Getting to Know Your Hair Properties
The clichÃ© "one size does not fit all' is especially true when it comes to hair matters. We are all different! However, the basic principles you should be aware of regarding your hair tend to remain the same from head to head. You will need to develop an understanding of basic hair properties before you will be able to successfully address your hair needs as they arise. You need to know what your hair should be doing (and feeling) and to what degree it should be doing and feeling it. In this thread, we will go over traits that all healthy hair should have in common as it pertains to: pH, elasticity, and porosity. I'll break each section up into a different post for clarity (and since this thing is hollerin' that I have too many characters for one post )
pH and Your HairA basic working knowledge of pH is important for your understanding of the chemistry of healthy hair care. Understanding pH will help you better understand the nature of your hair products.
Letâ€™s begin with a short chemistry lesson. The pH itself is a measure of how alkaline or acidic something is, and is measured on a scale ranging from 0-14. At the middle of the road is a neutral pH of 7. Water is an example of a neutral pH. So what does pH really have to do with hair? Your hair responds to pH very distinctly.
When a substance has a pH reading of 0 to 6.9, it is considered acidic. Healthy hair bears a slightly acidic pH of 4.5 to 6. In this state, the cuticle is closed tightly and the inner cortex of the hair strand is thoroughly protected. Low pHâ€™s affect the hair shaft by closing down the cuticle layers and allow them to lay flat and tight against one another. Tight and contracted cuticles allow the individual hair strands to move freely past one another, and also allows light to better reflect from the uniform surface enhancing shine. Low pH's reduce the hair's porosity. Neutralizing shampoos, conditioners, and natural substances like lemon and apple cider vinegar also fall into the acidic category.
A pH of 7.1 to 14 is considered basic, or alkaline. High pHâ€™s cause the cuticles to lift and the hair shaft to swell open. An example of this relationship is your hairâ€™s reaction to plain water. Though water is neutral, it is slightly alkaline compared to the hair. Hair is acidic, but when warm water (which bears a higher pH of 7) interacts with the hair shaft, the cuticles will raise slightly in reaction to the waterâ€™s more alkaline pH.
Raised cuticles are responsible for tangly, dry looking hair, that does not shine or hold moisture well. When the cuticles are raised in this manner, the cortex may be exposed and the hair becomes weakened and vulnerable. High pH's increase the porosity of the hair. It is very important that the pH of the hair be normalized, or returned to the normal 4-6 pH range, when using any alkaline product. Damage to the hair strand is often imminent if the cuticles are not returned to their normal closed position. Relaxers and permanent hair colors also fall into the alkaline/basic category. This is why pulling or combing through relaxers is such a damaging process.
A short Lesson on pH Extremes
When the pH of the hair reaches too high or too low on the scale, the hair is always changed or damaged. An extremely high or low pH will drastically affect the protein structure inside the cortex of your hair, so avoid subjecting your strands to pH extremes for extended periods of time.
Exposing the hair to very high pH's (11-14 range) for extended periods of time will eventually swell the cuticle and expose and break down the cortex turning it to mush. The hair will eventually dissolve completely.
Exposing the hair to to very low, acidic pH's (lower than 2 range) will cause the hair to tighten and constrict, hardening the hair to the point that it cannot support itself. If exposure is continued, the hair will dissolve completely in this instance as well.
Keep in mind that pH ranges are non-linear, but logarithmic. This means that a pH jump from 8 to 9 is not an increase of 1, strength-wiseâ€”but rather, an increase of ten times the strength. Example: A pH 9 is ten (10x) times more alkali than a pH 8. pH 12 is ten million (x10,000,000) times more alkali than pH 6. On the acidic end of the scale, a pH 4 is ten (x10) times more acidic than pH 5.
The pH scale and the Special Implications of Relaxing
For those of you who relax, understanding pH is particularly important. Our body and hair normally bear a pH of between 4.5 and 6. This includes the scalp and its secretions as well. Relaxer chemicals are in the alkaline pH range of 10-13, depending on the relaxer strength. If your body chemistry is such that you have a naturally lower body pH, below 4 or 5, your relaxer may only take your hair to a pH of 8 or 9. A pH in this range will not effectively break down the bonds in your hair to allow you to reach the desired straightened effect. If your own bodily pH is naturally low, you may benefit from relaxer with a greater strengthâ€”or one that bears a higher pH to raise your hair to the proper pH range for effective relaxing. Washing the hair two days prior to relaxing may help your relaxer take better. This will keep your natural acidic scalp secretions at bay so that they do not affect the relaxer chemical.
I've also come across threads where posters are concerned about properly neutralizing their hair-- either while doing a mid-relaxer protein step or because the person doing their relaxer decided to skip the neutralizer all together. Again pH's play a major role in how the action of a relaxer is stopped/neutralized. The relaxer process is only compatible at a certain pH's (usually 10-14). As soon as you begin to rinse the relaxer with water (ph 7), the neutralization process has already begun in two ways. First, by the physical removal of the relaxer creme and then by the gradual lowering of the pH. But as we know, water alone is not adequate for bringing down the hair to the normal 4-6 range- it will only bring a pH in the 10-14 range down to about 8 or 9. You still need something more acidic. This is where the neutralizing shampoo typically comes in (pH 3-4). For those who include mid-relaxer protein steps, your water (ph7) brings down the pH, your conditioner which is typically a normalizing (pH of 4-5) brings it down further-- and the neutralizing shampoo finishes it off. Since the pH is slowly being brought down with each product and the creme is removed with each rinsing, the hair is not continuing to process at full strength.
Quick tip: Your own pH test result lab!
Litmus paper is a special type of paper that changes colors as it reads the pH of the liquids youâ€™ve submerged it in. The color change is immediate, and you should be able to measure the color change against a chart to find the pH level of the product you are testing. Litmus papers are generally sold in drug stores.