The pH of Hair and Scalp
The pH Scale
The pH scale was established about the turn of the century as a convenient way of expressing the alkalinity or acidity of an aqueous solution. The pH of 7 was chosen to be the neutral point of the scale, that of pure water with equal degrees of acidity or alkalinity. The pH scale runs from zero to 14; zero through six is the acidic side of the spectrum, seven is neutral, and eight to 14 is alkaline.
pH of Hair and Scalp
The pH of skin, hair and nails is naturally mildly acidic, between the pH 4.5 and 5.5 for most individuals.
The human body is cloaked with a thin film of oily acidic secretions, which has been recognised since the end of the nineteenth century and named the "acid mantle". This film is an emulsion, which means that it is composed of both oil and water parts that are stabilised against separation. The oils of this emulsion come from the sebaceous glands as a complex mixture called "sebum"
This acid mantle is produced by the skin system and that coating on the hair and nail plates come from the skin. The hair does not have active sebaceous or sweat glands, the acidity must be distributed onto the hair from the scalp. This mixture is distributed by contact of the hair with the scalp and combing and brushing the hair. The old adage of brushing the hair 100 stokes to keep it shiny and healthy probably reflects the distribution of these oils along the hair fibre.
The Effect of pH on the Hair Fibre
The hair cuticle is the outermost part of the hair shaft. It is formed from dead cells, overlapping in layers, which form scales that strengthen and protect the hair shaft. A healthy cuticle is smooth and flat. This gives your hair shine and protects the inner layers from damage. It also minimises the movement of moisture in and out of the underlying cortex, thus maintaining your hair’s hydration balance and flexibility.
Maintaining the acid mantle is important for our hair. Low pH substances affects the hair shaft by constricting the cuticle layers, causing them to lie flat and tightly against one another. In this state, the inner cortex of the hair strand is thoroughly protected. Tight and contracted cuticles also allow the individual hair strands to move freely past one another, and the uniform surface also better reflects light, which creates that shine and sheen. Neutralising shampoos, conditioners, and natural substances such as lemon and apple cider vinegar fall into the acidic category.
A pH of 7.1 to 14 is considered basic or alkaline. High pH substances cause the hair’s cuticle scales to "open" and the hair shaft to swell and lift. Although water is neutral, it’s roughly 100 times more alkaline than our hair which is naturally mildly acidic. When water (which bears a higher pH of 7) interacts with our hair, the cuticles lift slightly in reaction to the waters more alkaline pH.
Lifted cuticles are what’s responsible for tangly, dry looking hair that doesn’t shine, have sheen or hold moisture well. When the cuticles are lifted, the cortex is exposed and the hair becomes weaker and more vulnerable. It’s very important that the pH of our hair return to its normal 4/5.5 range after using an alkaline product. Damage to the hair strand is often imminent if the cuticles are not returned to their normal “closed” or tight position.
How can I make sure my hair has a healthy pH level?
* Read the labels on your current hair products - If they do not say they are pH balanced for your hair, then they should be tested to see how they affect your hair. A pH between 4 to 7 works well on hair.
* Choose carefully - Wash your hair with pH balanced shampoos and conditioners
* Apply a leave-in conditioner to wet hair to return your hair to the 4.5 to 5.5 natural acidity, if your hair is naturally dry or damaged.
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