Nutrition News Women's Health Series Health Hair Cover image

The Mane Attraction

Learn About The 100,000 Ways Your Hair Is Entirely Unique!

  • Why Is Your Hair The Way It Is?
  • What Can You Use To Feed Your Hair?
  • How Can You Keep Your Hair “looking good”?

Read more and Lose Those Bad Hair Days….

Crowning Glory…

What a magnificent description for a healthy head of hair! Luster, texture, body, and length are all defining elements of this regal title.

For centuries, cultures across the globe have treated hair as the crown that it is.

For us, hair is a means of projecting our self-image, serving us in a multitude of ways.

In this issue of Nutrition News, we examine our “crowning glory”, and get to know it better. We begin at the “root” of the matter.


Nutrition News Women's Health Series Health Hair Cover image

Topic: All about Hair

There are 3 types of human hair: lanugo, vellus, and terminal. 

Lanugo is the soft hair covering of the human fetus. Vellus is the body hair of children and adults. All the coarser hairs are called terminal. We talk all about that terminal hair here.

The Mane Attraction

Learn About 

The 100,000 Ways 

Your Hair Is 

Entirely Unique!

• Why Is Your Hair The Way It Is?

• What Can You Use To Feed Your Hair?

• How Can You Keep Your Hair “looking good”?

Look Inside And Lose Those Bad Hair Days….

Crowning Glory…

What a magnificent description for a healthy head of hair! Luster, texture, body, and length are all defining elements of this regal title. For centuries, cultures across the globe have treated hair as the crown that it is. For us, hair is a means 

of projecting our self-image, serving us in a multitude of ways. 

In this issue of Nutrition News, we examine our “crowning glory”, and get to know it better. We begin at the “root” of the matter.

More Than What It Seems

Our hair is so familiar to us that as long as it “looks good”, we don’t give much thought to its greater depths. However, hair does more than just frame our face. It conserves body heat, protects our scalp, and serves as a sensory device. Because it has long been the object of scientific and technological research, some hair facts could surprise you.

The first surprise is that we have about 100,000 strands of hair and every single strand of hair is unique, differing from every other strand on our head. And, this has nothing to do with our personal DNA signature. However, our genes determine color, thickness, texture, body, and even how long our hair will grow. In other words, to a great extent what we in-hair-it is just plain luck.

The root of the hair is the part below the surface. Under a microscope, it appears like the stem of a plant with a bulb at the base. It is enclosed in a follicle. The follicle contains several layers with different jobs. The papilla is at the bottom of the bulb and contains capillaries (tiny blood vessels) that feed the cells. Our only living hair is in the bulb. The cells in the bulb divide every 23 to 72 hours, faster than any other cells in the body.

Each follicle is associated with one or several sebaceous glands. These tiny glands secrete an oily substance called sebum, which softens and protects the hair and scalp. These glands are found wherever there is hair on the body. That is, they are everywhere except on the palms, lips, and soles of the feet. The thicker the density of hair, the more sebaceous glands are found. 

The hair above the skin is called the shaft. Each hair shaft has an outside layer called the cuticle, which protects the inner sections of the hair and has a lot to do with its looks and manageability. Research has highlighted the essential role played by the lipids located in the hair’s cuticle. These lipids include ceramides, which ensure that the cuticle remains cohesive and maintains its protective effect on the hair shaft. Let’s consider the interplay of these parts in a little more detail.

How Low Can It Go?

Not only is each hair generated by a follicle, it is involved in a growth cycle. An individual hair grows for at least two years but may grow longer than six. Then the follicle goes into a resting phase for about three months, during which there is no growth of that hair. When the hair follicle picks up production again, it begins to grow a new hair shaft, pushing the old hair out. Normally, we lose approximately 80-100 hairs every day, and typically gain the same number of new ones. (When this is not the case, hair loss is the result.) 

Healthy hair grows approximately one-half inch per month and can grow to a length of four feet or more. (See sidebar, “Hair Around the World”.) The more time hair remains on the head, the thicker the shaft becomes. This is because exposure to sun, wind, and other environmental variables, including pollutants, causes the outside portion of the shaft to swell. Bleaching the hair has the same effect. (You can protect your hair. See our discussion “Protecting Your Crowning Glory”.) 

Color and Texture

We’ve looked at hair biology, but what about color and 

texture? Our hair is colored by a pigment called melanin, a substance produced by cells called melanocytes. (Same root found in the sleep hormone melatonin but having nothing to do with it.) These cells use an enzyme called tyrosinase to produce the melanin from the amino acid tyrosine (synthesized by the body from the essential amino acid phenylalanine). The shade of the melanin translates into the various hair colors from blond to brunette to auburn to ebony.

Lastly, how do we explain straight versus curly hair? Well, a cross section of the hair shaft is very revealing. A cross section of straight hair is round; a curly hair is oval; and very tightly curled and kinky hair is alternately oval and round. Interestingly, some locks are triangular or kidney shaped. These are the kinds of hairs found in cowlicks, those funny “uncombable” sections of hair often seen on the heads of little children. This hair is usually replaced by round-shafted hair as the child gets older, and the cowlicks disappear.

Hair Care

Many people believe that hair care begins with shampooing. Not! It actually begins with what we eat. (It is difficult to imagine a Nutrition News message that would embrace anything else!) A healthy diet of fresh produce, whole grains, healthy oils, sufficient protein, and plenty of water is absolutely essential. 

Both hair and nails are 95-98 percent protein so getting enough protein is important. In fact, prematurely graying hair can be caused by a lack of the amino acid phenylalanine (source of melanin, the hair color pigment). If you suspect inadequate protein digestion, use a digestive supplement.

In this overworked society, both men and women need to support themselves nutritionally to help prevent hair loss and damage. Excessive sugar, salt, and animal fat are all bad for the hair because they create additional stress in your body, resulting in a greater need for nutrients. If you experience excessive stress, it is particularly important to reinforce B vitamin intake. Too much animal fat (butter, cheese, lard, fatty meats) is not only stressful to the body, but it also results in an excess of cholesterol, adversely effecting the hair follicles. On the other hand, polyunsaturated oils, mainly from plants, provide essential fatty acids (EFAs), paramount for healthy hair. The EFAs aid the body in utilizing the B vitamins, keeping the hair shiny and soft, and helping to carry the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Since EFAs also help the body conserve protein, insufficient amounts can result in hair loss.


There are supplements containing nutrients specifically targeted to enhance the hair. (They are also good for the skin.) In general, these formulas contain vitamins A, D, E, and C as well as the B vitamins (specifically niacin, B6, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, biotin, folic acid, choline, and inositol). These formulas may also contain essential fatty acids and lecithin (a fat emulsifier).

Another possible ingredient is cysteine. This amino acid supports liver function. Of course the liver is all important to our health but in the case of our hair, the liver promotes keratin formation. Keratin is the principle protein constituent of hair, nails, and tooth enamel. Sheep given cysteine supplements of one gram per day increased their wool production by 14 percent. The common mineral silica can also be beneficial because it is imperative to the formation of collagen, the protein-based glue in our tissues.

Above, we mentioned the importance of consuming essential fatty acids in your diet. They are a keystone to soft shiny hair (and skin). These healthy oils are also available as supplements. Omega-3 oil supplements (in a combination of EPA and DHA) are emphasized because they are in short supply in the ordinary American diet. (Other than deep water fish, the best dietary sources are wild game meats.) According to Andrew Weil, MD, the essential fatty acid GLA (gamma linolenic acid) offers a wide range of benefits, including promoting healthy hair. Natural sources include evening primrose oil, black currant oil and borage oil. Check out these healthy hair formulas at your favorite natural products store.

Cleansing & Conditioning

Now we arrive at shampooing. Getting your hair clean starts with using the right shampoo. Some of the finest hair care products can be found in health food/natural product stores. Many of these products are manufactured by small firms and are available only to shoppers at these stores (like you). To meet the demands of this market, the brands have to be superior to those commonly found in supermarkets and drugstores. One of the ways this is accomplished is by using formulations containing only the purest and most effective ingredients. Among these are aloe vera, jojoba oil, panthenol, keratin, and herbs—all traditionally recognized for their ability to control oil, bring out luster, and add highlights. Nourishing herbs to look for include lavender, chamomile, calendula, nettle, sage, and rosemary. (See “Ingredient Alert” on back page.)

Many hair care experts advise shampooing daily. This removes dirt and environmental pollutants as well as the secretions of oil and perspiration from the scalp. The right shampoo, along with proper washing, drying, and grooming protects the hair from becoming overly dry. 

Massage your scalp before washing to loosen up debris and to encourage circulation, and then wash. Avoid piling your hair onto the top of your head and scrubbing. Instead, wash gently from the scalp to the ends, the way it is done professionally. Rinse thoroughly until the hair squeaks. 

The next step is using creme rinses and conditioners. They benefit all hair types. Creme rinses change the electrostatic charge of the hair, helping to detangle and control fly-away hair. Conditioners are comparable to skin moisturizers. They coat the hair cuticle with a fine film like sebum on baby hair. This kind of reoiling is important to dry hair and to hair exposed to drying wind, air, or heat.

Deep conditioners (left on the hair for at least 10 minutes) are different from creme rinses and instant conditioners. They compensate for the drying effect of all the procedures you may use to get your hair to look the way you want it to look. Everybody’s hair can benefit from deep conditioning. The experts recommend this pampering treatment once a month. 

The proteins in creme rinses and both conditioners smooth the cuticle of the hair shaft, temporarily gluing split ends back together, making the hair appear thicker. They do not actually cure split ends. This can only be done by cutting them off.

After the cleansing and conditioning process is complete, pat your hair dry, using the towel as a blotter rather than rubbing it. Wrapping the hair in a towel is a good method for doing this since it absorbs excess moisture from your hair while also leaving your hands free. When the hair is no longer wet but only damp, the towel will begin slipping off of your head. The amount of time this takes depends on the length, thickness, and texture of your hair.

Finally, ease out the tangles carefully with a wide toothed comb, starting at the ends and working up to the scalp. Wooden combs, available at many natural products stores, help eliminate static. Incidentally, never brush your hair when it is wet. Wet hair is very elastic and stretching it weakens the shaft and encourages breaking. For the healthiest brushing, use a real bristle brush (also a natural product).

Protecting Your Crowning Glory

Hair is constantly under attack—from water, sun, heat, brushes, combs, various kinds of rubbing, environmental toxins, blow drying, and even some products. All of these elements can result in damage. Fortunately, the amazing design of the hair’s outer envelope, the cuticle, serves to offer it excellent protection. However, no matter how resilient hair may be, it does become damaged over time.

We have already discussed techniques for your hair immediately after washing. Now, let’s talk about how to dry it. Contrary to popular belief, you can blow dry your hair without causing damage. Beginning with damp hair (not wet), use your dryer on the lowest warm setting. As soon as the hair is dry, turn off the dryer. Damage is done by too much heat and over drying. Curling irons and electric curlers damage hair in the same way. A style which falls into place with simple air drying is best (and easiest to care for).

Hair is especially vulnerable to dryness in the winter. Heaters sap up the moisture in the air so that none is left for the hair. This can also create a problem with static electricity. Using a humidifier or setting a bowl of water next to the heat source helps. It is a good idea to cover your hair in all kinds of extreme weather: out in the cold, while sunning, and in steam rooms and saunas. This is especially important if you have tinted, bleached, or colored hair.

Sun, salt water, perspiration, and wind can all combine to have the same damaging effect on the hair as an old fashioned bottle of peroxide. Chlorinated water also has devastating effects. Sunning, swimming hard, and just a good workout cause the scalp to perspire. Although perspiration and heat can stimulate the sebaceous glands to moisturize the hair, they can also make it too oily. Additionally, the salt from perspiration or sea water can shrink the hair shaft and make it more liable to break. Exposure to chlorine actually robs moisture, causing the hair shaft to swell and thus damaging the outer cuticle layer. Damaged cuticles leave the hair dull and brittle. Chlorine also distorts hair color, especially hair that has been colored using dye with a peroxide base.

Don’t be afraid to wash/rinse your hair lightly twice a day to remove exercise-induced perspiration and oil, or the salt from sea water. Sometimes just rinsing with clear water and applying a creme rinse or conditioner is all that is needed. To solve the chlorine problem, put a conditioner on the hair and cover it with a swimming cap before going in the pool (deep conditioners work best). This way the hair absorbs the conditioner instead of the chlorine. You just rinse out the conditioner after swimming, and—voilà!—shiny hair!


Hair Around the World

For many years, hair has been classified into only three ethnic groups: Asian, African, and Caucasian. However, each cultural grouping has characteristics that make it unique. One of the biggest distinguishing factors is the way that hair grows. This includes density, speed of growth, and the implantation of the hair follicle in the scalp.

   Although we report from this paradigm, it is currently undergoing a profound revision. Lead by researchers from L’Oreal and reported in Human Biology, the proposed method disregards ethnicity altogether and considers three descriptors of hair shape: curve diameter (CD), curl index (i), and number of waves (w). This provides for a worldwide classification of hair in eight well-defined categories. Not only is this more appropriate for cosmetic and forensic sciences, it allows for following the continuous geographic and historical patterns suggested by human genetic variation. For now we consider the ethnic variables:

Asian hair holds the speed record for growth, averaging over one-half inch per month. On the other hand, it has lower density than any other ethnic group. The way the follicle is implanted causes the hair to grow perpendicular to the scalp.

African hair, generally black, is the slowest growing of all at less than one-third inch per month. It is slightly more dense than Asian hair and grows almost parallel to the scalp, twisting around itself as it grows.

Caucasian hair has a growth rate between the other two, and, surprisingly, has the highest density of all. It grows at an oblique angle to the scalp and is slightly curved.


Ingredient Alert

The Cancer Prevention Coalition has expressed concern about the presence of diethanolamine (DEA) in shampoo and other beauty products. DEA is used widely because it provides a rich lather in shampoos and keeps a favorable consistency in lotions and creams. DEA by itself is not harmful but while sitting on the store shelves or in your cabinet at home, DEA can react with other ingredients in cosmetic formulas to form an extremely potent carcinogen called nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA, like nitrosamines in luncheon meats, etc.). To be safe, take these two steps: 1) Be sure to rinse off the product thoroughly after use; 2) Use cold water when shampooing to reduce the amount of any NDEA that is absorbed through your skin.

Other names for DEA: Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolamine; DEA Lauryl Sulfate or Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate; Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolamine; Linoleamide DEA or Linoleamide Diethanolamine; Oleamide DEA or Oleamide Diethanolamine. Any product that contains TEA or Triethanolamine.


• Khalsa, S. (1994). Nutrition News. 

Healthy Hair, Skin & Nails.

• Khalsa, S. (2006). “About Your Hair” 

for Taste for Life (in press)

• Staff. (August 2005). Whole Foods. 

Don’t let your hair down! Natural ways to top it off.

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Nutrition News „ 2011 VOL XXXV, No. 6