pH and Natural Hair

February 10, 2016

You can’t talk about natural hair without discussing pH.

The Low-Down

pH is a term that originates from the French “pouvoir hydrogene”, or hydrogen power.  It is an abbreviation for “potential hydrogen.”  The ‘p’ is written in lowercase to represent a quantity, and the “H” is capitalized because it represents an element, therefore pH is the measure of the quantity of an element in a substance. (wikipedia)

Here’s What You Need to Know

The scale that measures pH ranges from 0 – 14, with 7 being the neutral number, or solution.  Think of it as a piano keyboard, where 7 is middle C; anything to the right or above middle C is alkaline; and anything to the left or below middle C is acidity.

pH scale 650x240

An alkaline solution is a mixture of a base solid dissolved in water, such as sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, and calcium carbonate.  Alkaline solutions are commonly used in soaps, detergents, and cleaning products.  Oh, and also bio-diesel and medications.  As cleaning agents, alkaline solutions can dissolve fats, grease, oils, and protein.

Some of you may be familiar with sodium hydroxide – lye.  Or caustic soda.  Or, that stuff relaxers are made out of.  It has a strong chemical base, and absorbs water from the air, which is why it must be stored in an airtight container.

Acidic solutions are those with a higher concentration of hydrogen ions than water – these liquid mixtures are made up of any chemical dissolved in water.  Common acidic solutions are vinegar, lemon juice, coffee, and stomach acid.  Our spit (sorry, saliva) can be considered acidic as well.  Acidic solutions have the ability to “eat away” at various material over time – the higher the acidity, the faster it will corrode it.

So How Does pH Affect My Natural Hair?

Now we go back to the scale.  This is pretty heavy stuff, and although I’ve done the research and am pretty sure that I know this stuff, I am going to get some help in explaining it to you.  From people who have already written about it.

Tonya McKay Becker is a curly-haired polymer scientist and cosmetic chemist, and a contributor to NaturallyCurly, who tells us what we need to know about pH and natural hair:

Hair and skin are both covered by a very thin fluid layer comprised of oil, salt and water, called the mantle, which is slightly acidic (pH = 4.5 – 5.0). This acid mantle is very important in maintaining the proper moisture balance in our hair and skin. It is also instrumental in making the cuticle scales lie flatter against the surface of the hair shaft, which makes hair smoother and shinier as the flat scales reflect light more coherently. Scales that lie more snugly against the hair shaft also prevent moisture loss more efficiently, which helps hair to be stronger and healthier. With the normal exposure to the environment as well as washing and styling, this acid mantle can become contaminated or removed and must be restored with the use of properly pH-balanced products.

Mildly acidic products can be applied to the hair to harden the outer layer, flatten the cuticles, and shrink the diameter of the hair. This serves to make the hair glossy, shiny and less prone to tangling and snagging on adjacent hair strands. Hair that is close to its ideal pH of 4.5 – 5.0 is also at its peak strength. Shampoos and conditioners that are mildly acidic also have been noted to provide longer life to the color of hair that has been dyed.

Alkaline products cause the hair to swell, the cuticle to lift and remove oils from the air. This results in frizzy, dull, brittle hair that is prone to breakage and tangling. Extremely alkaline solutions cause the disulfide bonds between keratin protein molecules to break down and can eventually dissolve the protein completely. These types of solutions are the ones used to perm or relax the hair and can be extremely damaging, especially to hair that is already fragile.

Most modern shampoos and conditioners are formulated to be slightly acidic, having a pH around that of the hair’s acid mantle (4.0-5.0). For this reason, you may see chemicals such as citric acid or sodium hydroxide or triethanolamine towards the end of the ingredient list of products you use. These are added in very tiny amounts in order to adjust the pH of the product to the proper level.

And now, one of my favorite bloggers, Minimalist Beauty, explains the problem with products as they relate to pH and natural hair (seriously, I’m pretty sure my frequent visits to her page put me in stalker status! lol):

The healthy pH of hair is between 4 and 7. That is a much broader range to work with than skin. I also believe that if you use a hair product that is higher in pH than a 7, and do not follow up with an acidic mixture like aloe vera juice, a tea/herbal rinse, or a diluted apple cider vinegar rinse, your hair will not be happy.

Many hair care products have so many synthetic ingredients that it is ridiculous! We rate the product based on how our hair feels not having any idea that our hair feeling soft and smooth may only be because the product that we use coated our hair strands with synthetic fillers. If you have used anything that chemically alters the hair, your hair literally won’t survive without the chemical fillers since the hair dye, perm, relaxer, etc. has created tiny holes in the hair’s cuticle. The synthetic fillers keep your hair “feeling” healthy.

Shampoos and other hair washes that have a high pH over 7 make our hair initially feel soft, but in turn will dry out the hair by leaving the hair cuticle too open and susceptible to the natural elements in the air. I learned this the hard way with natural shampoo bars last year. Following with an acidic hair rinse would have counteracted the problem which I later dealt with which was extreme hair dryness and breakage.

I believe not opening the hair cuticle with high pH products will in turn give you the best overall results. Using an acidic mixture no lower that the pH of 4 will keep you hair shiny strong and in beautiful condition. You will most likely experience a dry itchy scalp, dandruff, scalp eczema, psoriasis and brittle hair strands with high pH shampoos and conditioners otherwise. Instead of turning to another high pH product, store bought or natural, keeping the pH between 4 and 7 is your best bet.

So?

So… when we understand pH and how it can make or break our natural hair – in fact, when we understand pH and how balance can greatly improve our hair AND skin AND overall health – then we can choose products that will give us what our hair needs, not work against our goals.

My suggestion is to start with your water.  You should always be aware of the kind of water you’re working with – for the sake of a healthy body, healthy skin, and beautimous hair.  When we moved into our new house, I went around and tested the water from each sink (I know… a bit extra) and found that our faucet water is just neutral.  That was awesome news for me.  We still use filtered water, though, because I can’t be sure that Savannah water isn’t coming from that disgusting Savannah river.  Just saying.  But when you know where your water lies, you can then use products that will bring the pH up or down, depending on what your hair needs to maintain that balance.  Click on the picture below for instructions on how to test your water…

chemistry and natural hair

The same goes for products.  Since my water is neutral, I am great with my water only hair washing and finding a natural product that will bring my hair back down to it’s happy 4.5 (ish).  ::happy:dance::  But if I were to go out and look for shampoo, conditioner, etc. I would keep in mind that since my hair is at a 4.5, I need to remember that if my shampoo brings my hair to a higher acidic level then I need a conditioner that will balance that out and raise the alkaline level until I am where I need to be.  Those strips are good for all kinds of testing… I had a mini laboratory set up in my kitchen at one point!

Hair science – it really does work!

What have you tested the pH of?  Do you use pH in your natural hair routine?

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