The Hair Cuticle: Your Healthy Hair Guide

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If you want strong, healthy hair, it takes more than just maintaining a wash schedule. When you want to upgrade your hair-care game for vibrant, shiny strands, you really need to know how to protect and seal your hair cuticle.

We’re taking you deep into the outer layer of your hair and learning from experts how best to care for your cuticles.

What’s a Cuticle?

According to Manchester, UK clinical trichologist Kate Holden, the cuticle is like a layer of protection over the hair fiber. “The hair cuticle is the outermost layer of our hair shaft made of transparent overlapping cells like fish scales or roof tiles,” Holden explains. “This layer works to protect the more fragile inner layers of the hair fiber as well as forming part of the structure that locks the hair into the follicle.”

If this layer isn’t healthy, those scales are lifted, almost curling up at the ends like warped roof tiles. Hair like this is typically dry and hard to manage. Having unsealed cuticles can even lead to breakage. On the other hand, manageable, hydrated hair has a smooth outside layer.

“A healthy cuticle is smooth, flattened and helps the hair to retain moisture,” Holden says. “Think of the cuticle as a layer of armor—a sealed cuticle means that the armor is intact and is working well to protect the hair. A roughened cuticle leads to fragile, brittle hair that loses moisture quickly and is prone to tangling and breaking.”

This protective layer shares its name with your nail cuticles, that little bit of skin bordering your nails. And they actually play similar roles, too.

“Both hair and nail cuticles have similar functions in being a protective outer layer composed of dead cells,” Holden says. “The nail cuticle protects the nail matrix from infections, whereas the hair cuticle plays more of an aesthetic role in preventing breakage and promoting hair shine and strength.”

Why Should You Be Sealing Your Cuticle?

According to L’Oréal Paris creative director of style and color, Jonathan Colombini, sealing the cuticle will help protect your strands. “It’s important to keep hair cuticles healthy since each one protects the innermost layers of hair, which affects the health of each of your strands,” Colombini explains. “Sealing, otherwise known as shutting or closing the cuticle, is the best way to protect the cuticle and ensure the hair shaft looks healthy.”

Unfortunately, as the armor between our hair and the world, the cuticle takes quite a bit of damage just from everyday life.

“It’s impossible to avoid damage all together unless you keep your hair very short. General wear and tear from washing and brushing, along with sunlight and environmental factors over time will damage the cuticle,” Holden explains. “But that is what it’s for.”

The outermost layer takes damage for your hair follicle, keeping it protected. Armor is there to get hit, right?

The good news is there’s a lot we can do to keep that armor strong and shiny.

“Reducing heat and strong chemical processing will make the most difference, as well as having regular haircuts to stop breakage traveling up the hair.” Holden says. “Our hair is slightly acidic, so using pH balanced shampoos, deep conditioning masks, and bond-building products will help to seal the cuticle.”

How to Seal Your Cuticles

These days, particularly in light of the clean beauty movement, formulators are looking increasingly towards natural ingredients to help keep hair healthy.

According to research published in the International Journal of Trichology by Indian dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon, Venkataram Mysore, MD, many of the hair oils used historically by native and indigenous communities are excellent at sealing the outermost layer of our hair. According to research, coconut oil, almond oil and olive oil were all top performers when it came to flattening and sealing the hair cuticle for increased shine and strength. Hair with higher porosity favors heavier oils like olive and coconut oil to help seal in moisture.

If you find hair oils too heavy or, well, oily for your hair type, there are other ingredients and formulations that can deliver a strong cuticle seal. If you don’t know your hair type or your hair porosity, you can check out our guide here.

New York trichologist Shab Caspara notes that ingredients like rice water can help to seal the hair cuticle. “Rice water is a great source of protein that helps repair both the inner structure and cuticle of the hair as its full of amino acids and vitamins B, C, and E,” Caspara explains. “It helps seal the cuticle which makes hair appear very shiny. Not to be used too frequently as it can cause protein overload to the hair and result in dry, dull, flat and lifeless hair.”

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