Want healthy, luxurious hair all year long?
If you’ve ever been to a hairdresser, you’ll be very familiar with the end-of-session sales pitch for the latest product to hit the market — a little pot of hair miracle promising to polish your locks to perfection.
As a quick fix, chemical products including colour dyes may take your tresses from unruly to tame with an enviable shine; but in the long term your hair is being damaged, follicle by follicle, cuticle by cuticle. Couple this with the daily use of heated styling tools — straighteners, dryers, curlers, crimpers — and you’re getting further away from achieving truly healthy hair, which can only come from the roots up.
Laying down your favourite tools may not be an option but there are steps you can take to bring back the silky locks of your childhood. However, first it’s important to understand how hair is formed and what essential nutrients make up each strand, from root to tip.
The foundation of healthy hair
While hair is deemed “dead” once it leaves the scalp, it’s very much alive and dependent on good nutrition as it grows. The bulb and shaft make up each hair strand. It’s in the bulb at the hair root that cells multiply due to minerals, oxygen and essential nutrients including magnesium, sulphur, zinc and silica, as well as vitamin B6, biotin, inositol and folic acid. Beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A, is also essential to maintain healthy skin, nails and hair.
As hair grows, its cells become rich in keratin, a protein-packed sulphurous amino acid, which forms the hair shaft. Under a microscope you would see three layers that make up the shaft, including the medulla at the centre, the cortex and the cuticle. The medulla has minimal pigment while the cortex determines the hair’s strength and colour. The cuticle is what reflects light and shines. This flat outer layer protects the hair’s internal composition, working as a barrier to harsh environment conditions. It’s these cells that become damaged with over-colouring and styling, leaving the hair dull, limp and often broken.
Working from the inside out
Before we began bombarding our hair with chemical shampoos, conditioners, dyes, styling products and heated tools, hair shone naturally provided its owner ate a diet rich in nutrients essential to healthy hair growth. Yet it’s not one vitamin or mineral that leads to better growth, says Mal Pace, who counsels clients to a healthier lifestyle from the inside out at his Pace Training and Health clinic in Sydney.
Jeopardise your diet and you jeopardise your hair.
“We need about 100 different nutrients to survive and thrive,” he says. “We need lots of vitamins and minerals — not five, not 10 but 100. [Healthy hair depends on] a tonne of essential trace minerals, like manganese and copper, as well as fatty acids. Most of us have heard the term ‘essential fatty acids’ and, as the name implies, they are absolutely necessary, not optional. These fatty acids are found mainly in non-animal foods such as seeds, nuts and vegetables. Jeopardise your diet and you jeopardise your hair.”
Pace adds that, while some mineral supplements can help to replace what has been lost, there is no substitute for eating real wholefoods when it’s optimally healthy hair you seek. Additionally, superfoods such barley grass, acai and goji berries, wheat grass, chlorella and spirulina from a pure source are also a good idea due to their high concentrations of hair-loving nutrients.
Iron, vitamin D and iodine are also essential hair nutrients, says Tony Pearce of National Trichology Services. “These are the three most important nutrients for metabolic functioning,” he says. “Essentially, by virtue of their ‘femaleness’, women are more prone to being deficient in these nutrients than males. Hair is the first tissue to have these supports withdrawn when the body’s levels are becoming depleted.”
Pearce adds that thinning hair on a woman’s scalp is often the first symptom of an internal disturbance or deficiency: “If you are noticing you are losing more hair than normal or suffering from telogen effluvium (a form of alopecia) — keeping in mind other factors such as post-pregnancy or shock if you have been ill and required intravenous drugs — start with a simple blood test to determine your iodine, iron and vitamin D levels.”
Dr SK Thomas, author of The Fertile Ground, says the health of the scalp is also imperative to healthy hair growth. Every cell in the body, he explains, is dependent on blood supply for nourishment and removal of each cell’s waste. “If that acid waste is not removed, it will concentrate around the cells and burn them — this is physical stress, creating an acid condition. The skin cells of the scalp want to be happy, like every other cell,” he says. “Vasoconstriction is when the body’s blood vessels contract to a smaller size [or] diameter.”
Substances such as nicotine and caffeine are just two of the culprits that trigger vasoconstriction, Dr Thomas adds. When this happens to any tissue, blood supply and nutrition decrease, as does elimination of cell waste, which directly affects hair health — or the lack thereof. “Mental stress is also a problem because we contract our muscles chronically and prevent blood and nutrition from getting to the cells, restricting elimination, cell happiness and balance,” he says. “Bottom line: hair cannot grow if the cells are not kept happy.”
Foods for healthy hair
If you’re dedicated to achieving healthy strands, there are certain foods that are a must to include in your diet:
Dark green vegetables: A great source of vitamins A and C, these help the body produce sebum, the oil secreted by the hair follicles and your natural hair conditioner.
Lentils and beans: Legumes are a must for silkier locks. Besides all-important protein, which promotes hair growth, foods such as lentils and beans are brimming with biotin, zinc and iron. When deficient in these, hair becomes brittle.
Whole grains: Important hair nutrients including B vitamins, zinc and iron are found in whole grains. Try soaking instead of boiling to maximise the amount of goodness you get from each mouthful.
Carrots: Known to be perfect eye food, carrots also promote a healthy scalp thanks to their vitamin A content.
Bananas: Hair thinning is often attributed to lack of vitamin
B6, a nutrient found in the humble banana. This vitamin is essential as it enables the body to absorb nutrients from the other foods we eat and also helps the production of red blood cells which keep hair follicles healthy, creating shine.
Nuts: Pecans, walnuts and cashews make great snacks if you want to have healthy hair. Their zinc content can slow thinning and hair loss. Walnuts are also a great source of selenium, important to ensure a healthy scalp free of dandruff.
Tips from the ancients
What you put in your body and on your hair may contribute to a head of healthy locks, but so does how often — and when — you decide to book in for that trim, says Rebecca Dettman, an Adelaide-based intuitive and former Beauty editor. She says there are many who cut, shave or wax only according to the moon’s cycles, swearing by its ability to keep hair healthy and promote or slow growth.
“When the moon is waxing (growing bigger), hair is said to grow more profusely; when waning (growing smaller), hair growth slows,” Dettman says. “To encourage longer locks, trim the ends under a full or waxing moon in Cancer, Scorpio, Capricorn, Pisces and Taurus. For thicker hair, visit your hairdresser under a full moon in Leo.
“Sick of your hair growing too fast? Get it chopped under a waning moon in the ‘dry’ signs of Aries, Gemini, Libra, Sagittarius, Aquarius.”
She says, throughout history, hair — particularly healthy hair — has always represented strength, power, rank, prestige and even magic.
“The biblical Sampson lost his strength when cutting off his hair, which is perhaps why witches traditionally used peoples’ hair cuttings in their brews,” she says. “These days, girls often crave new haircuts and colours when changing jobs or boyfriends — an ancient symbolic nod to the fact that hair holds a lot of emotional memory and ‘baggage’ and that chopping it off can be a freeing new beginning.”
Why chemicals are a hair killer
Parabens, sulphates, phthalates and petrochemicals are just some of the nasties that make up the ingredients of many modern-day hair products, each contributing to poor hair health that can only be truly reversed at the hands of a hairdresser with a sharp pair of scissors. Knowing what chemicals to avoid is the first step in fostering vibrant locks (and ultimately good health). Check your favourite product for one — or a combination — of the following ingredients to avoid:
Isopropyl alcohol: Found in hair colour rinses, this is a solvent and denaturant, meaning it changes other ingredients’ natural qualities. This petroleum-derived chemical is also used in antifreeze. Applied to the hair, it will cause breakages and strands will become extremely dry. If that’s not enough to deter even the most committed fan of hair colour, consider that it’s also said to cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and mental depression.
Petrolatum: If your grandmother told stories of how Vaseline did wonders for her hair, chances are it didn’t (sorry, Grandma). This petroleum-based goop is used by industries to grease machinery and has no place being near your hair or skin. It not only clogs the hair cuticles but also infuses hair with toxins that are bad for it, bad for your scalp and bad for your entire body. What goes on goes within.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG): Found in hair products and topical medications — and even lava lamps and oven cleaners — polyethylene glycol compromises the immune system, can be carcinogenic and may result in brain, liver and kidney abnormalities. In short, it’s toxic, it won’t foster healthy hair and it should have no place in the bathroom cabinet.
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) & sodium laureth sulphate (SLES): Of all the bad chemicals in hair products, these two have to be the most publicised, and for good reason. They are used in countless hair and beauty products, particularly shampoos, conditioners and toothpastes, to make them foam up and give the impression they’re doing a good cleaning job. SLS and SLES are inexpensive, making them very attractive to beauty companies that want the biggest bang for their hair buck. Also used as detergents, these two nasties make up carwash soaps, garage floor cleaners and engine degreasers. When tested on animals, they caused eye damage, depression, laboured breathing, diarrhoea, severe skin irritation, corrosion and even death.
Chlorine: No need to check the label for this one. A major additive to water supplies around the world, chlorine will not only dry your hair out, causing breakage; it’s also been proved to have many ill effects. Fit a quality filtration system to your showerhead to rid this chemical from your daily routine. Chlorine can cause asthma, hay fever, anaemia, bronchitis, circulatory collapse, confusion, dizziness, eye irritations, nausea, high blood pressure, cancer and more.
DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethnanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine): Found in shampoos and other personal-care products that foam, these chemicals are said to abet the causes of liver and kidney cancers. This hormone-disrupting trio also come under the names of cocamide DEA or MES and lauramide DEA. Avoid at all costs.
FD & C colour pigments: Many colour pigments cause skin sensitivity and irritation. Absorption of certain colours can cause depletion of the body’s oxygen and even death, according to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. Made from coal tar, almost all have been shown in animal studies to be carcinogenic.
Fragrance: While fragrance may appear harmless, it is in fact a concoction of thousands of toxic ingredients, most of which are synthetic. Also under the guise of “parfum”, it’s found in most shampoos and haircare products. While the smell may be sweet, the symptoms of fragrance application to the scalp can range from headaches, dizziness, rashes and skin discolouration to violent coughing, vomiting and allergic skin irritations. Studies have also found fragrance can affect the central nervous system, causing hyperactivity, depression and irritability.
Imidazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin: These two cosmetic preservatives found in most haircare products release formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that irritates the respiratory system and can cause heart palpitations. Also said to bring about joint pain, allergies, headaches, ear infections, depression, chronic fatigue, formaldehyde is also known to contribute to cancer.
Sofia Basile, owner of Unico Hair Salons in Melbourne, says anything man made that’s unnatural, synthetic and chemically enhanced is not a good idea if you want to achieve optimally healthy hair. “Silicone is being used in so many cheap shampoos,” she says. “It’s a cheap and quick result in getting ‘healthy-looking’ hair. This is a cheat’s approach to shine that gradually builds a plastic coating on the hair.”
She adds, “Silicone will stop conditioner and treatments from making the hair healthy from the inside out. If you think of your bathroom, we use silicone around the sink to make it watertight; this is doing exactly the same thing to your hair shaft.
“Keep your products natural. Your hair condition will improve and you will see great results.”
A toxic combination
Celebrity hair stylist and cruelty-free advocate Nicole Groch has developed a “no chemical” zone whenever she works, after falling ill from chemical styling products and heated styling tools — a combination she also says fast-tracks hair damage.
“As a freelance professional hair and makeup artist, when the GHD first came out I was using it constantly all day long on all the models’ hair and, of course, was using hairsprays and other such chemical styling products,” she says. “The high heat from the GHD caused these products to basically cook and steam. The vapour they released was what I was breathing in constantly.”
Groch, who has tamed the tresses of stars such as Tina Arena and Kylie Minogue, says she developed a “shocking chronic cough and tight, painful chest. I had ECGs and X-rays and lung-capacity tests done. It turned out that it was irritation from breathing in the melted hair products. I tried spraying and using styling products after styling with the GHD and this was the best solution, along with a cortisone inhaler for a period.”
Your hair length can also determine the type of care and time you need to invest. Long and curly hair types require the most attention.
Groch has now become known in the industry for using only natural styling products that are not tested on animals. So strong is her conviction that she has turned away high-profile, lucrative jobs and also set up a website, livingsafe.com.au, to spread her message.
She says her top tips for achieving healthy hair include using only organic, cruelty-free, chemical-free products that don’t coat the hair and irritate the scalp, eating a healthy organic vegetarian diet and letting hair dry naturally when possible. She adds that the main culprits for causing damage include harsh chemical straightening and curling procedures, chemical colouring and bleaching and burning the hair on heated styling tools.
“Personally, I don’t agree with the six-week model of getting hair cut to keep it healthy,” she says. “I think people need to look at and feel the ends of their own hair and, if splitting, dry or coarse, this is the time to get it cut, unless of course you have a style that looks bad if it grows out.”
Colour by nature
Susan Lockie, owner of Organic Hair Care Supplies and a hairdresser for 30 years who developed an early interest in natural hair products, suggests steering clear of mainstream colours and products and applying only henna, a natural dye from the henna tree. This, she says, is a great way to get hair back into fabulous condition.
“Applying henna will give a natural, beautiful look,” she says. “(But) it has to be without added chemicals — one must be vigilant as to what henna one purchases.”
Lockie suggests any henna colour you consider buying must be certified for “accuracy of ingredients”, as most hennas in Australia have chemicals added, including sodium picramate, phenylenenediamine (PPD), HC Red, Solvent Black 5, Disperse Blue 1, Basic Violet 14 and Basic Yellow.
“Remember, it’s not what isn’t in hair dye; it’s what is actually in hair dye that counts,” she says. “No ammonia and no peroxide mean nothing — sadly, a great marketing tool for the unsuspecting customer. Always check the ingredients listed on the packaging.”
Susan says a great way to healthy hair is daily brushing to stimulate the scalp, while removing dead skin. “Dead skin on the scalp is called dandruff and must be removed, as we shed skin,” she says. “The scalp is a hot part of the body and bacteria, along with dead skin, need to be removed daily, otherwise psoriasis can develop. A healthy scalp also needs a little sun daily.”
Regular brushing is a hair-must also recommended by Jill Saunders of natural Tasmanian beauty company, Bee Beauty, who has been singing the praises of natural haircare for more than two decades. “It is imperative that you use a high-quality brush that’s rubber-cushioned so as to shape your scalp and gently stimulate rather than scratch, as cheap synthetic and plastic brushes do,” she advises.
“Also, always brush dry hair, as wet hair is too fragile — brushing the old-fashioned way, 100 strokes a day, briskly from root to tip with your head bent forward to maximise healthy blood flow to the roots, promoting healthy growth and creating thicker and faster-growing hair.”
Saunders says this simple habit will result in hair that’s soft, manageable, healthy and shiny. However, she says it’s important to “take it easy” if your hair is already in poor condition, as strands may break until the hair’s condition improves. “My grandmother also used to make horsetail and nettle tea for me to drink and as a rinse for my hair as a child,” Saunders says. In honour of her grandmother she created a Wild Weeds hair bar, available from her website at beebeauty.com.
Determining your hair type
The level of care you need to give your locks can largely depend on the condition it’s already in and the type of hair you have. Washing oily hair too often can exacerbate the problem, while loading up dry hair with too many oils and masks can leave it looking heavy and dull.
Dry hair looks generally dull, is damaged and broken easily and has visible split ends— usually caused by chemical colours and treatments or lack of oil production.
Oily hair becomes greasy quickly. If not washed regularly, it can lose its shine and body.
Combination hair can be oily at the roots but dry and damaged towards the ends. The likely culprit? Over-styling.
Normal hair is the easiest to manage, with its healthy gloss and few split ends.
Using food and drink as hair cleansers, conditioners and masks has long been a tradition, but largely lost thanks to their commercial counterparts that come packaged with promises of supermodel locks. Yet it’s the foods direct from nature that most benefit the hair, making healthy hair a lot more achievable.
Depending on your hair type, there are home remedies that can smooth cuticles and bring otherwise dull hair back to life and even give lifeless hair some body.
Banana: Used on their own or with a combination of honey and olive oil, bananas are great for treating dandruff while preventing breakage and split ends. Boasting hair-loving oils and vitamins, bananas are also known to improve hair’s elasticity.
Avocado: Used topically or eaten, avocados are known for their moisturising properties. Applied directly to the hair, the E and B vitamins infuse dry hair with much-needed moisture.
Honey: Likely used by your grandmother as a great hair conditioner, honey is excellent as a hair mask, especially when added to other ingredients such as bananas and avocados. Wet hair before applying.
Olive oil: A favourite in the Mediterranean thanks to its multiple uses, olive oil is as good for the hair as it is for the skin. The extra-virgin variety is the best, used for its strengthening and nourishing properties. For the ultimate moisture fix, try mixing the oil with mashed avocado and leave on the hair for 20 minutes to half an hour.
Eggs: Applying whisked eggs to your hair is a good idea thanks to the protein; however, it’s very important to source eggs from happy hens that have been treated humanely and fed healthily. Eggs smooth hair follicles and add extra strength to otherwise weary strands.
Beer: Not just made for drinking, beer adds incredible shine to dull, lifeless and dry hair thanks to its B vitamins and the proteins in malt and hops. The sucrose and maltose sugars are also said to enhance overall shine due to their ability to tighten the hair’s cuticles.
Quick beer haircare recipes
Mix one cup of natural, organic shampoo with approximately one quarter of a cup of boiled beer, letting it cool to room temperature.
Adding one teaspoon of jojoba oil to a warm cup of beer will add body and shine. Simply apply as a rinse after shampooing.
Apple cider vinegar and beer rinse
Add two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to approximately 40mL of water and 40mL of flat beer. Combining this with four to five drops of rosemary essential oil will remove buildup from chemical shampoos, conditioner and styling products.
Apple cider vinegar: This beauty elixir regulates the scalp’s pH level when mixed with water (never use apple cider vinegar without diluting first), helping to reduce the amount of oil produced. The vinegar adds shine, makes hair stronger and removes any product buildup.
Baking soda: As with apple cider vinegar, baking soda is brilliant at gently stripping away buildup that chemical products leave on the hair, as well as dirt and grease.
Mix it with a small amount of water until it’s a paste and use it instead of your shampoo.
Lemon juice: Known to lighten hair, lemons also work as an astringent, tightening the pores of the scalp and reducing oil production. Dilute with water or simply use the full-strength juice.
Strawberries: Vitamin C-rich strawberries regulate the scalp’s oil production. Mash and mix with honey as a quick hair mask, leaving on for just 15 minutes.
Strawberry hair conditioner recipe
Pick eight to 10 fresh, organic strawberries and thoroughly mash together with one tablespoon of organic mayonnaise. Apply to damp hair from roots to tips, cover with a plastic bag and warm town. Leave for 10-20 minutes and shampoo.
Yoghurt: Hair relies on protein, its building blocks, for optimal Health. Natural, organic yoghurt does wonders to repair tired combination hair while encouraging new hair growth and cleansing the hair of grease and buildup.
Bananas and strawberries: Mashed together, these provide essential moisture and nutrients; the banana is a natural moisturiser and the strawberry balances out oil production.
Apple cider vinegar and eggs: Apple cider vinegar works to rid hair of buildup, which creates dullness. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to two whisked organic, free-range eggs for a protein boost.
Baking soda and honey: Removes grease and dirt as well as product buildup. Honey adds much-needed moisture.
Natural hot oil treatments
Organic vegetable oils make beneficial hair treatments, adding infused moisture to dry ends. Put these in your healthy hair arsenal:
Coconut oil: Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, coconut oil is as good for your scalp as it is for your hair. Warm to room temperature and apply throughout, from roots to tips. Leave for 20 minutes before rinsing and follow up with a natural shampoo and conditioner.
Flax oil: It’s a low-heat oil, so it’s important never to heat it as it will quickly turn rancid. Deeply conditioning, it’s slightly on the smelly side but produces silky locks that will turn heads.
Olive oil: As with flax oil, olive oil should never be heated, whether you’re using it in food or on your hair. Apply a generous amount with your hands or a hairbrush. Leave for 20 minutes to half an hour, covering with a plastic shower cap and warm towel.
Expert tips for optimal condition
Beauty nutritionist and author of The Holistic Beauty Book, Star Kechara, says there are many other natural steps you can take to achieve healthy hair that’s free of dryness and split ends:
- Take a horsetail supplement. This herb, Equisetum arvense, is super-rich in the mineral silica, which is responsible for strong hair and nails. Clients who take it report faster hair growth.
- Give your hair a Moroccan mud treatment once a week: mix 50g (more if your hair is really long) of powdered rhassoul clay with warm nettle tea; nettle is rich in silica and promotes hair growth. Apply to moist hair thoroughly and leave for at least 15 minutes. A shower cap is handy at this point. Rinse with tepid water. No need for shampoo.
- Ditch the harsh detergent shampoos. Look for sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulphate on the label: these are strong de-greasers, stripping your hair of its natural oils. Switch to organic brands such as Aubrey Organics or Green People, as these use gentler detergents.
- Once a month, give your hair a deep conditioning tropical treatment with monoi oil and coconut milk. Monoi is now popular as a massage carrier oil and is made by infusing Tahitian gardenia petals in coconut oil. It smells truly divine. Grab a tin of organic high-quality coconut milk and shake it up. Next, pour about half the tin into a jug and add a tablespoon of monoi oil, blend well. Apply the mixture to the hair, working it in thoroughly so that every strand is coated. Now wrap your head with saran wrap and a warm towel and allow the monoi and coconut to work their magic for at least 20 minutes. Wash out with an organic shampoo.
- Drink plenty of water. Hydration is key to keeping your hair soft and supple and cutting down on those pesky split ends. Aim for two litres of plain water daily.
- Drink nettle tea. Nettle is rich in silica and other hair-glowing minerals; three cups a day will transform your locks.
- Avoid using heated implements as much as possible as these dry out the hair, making it more prone to splitting, breaking and generally looking dull.
- Cut down on how often you wash your hair. If you wash daily, switch to every other day then to every three days. Hair does not need washing that often and, even using organic shampoo, you will still be removing a lot of the natural oils. To stay glossy, your hair produces sebum from tiny glands in the scalp and when you wash this sebum away with shampoo these glands just produce more oil to compensate. This can result in hair that becomes greasy quickly and traps you in the cycle of having to wash it daily. Wean yourself off slowly and your hair will naturally balance itself out.
- Use a tablespoon of cider vinegar in your final rinse water to add shine to your hair. You hair won’t smell of vinegar and it helps to close up the cuticle of the hair, leaving it flat and reflecting light.
- Eat your greens and fruits. Colourful plant foods are the richest sources of vitamins, minerals and beauty nutrients on the planet. Aim to make each meal at least 50 per cent raw plant foods. Change your diet slowly, starting with breakfast: fruit smoothies are delicious and healthy for your hair. Blend banana with mango and berries for a super-nutritious drink that will feed your skin and hair, creating gorgeous glowing locks to be proud of.
Your hair length can also determine the type of care and time you need to invest. Long and curly hair types require the most attention.
- Sleep with hair down or loosely pulled back with a scrunchie. This ensures hair doesn’t break.
- Most hair stylists agree that ends should be trimmed every three months to keep hair in top condition. If your goal is to grow your hair, leave trimming for as long as possible.
- Use a wide-tooth comb to detangle your hair before brushing it. Using a brush when hair is knotted can lead to breakage and split ends.
- Work from the hair tips to the roots when detangling, as well as one section at a time.
- Pat wet hair dry with a towel; rubbing causes hair to tangle.
- Sleeping on a silk pillowcase or wear a satin scarf over your hair to prevent hair breakage.
- Curly hair tends to be drier than other types. Shampoo no more than twice a week to keep as much natural oil as possible.
- Concentrate conditioners and treatments on the hair ends.
- Use an organic hair treatment, such as a coconut-oil mask, once a week and leave conditioner on for as long as possible.
- Use a wide-tooth comb; narrow brushes break hair and create frizz.
- Detangle your hair before you wash it. Apply a small amount of conditioner or vegetable oil mid-length to ends before you step in the shower and comb through. Then continue with your usual shampoo and conditioner routine.
- Let hair dry naturally when possible. Harsh towel scrubbing can lead to breakage, as can the hot air from a blowdryer.
- Use a small amount of extra-virgin coconut oil to tame frizz.
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