Finding the keys to healthy locks

Whether its long or short, thick or think, your hair is more than a biological accessory -- it tells a story about you. Just as your skin can reveal your current state of emotional and physical health, the look and manageability of your locks can reflect good health or a hormonal and dietary imbalance. Your hair also reveals something about your genetic background, which dictates its texture, volume, and color. Pretty amazing, huh? Especially given the fact that you hair is not alive.

Hair is composed of non-living tissue, mostly of a fibrous protein known as keratin and is devoid of nerves. Obviously, if this were not the case, getting a haircut would be a painful event. But, even though hair is not alive it isn't stagnant either. In fact, it's the most vigorous growing protein found in the body and is encountered everywhere with, thankfully, the exception of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The only living and feeling component of hair is the root, which sprouts from one of approximately 100,000 follicles on the average human head. However, blondes and redheads usually have more hair follicles than do people with darker hair.
Dressing your tresses

What about the myriad products available on the market today to make your hair look its best? Can they really nourish, condition and add glorious shine? Well, yes -- and no.

Since each strand of hair that stems from the scalp is protected by a fairly impermeable shaft, vitamins and minerals often found in hair-care products offer limited benefits in terms of actually nourishing hair. Mainly, your hair receives its nutrition from what you feed your body. Nevertheless, the nutrients included in better hair-care products do penetrate the uppermost layer of your scalp to nourish the network of underlying blood vessels and encourage healthy new cell growth and the production of keratin in hair follicles. As new cells are formed, the old cells are pushed away from the scalp and form a string of dead keratin cells (your hair) at an average rate of six inches per year. Stimulation of the blood vessels received while massaging the scalp in applying such products as shampoo, for instance, also promote healthy cell growth. The addition of vitamins and certain botanicals in haircare products also serve to coat the hair shaft, leading to increased shine, softness and manageability.
What's in your hair-care products?

Not all hair-care products are created equal. While the labels of many shampoos and conditioners on the market today boast that they contain natural herbal extracts and flower essences, they may also contain some potentially harmful ingredients that aren't as aggressively lauded on the label. Of course, deciphering what's in the product isn't always an easy task either.

Even simple botanicals and vitamins must be listed according to their chemical name among the list of ingredients, as dictated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), But you can learn which all-too-common ingredients are best to avoid.

Sodium Laurel Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate: Both of these chemicals are high in nitrates, irritating to skin and known to cause allergic reactions.

Lauramide DEA: Added to promote lathering, this semi-synthetic agent is also irritating to skin and responsible for allergic reactions.

Propylene Glycol: Check the label of your hair-care products for this ingredient, which is also a common skin allergen.

And, what about hair coloring and perm solutions? These products are designed to alter the chemical and molecular structure of hair and may contain some potent and hazardous chemicals to do the job. A few such chemicals are nitro-2-aminophenols and resorcinol and phenylenediamine derivatives (often containing the suffix o-, p- or m-). Ammonia is another common ingredient sometimes masked by the more pleasing term aromatic amines. All of these have been associated with an increased occurrence of asthma, Hodgkins disease, lymphoma, breast cancer, bladder cancer, and a form of leukemia called essential thrombocythemia.
The mane advantage of natural ingredients

If you had a choice, wouldn't you prefer to use products that contain safe and non-toxic ingredients? Of course you would. Fortunately, there are scores of hair-care products that are based on natural ingredients and are cruelty-free, meaning that they are not tested on animals and do not contain animal by-products. Heres a run-down on what they are and what you might expect to find in them.

Shampoos: Chlorophyllin, parabens, allantoin, and extracts of botanicals such as chamomile, sage, lavender, wild cherry bark, rosemary, yarrow, nettles and aloe vera. Dandruff shampoos are often formulated with selenium, sulfur and silicin, and specific herbs such as horsetail (also rich in silica), nettles, rosemary and coltsfoot.

Conditioners: Keratin amino acids (such as arginine and leucine), panthenol (a vitamin B-derivative), glycerin, tocopherol (vitamin E), aloe vera, chamomile and rosemary extracts. Detanglers, a light-weight version of conditioner usually sprayed onto freshly-washed hair, often contain the same moisturizing ingredients as conditioners, plus an herbal extract or two, such as acacia, lemon or rosemary.

Deep conditioners: Sometimes referred to as hair masks, these deep-conditioning products often contain amino acids, panthenol, balsam, shea butter, and sweet almond or jojoba oil. Often, natural conditioners also contain ingredients such as panthenol, PABA, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, which help to retain moisture and prevent UV-ray damage.

Styling gels, Mousses, and Hair sprays: Gels and mousses are styling aids that help to add body and volume to hair while hair sprays are designed to keep your hair style where you want it. These products contain either purified water or low doses of natural grain alcohol, vitamins, amino acids, natural gums, soy protein and herbs such as comfrey, horsetail, nettle, yucca, balsam and, sometimes, henna. As with conditioners, some hair-styling products also have ingredients to protect hair from the damaging effects of the sun.

Hair coloring: Wheat and/or soy proteins and a variety of herbal extracts depending upon the desired result. Light shades are obtained from chamomile, marigold and dandelion, while darker shades are achieved from utilizing walnut, indigo, coffee and, sometimes, black tea. berries, fruits and henna are used to make red shades.

Perming solutions: Even perm solutions that are mostly formulated with natural ingredients must contain a certain amount of synthetic ingredients in order to effectively change the shape of the hair; however, their concentration is kept to a minimum. Some may contain diluted amounts of ammonia and sodium laurel sulfate, while some semi-synthetic perm solutions (called thioglycolate perms) contain sulfur compounds.

So, whether you wear your hair straight, braided, pony-tailed or flowing about you in a magnificent halo of curls, treat yourself and your hair by using the best ingredients nature has to offer. After all, your hair may reveal a lot about you, but how you care for your lofty locks speaks for itself.
Some choices at the store

* Aloegen Treatment Shampoo
* CamoCare Chamomile Shampoo
* Ecco Bella White Ginger Mango Shampoo
* Jason Natural Cosmetics Apricot Keratin Shampoo
* Nature's Gate Herbal Shampoo
* Tom's of Maine Aloe & Almond Shampoo


* Earth Science Hair Repair Conditioner
* Jason Natural Cosmetics Biotin Conditioner
* Nature's Gate Keratin Conditioner with Panthenol
* Pure & Basic Natural Lite Oil-Free Conditioner
* Weleda Rosemary Conditioner

Deep Hair Conditioning

* Burt's Bees Avocado Butter Hair Treatment
* Earth Science HA-5 Deep Moisturizing Treatment Pack

Styling Aids

* Aloegen Hair Sculpting Styling Gel
* Biotene Styling Gel
* Jason Natural Cosmetics Fresh Botanical Hair Spray

Hair coloring products

* Light Mountain
* Naturcolor
* Rainbow Henna

Permanent wave products

• VitaWave
The bald truth

Concerned about hair loss? Male (and female) pattern balding tends to run in families and occurs when certain pre-programmed hair follicles eventually become dormant. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to reverse this genetically predisposed process. But, there are a few things that you can do to slow it down:

* Use a natural bristle brush and avoid stretching the hair when wet. Remember, hair is made of non-living tissue so it cannot repair itself.
* In addition to a well-balanced diet, consider silica supplementation. Natural sources rich in silica are horsetail, alfalfa, barley, millet, oats and potatoes.
* Regular massage can improve blood flow to the scalp and stimulate new cell growth.
* Take appropriate steps to reducing and managing stress, a contributing factor to thinning hair.


Office of Cosmetics Fact Sheet, February 7, 1995, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Chen, F., et al. "Metal-mediated oxidative DNA damage induced by nitro-2-aminophenols," Cancer Letters 126(1):67-74, Apr 10, 1998.

Winter, Ruth. A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1994.


By Karyn Siegel-Maier

Karyn Siegel-Maier is a freelance writer who specializes in herbs, alternative medicine and new-age issues. She is the author of The Naturally Clean Home: 121 Safe and Easy Herbal Formulas for Non-Toxic Cleansers (Storey Books/Dec. 1999).

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