drying reduce the moisture content below its normal level and can in themselves be harmful. Hair dryers and other heated appliances first soften the keratin of the hair. If they are too hot, they can actually cause the water in the hair to boil, and tiny bubbles of steam then form inside the softened hair shaft. The hair is thereby weakened, and may break altogether. This condition of 'bubble hair' is discussed more fully in Chapter 4.
There is no treatment for seriously heat-damaged hair, although trimming the damaged hair can reduce the formation of split ends.
Summary of hair damage
Usually hair damage takes place gradually, stage by stage, as follows:
Bubbles formed within hair as a result of water boiling within the cortex
Once it has been significantly damaged, the cuticle cannot be repaired. So hair care must be aimed at preventing injury in the first place. Obviously, all procedures should therefore be carried out as gently as possible. Apart from this, the best way to keep damage to a minimum is to condition regularly and thoroughly. This helps to keep the cuticle intact, lower friction and reduce static charge on the hair.
Conditioners that contain dimethicone (a silicone compound, made from silica which is one of the commonest substances on earth) deposit mainly at the edges of the cuticle scales - just where the damage happens most easily. Micro-fine droplets make the hair surface smooth and shiny (less 'fly-away')- Dimethicone protects the hair from damage by reducing its resistance to brushing, combing and styling, when wet as well as when dry.
This is African hair (as indicated by the groove along its length): this type of hair, more than any other, needs the protection of conditioning
Other ingredients in conditioners and other hair care preparations also work to smooth the outer layers of the cuticle. These may include protein extracts (collagen, and the amino acids obtained from silk) and panthenol and similar compounds, which are related to vitamin B5. Some of these are known to penetrate hair and to help to increase its moisture content. Well-conditioned hair is quite easy to de-tangle. Use a large-toothed comb or brush with rounded ends.
The only way to avoid split ends altogether is to use preventive conditioning and to avoid all chemical treatments. Split ends, if they do develop, can never be repaired 'like new'. The so-called 'split end repair fluids' are applied directly to the hair tips. They contain high-density silicone fluids which draw the splayed ends of the fibres together and hide their ragged appearance. The fluid is removed at the next shampoo, however.
A split end that has been temporarily repaired
Severe cosmetic damage
Hair that has been badly damaged by cosmetic treatments is surprisingly common. Of course, stylists and technicians are trained to examine hair before carrying out chemical treatment to determine its porosity, and whether there is any possibility of serious damage. But take an enthusiastic amateur embarking on bleaching and perming at home without any basic knowledge or experience, and combine this with a hair dryer used on its hottest setting: you have a recipe for disaster.
Here are a couple of all-too-familiar examples of severe cosmetic damage. Both of them can be avoided by treating the care with the care it deserves.
This is an explosion of the cortex at a single point on the hair. It looks like a tiny white bead on the hair, and can lead to hair breakage. It is a classic sign of cosmetic and chemical over-treatment of the hair. So its appearance should always prompt the thought, 'What is this person doing to the hair more than the rest of us are doing?
A case of trichorrhexis nodosa, where the cortex was disrupted by an overheated hair dryer
The hair has literally been fried by heat, and then burst open
A heat-damaged hair seen under the microscope
A permanent wave process inexpertly applied is probably the most damaging chemical treatment that hairdressers see. This photograph (top right) shows the effect of excessive waving treatment. The cuticle scales on the hair have been lifted up and separated from each other. They will never return to normal, and as soon as a comb passes over them they may break off. The cuticle may be completely stripped off, revealing the cortex underneath. This too is now exposed to weathering, and will probably not survive unbroken for long.
When a new client walks into a salon, the hairdresser never knows what problems are going to face them. A quick assessment reveals whether the client is Caucasian, African, or Asian descent: all these different racial types have different hair qualities and different hair structures. Is this client's hair curly or straight? Dry, greasy or normal? or perhaps of a mixed type? Is it long or short? Thick or thin, in terms of its density on the head? Are the fibres coarse, medium or fine? All these characteristics interact with each other.
Hair that has been repeatedly permed
The effects of repeated bleaching, together with unfortunately poor styling
And then, what is the past history of this hair? Has it been permed or bleached, or possibly both?
No two clients are the same. Life in a salon is never dull!
Knotting, associated with African hair...
... leads to breakdown
A perfect hair, its cuticle intact, taken from a newborn baby
Damaged cuticle, due to backcombing heavily sprayed hair
A hair shattered after severe perm damage
Hair damage caused by hair bands
This is the kind of damage that is caused to African hair by the use of chemical relaxants
A confident woman who has emphasised her beautiful African hair with natural twists and a little bleach, to stunning effect