Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Part 2 of 3: Can you nourish hair?

Click here for part 1:What is hair?  

Hair nourishment is a strange subject. Let me start by defining nourishment.

From the Oxford dictionary Nourishment : 'The food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition'  

The living part of hair that is capable of growth is in the follicle. The external part of hair is not growing in actual fact it only gets progressively damaged by normal processes such as combing, styling and weathering (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, pp 96-201, 2002). In my view, everything we do to 'maintain' hair is a temporary fix. For example when adding moisture, choices include one or a mixture of water, oils and conditioner. (Noting that conditioner usually just deposits on the outside of hair causing the cuticle to feel smooth) 
Consider this though, most of us will moisturise daily or even more. Why is that? Well these products diffuse into hair and also can diffuse out which means that their effect is temporary. A second scenario is damage to the cuticle (the outer scale of hair) perhaps leading to chipping or progressively loss of the cuticle. In this case a host of products do say that they can repair this damage through deposition of proteins or artificial chemicals onto the hair surface.
  However if you read the small letters, there is usually accompanying advise on repeating treatments every so often. As I am not privy to patent secrets, I can only speculate and I would think that most wash off products to repair hair, do exactly that in the end – wash off.  

So would you regard any of these processes as ‘nourishing’? It really is a matter of opinion, I prefer to call it by what it is – moisturising or temporary repair but ‘nourishing’ for me seems to imply a permanency that hair products are not capable of. 

Going back to the original question – which is better refined or unrefined butters/oils. With the emphasis of nature most people prefer the unrefined oil/butter. Refining the fat really does not dramatically change its properties in terms of moisture or acting as an emolient. For example with shea butter, some scientists suggest crude extracts may cause spots or allergies while other studies show no difference between refined and unrefined butters. (Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, pp 8-10, 2008 and Dakar Medica, pp 113-116, 2000).

I use a refined shea butter because I cannot stand the nutty smell. I find it just as softening as its unrefined counterpart. I use unrefined coconut oil because I love the scent. Tomorrow is the final instalment where I will highlight advertising claims from cosmetic companies and ask some hard questions.
Stay Tuned - Part 3 of 3 : Questionable Advertising?


  1. I would not have thought about the unrefined shea butter otherwise even thought i knew hair do not get nourished. I'm happy cuz it is going to cost less but at the same time i'm worried about the chemical used to refine it. Can that damage hair ? I will think not.

    For the product junkies ( correct me if i'm wrong) oil is also considered a conditioner cuz it coats the hair cuticle. That means unlike you don't like the way your hair feel you should not add more product...product junkies lol.

    JC, i have a question about protein treatments especialy the aphogee thing. i also have red that protein gets washed off as it is a temporary patch. People using aphogee, don't seem to experience that. It is worth it ?

  2. Thanks for this awesome post. I had to discontinue the use of unrefined shea butter because I DID notice I was having some kind of reaction on my hands. I stopped using it and the little itchy spots went away. Then I tried it again and they came back. So... I can definitely attest to having an allergic reaction to USB.

    I think a lot of us who don't understand the science behind things just assume or like to think that only unredfined, organic, or completely natural products work the best. If we think back to childhood, many of us who had natural hair then had long, super healthy braids and twists, and I KNOW my mom used whatever she found on the shelves and water. I guess there is nothing wrong with using what you want, but it is cool to understand that we don't have to obsess over certain products to achieve our hair goals.

  3. @Kadiane - Shea butter is refined in various ways from the 'simplest' heating it to a high temperature then cooling, filtering and repeating the whole process again. Some companies do bleach the shea butter. If you are concerned, just approach the company and ask how they filtered theirs. I use L'Occitane en Provence Shea butter, I haven't had any issues with it.

    I do have a post coming up soon on protein treatments and aphogee (I was emailed about this by another reader). I haven't yet finished my research on it because I'm working on an earlier question about conventional hair colour compared to henna.

    @Leslie - I do think the 'secret' is water. My mom put loads of grease on my hair but never wanted to put any water on it because she thought it was drying and she wouldn't be able to comb it (fine toothed devil comb). Now I love water and my hair loves me.

  4. I LOVE this blog!

  5. i had to let this post marinate. it caused me to think about things that i don't normally think about. i came to the conclusion that while intellectually i understand that hair is dead, psychologically i think of it as living because it's a part of me. so, the intellectual side doesn't think of products are nourishing the hair, but the psychological part does. i say things like "i want healthy hair". is there really such a thing? can dead things be "healthy"? perhaps i have been brainwashed by too many hair product commercials and adverts in my life...

    great post Jc. it's nice to think about hair in a non-vanity, non-political sort of way. it's not often i do that lol...

  6. Thanks for the question Keisha. I have to say that I thought too about the use of the word 'healthy' for hair. I do think that it applies because a clear sign of starvation is poor hair quality. I think healthy hair is hair on your head that does what it is supposed to do. This means it mostly grows and hangs around, sometimes it breaks a little bit and then eventually it is shed.

  7. Thanks, Jc! This post has helped me understand Chicoro's method of hair growth. I always wondered why she advised to put the emulsified product on your hair after the oil, since oil is supposed to seal the cuticle. But if the oil penetrates, then you can seal in both the oil and the water with something like shea butter.

    I haven't had any problems with unrefined shea butter. I got my last jar from Oyin and loved it, and I just got some from Mountain Rose Herbs that I've yet to try. Like Naturally Leslie, I thought that the unrefined stuff would work better since it's "all-natural". But it's good to know that isn't the case.

    I'm trying to decide now whether to simplify my moisturizing regimen (water, coconut/castor/argan oil, shea butter) or go ahead and mix up all the ingredients I bought and make a moisturizing cream for my hair. Is there a significant difference between applying oils and butters separately to your hair, and mixing them all together and applying them just once?

  8. Haha-I was JUST looking unrefined/refined shea butter! I hate the smell and I'm tired of the weird oily "residue" it's been leaving on my head.

    Keisha, this is a really interesting point "i came to the conclusion that while intellectually i understand that hair is dead, psychologically i think of it as living because it's a part of me." I've never been really attached to my hair until I started wanting it to be "healthy" even if it's technically dead.

  9. Hi mellowyel - This depends on the oil coconut and olive oil penetrate the hair shaft but there is no current research on shea butter or argan oil (I haven't actually heard of that one). I also haven't got round to researching castor oil yet (lol I'm trying to dodge it but looks like I'll have to do it).

    I have to research your question a little more though since I'm not sure if there would be any benefit

  10. Okay, thanks! Argan oil is obtained from the argan tree, which grows in North Africa. It's a major ingredient in Moroccan Oil, a line of hair products I heard about on (Jill Scott uses it for her hair). It's also used in Inky Loves Nature products, a vegan cosmetics line (based in the UK, I think). I randomly got a free sample of the oil from a cosmetics store in my town, and after using it, my hair felt considerably softer and didn't lose moisture really quickly. I rank it up there with coconut and olive oil in terms of good hair oils, but much more expensive, so I might not make it a staple.

  11. Thanks for raising this mellowyel, since reading this blog i've wanted to know if it mattered that coconut oil was mixed into the product?
    If that product would(especially if it contained silicones)allow the oil to penetrate the hair.

  12. jc, once again a great post that makes you go hmmmmmmmm.... can't wait for part 3.

  13. This is an amazing post Jc, I cannot wait for the 3rd installment. As someone mentioned - it does read like a mystery novel, LOL! I am thrilled to discover this information - I have been natural for years but only started learning about the care of my hair. A good friend is now considering going natural and has been asking me for advise. I am so happy that I can make her journey so much easier than mine was - I tried almost every oil, moisturiser, condtioner,treatment, etc mentioned and was on just about all the bandwagons. It took me a loooong, looong while to conclude that there is a simpler way based on using what actually DOES work for our DEAD hair. Now it boils down to - co-washing and occasional shampooing, deep conditioning (I still love this though I understand it does not actually do more than smooth the cuticle), sealing in water with coconut or olive oils (re-vsiting these thanks to your blog,) and styling. Finit. End of story. My friend is so lucky. No trial and error, just a no frills learning process about what WILL help and what WILL not. I am not keen on the smell of raw shea butter too so will try the L'Occitane version soon. Looking forward to part 3!
    Quick question please - can you tell me about glycerin? Does it actually "seal in moisture"? Also looking forward to your castor oil tutorial. It is supposed to thicken hair. I wonder.....

  14. Thanks all for your comments and questions - I'm looking into them!!

  15. Hm, this post made me think. I agree with you that all the products that we add onto the hair shaft are for temporary improvement of the hair condition. However, I disagree that the conclusion to this fact is that they are not nourishing. Any form of nourishment that you put in you body is also evacuated pretty quickly. Most minerals and vitamins that we ingest are filtered out of our ciruculation, which is why we have to get these minerals every day. Proteins, lipids and carbs are also getting metabolized such that it's always necessary to eat again before you start to run out of reserves. So I don't think that this really disqualifies oils, water and products as nourishment. What DOES (at least, in my opinion) is the simple fact that hair is not alive anymore.

  16. ‘nourishing’ for me seems to imply a permanency that hair products are not capable of.

    I don't understand why you say nourishing implies permanency. If you eat healthy you will be nourished, but if you stop eating (or eat the wrong things) you will become malnourished. This to me states that nourishment has to be upkept and is not a permanent state?

  17. Hair is dead, so you can't nourish it per say. But what if you nourish the hair follicle by putting the oils on the scalp?


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