What’s Up With Our Hair?


Several years ago, while reading an article by geneticist, Anne Techlenburg, I learned some interesting things that help answer that question.  I’ll share with you some of the article’s highlights.

Why Does My Hair Grow This Way?

While genes are likely to be involved, not much is known yet about the actual ones involved.  So what do we know?  The answer seems to lie in the hair follicle.

Hair follicles are tiny pockets in our scalp out of which our hair grows.  The thickness and texture of hair depends on the size and shape of these follicles.  Imagine pushing clay or Play-doh through a mold.  The mold is like the follicle; the hair as it is being formed is like the clay.  The follicle helps to form and contour our hair as it grows.

FolliclesHair thickness results from a combination of both the size of the follicles themselves and how many of them line our scalp.  The size of the follicles determines if the individual hair strands are thick or thin. (See illustration)  Large follicles produce thick hairs.  Small follicles produce thin hairs.  Equally important to hair thickness, the number of follicles on our scalp determines the actual number of hairs crowning our head. Lots of follicles equal lots of hair which equals thick hair.  Sparse follicles equal sparse hair which equals thin hair.

Hair texture can range anywhere from pin-straight to extremely curly. Follicles that are round in cross-section give rise to straight hair.  Those out of which curly hair grows are oval.  Very tightly coiled hair is due to the nearly flat, ribbon-like structure of the follicles. (See illustration)  This hair texture is very common in people of African ancestry.

Not only is African hair wiry, it is also frequently coarse. So why is this?

Why Is My Hair Coarse? Does It Produce Enough Oils?

African hair produces plenty of protective oils, called sebum.  In fact, African hair actually produces more oils than Caucasian and Asian hair.  However, due to the tight curls, the oil fails to spread evenly along the hair fiber.

Without lubrication, the fibers become very dry.  This causes the brittle strands to flake and roughen, resulting in hair that is coarse to the touch.  Very curly hair from all ethnic groups often lacks the silky smoothness of straight hair.  This may be due to the same reason, but to a lesser extent.

The brittleness of African hair adds to the illusion that it cannot be grown long.  The tight curls create stresses at each turn in the hair fiber making hair strands weak and fragile.  This combined with our daily grooming regimens makes hair fibers prone to breakage.

As you can see, our hair has some innate challenges.  In view of the foregoing, we need to be kinder to our hair – and we need to use hair products which will be kind as well!

(Source Material) “Ask A Geneticist” Geneticist Anne Tecklenburg Strehlow, Stanford University, © 1994-2004 The Tech Museum of Innovation – All rights reserved.