One reader was curious about whether or not showering and swimming were damaging her hair. Specifically, she wanted to know if the water itself was making her hair more brittle and prone to breakage. There seemed to be some confusion about this, so I thought it would be a great topic for discussion, especially in view of the fact that many of us will be wetting our hair more frequently than usual as we swim and sweat our way through the summer months.
The truth is that while we need moisture in our hair in order for it to be healthy, water can also be very damaging to your hair. In fact, the more damaged your hair is, the more damaging water is to it. That may seem a little counterintuitive, so let's examine the reasons behind that statement.
Normal, healthy hair has been found to absorb up to about 31% of its weight in water when it is immersed. Damaged and very porous hair can absorb in excess of 50% of its weight in water! This water absorption causes hair strands to elongate under the weight of the water and lose some of its tensile strength. Very curly hair has been found to lose almost 50% of its tensile strength when wet, which is really a quite significant reduction.
Water contains things that can GREATLY damage hair.
Due to the loss of tensile strength when wet, hair that is combed or brushed while saturated with water has a much higher risk of breakage. Wet hair is also more prone to tangling due to the slightly raised cuticle surface that is typical for wet hair. For these reasons, it is extremely critical to use plenty of conditioner that has excellent slip properties in order to detangle your hair when it is wet. One good thing that occurs when hair is soaking wet is that it becomes a lot more elastic and stretchy. Combing through your tresses very slowly will enable you to derive the full benefit of the stretchiness of wet hair fibers, which will make the detangling process a bit easier.
Another source of wear and tear on the hair from getting it soaking wet repeatedly comes from the swelling of the hair during the washing/wetting process, followed by uneven shrinking which occurs during drying/evaporation. This creates mechanical stresses on the surface of and inside the cortex of the hair strands and results in gradual fatigue of the fiber, which makes it more likely to fail (break) under stress.
Different types of breakage can occur as a result of this fatigue, such as cuticle breakage, mid-strand fracture, and splitting. Some fatty acids, such as those found in coconut oil, have been found to reduce the effects of this type of wear and tear on hair, so it would seem prudent to utilize them in your hair care regimen, especially if you swim daily or wash your hair very frequently. (The phenomenon of hydral fatigue is described in more detail in this article Mineral Oil Versus Coconut OIl: Which is Better?
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The effects of hard water on hair are also difficult to manage and can be quite damaging. Minerals dissolved in hard water deposit onto the surface of hair and after many washings can create a very unpleasant scaly build up. This accumulated layer of hard debris can cause hair to be dry and unruly, tangle easily, appear dull and lifeless, and lead to breakage. If possible, a water softening system can help prevent these issues. However, when that is not feasible, a clarifying shampoo or treatment may be necessary on a regular basis. A weekly rinse with a solution of distilled water and vinegar can be somewhat helpful as well. If you have hard water, expect to need to use larger quantities of conditioner in order to detangle and smooth your hair. Effects of Hard Water and Chlorine on Hair
Loss of fatty acids
Frequent hair washing or swimming in pools or the ocean can lead to a gradual erosion of the fatty acid layer in the cuticle. This can lead to tangling, breakage, loss of surface sheen, and loss of body. Use of gentle products (such as mild cleansers, conditioner washes) can help slow down this process, as can making sure hair is saturated with conditioner prior to swimming. Wearing a swimming cap can also be a great way to protect your hair, but may not fit into your personal style.
In closing, our hair becomes very fragile and vulnerable when it is saturated with water. So, while it is critical to wet and condition our hair in order to detangle and re-moisturize it, and it is also frequently necessary and enjoyable to get our hair wet when we go swimming, it is very important when treat wet hair exceptionally gently.
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