Is African American Hair Really Different? Part I©

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Today the product choices available to the professional hairstylist seems virtually endless. There are product lines formulated specifically for permed hair, color treated hair, dry hair, fine hair, gray hair, and the list goes on. Products are differentiated along ethnic lines as well. There are a host of manufacturers devoted exclusively to the care of African American hair. Even among major general market hair care companies, it is not uncommon for separate ethnic product divisions to be established. But is hair ethnicity a valid and meaningful distinction? Should it be a deteriminant for professional product selection? Is Black hair really different? The answers are YES, YES and YES!

As a basis for this discussion, let it first be established that Black hair encompases a wide array of hair textures. In view of certain aspects of African American history, we understand that Black hair can range from straight to tightly curled and include every texture in between. This post addresses tightly curled hair as the texture most characteristic of African American people.

Although the chemical composition of African-American hair is very similar to Caucasian hair, the shape of the hair strand differs! The physical configuration of excessively curly hair resembles a twisted ribbon. The body of the hair shaft is uneven in the sense that some areas have smaller diameters than others. The Caucasian hair shaft, on the other hand, is typically round or oval. (Note that some Caucasian hair is also excessively curly and therefore similarly constructed). 


Tendency Towards Dryness 

African American hair and scalps tends to be drier in comparison to that of Caucasian hair. In addition, the sebaceous glands within the scalp are often less active and secrete inadequate amounts of sebum - the body's own natural brand of conditioner and hairdress. Therefore the scalp is relatively dry and so is the hair since there is no natural oil to be distributed along the hair shaft. Also, the oil that is secreted may find it harder to travel down the hair shaft because of the strands' extra curliness, thus further contributing to hair dryness. For dry scalps, I recommend a massage with fingertips and/or massage a very small amount of hairdressing into the scalp. For dry hair, always deep condition after shampooing with a deep-penetrating remoisturzing conditioner. When needed, apply a small amount of creme hairdress or oil moisturizer to hair shaft and ends. 


Tendency Towards Fragility 

The 'twisted ribbon theory' referred to earlier in this article contends that some sections along the excessively curly hair shaft are larger in diameter than others. It is precisely this phenomenon that accounts for the main characteristics of Black hair. With excessive amounts of combing or brushing force, the hair has a tendency to stretch and then break at the narrow points. When excessively curly hair, in its virgin state, is treated chemically, tensile strength is lost by as much as 12-14 percent when relaxed and up to 20 percent when permanently waved.


The Impact of Humidity 

In truth, humidity impacts all hair in a similar manner. In highly humid conditions,  hair that's styled counter to its natural texture tends to "go back home" to its original state. Curls in naturally straight hair will droop; wavy or curly hair worn in a straight style will return to its original waves and curls and excessively curly hair will kink or frizz. With the latter hair type, however, the impact of humidity is simply more noticeable and the transition back to the original texture seems more dramatic. Even when African American hair is chemically relaxed to alter the natural texture, high humidity causes the hair shaft to swell and hair reverts back towards its original texture somewhat. This is because relaxers are meant to remove a significant amount of the excessive curliness - not all of it.  Treat Afro hair to conditioners that work to reduce porosity and seal the cuticles. Non porous hair, with tightly aligned cuticles, can better ward off the ill-effects of humidity. Also, products that leave a light, clear, shiny surface on the hair shaft help combat reversion, too, such as certain hairdressings, polymeric styling lotions and the latest silicone based oil products.