5 minute read.
The questions you’ve never bothered to ask, but would probably appreciate the answer to.
A couple of days ago, I got home from my work at a cosmetics company, looking forward to some rest and a break, only to be faced with questions about haircare. “I went to Woolworths to get some new shampoo,” Gabe explained, “and there are so many bottles with stupid words that all mean the same thing.” This statement perplexed me as words are fundamentally designed to convey meaning, but my questions were answered with the next explosion of “Volumising. What the hell does that mean?!”
I’ll admit that that stopped me. I knew what volume meant, and what volume meant for my hair. But how do the products we use every week actually work? Do we need them or is it just a marketing scam?
To be short, shampoo and conditioner are not a necessity, ask any van-bound wanderer or bare-footed beach bum.
Your scalp, like your face and other parts of your skin, produces a substance named sebum. This oily matter you may remember from your teen years is comprised of a mixture of lipids including fatty acids, glycerides, wax esters, and cholesterol.
Sebum often gets a bad name for itself as its overproduction can cause pimples and, in bad cases, acne. Despite this, sebum is a highly important substance in the day to day running of your body; it reduces water loss, protects against infection, and possibly contributes to your immune system.
As far as hair is concerned, sebum coats the hair follicle to protect it from breaking, tearing, and knotting and can usually balance its own levels of production. However, the general build-up of material can attract and trap pollen and dust from the atmosphere causing the hair to look dull and heavy (commonly known as greasy) which is generally thought down upon in today’s societies.
Unfortunately, it is quite strenuous to get rid of because the hydrophobic properties of sebum prevent it from being able to be simply rinsed out of the hair with water, it must be forcibly dragged from the hair particle. Shampoo is able to fill this functional niche.
A shampoo is essentially a detergent. Just like the kind you find at your kitchen sink, its active ingredient is a two-ended molecule called a surfactant. Surfactants (surface active agents) are useful as they are able to break down the barrier between oil and water – yes, the experiment you did in junior school.
They work because one end of the molecule is hydrophilic and the other is hydrophobic. The hydrophobic end locks on to the oily sebum along with all the dust and pollen it has gathered. It is then able to be rinsed away as the hydrophilic end bonds with the water molecules in your shower.
But what about the protection we lose by getting rid of the sebum? Your friendly university flatmate named Jarod who decided he was too cool for conditioner can tell you that. It breaks.
We now need to get into detail about the actual structure of your hair. All hair is made up of three major layers, the layer that directly faces the elements of everyday life is made of flakes and called the cuticle, which protects the more delicate inner layers from harm. Sebum helps in this protection by preventing the cuticle flakes from harm.
If you remove too much sebum the hair becomes unprotected and the molecular bonds between the cuticle flakes weaken and break. This causes the flakes to fray out instead of lying flat with the strand, which makes hair look dull, even if it’s clean, and making it prone to breaking and knotting. This is when you reach for the conditioner.
Conditioner’s primary function lies in its ability to make the hair flakes lay flat again. The most active molecule in conditioner is yet another double-ended molecule, called a cationic surfactant. The most commonly used cationic surfactant is actually silicone. One end is positively charged, and the other is negatively charged. The positive charge causes the formula to pull together and coat the hair strand snug as a bug in a rug.
Now tightly fitted to your hair, the conditioner neutralises the negative charge of the hair by adding positively charged ions which strengthen the hair by restoring its hydrophobic properties. Depending on the size of the molecule in your conditioner, its effects, and its additives can reach into the cortex (the core) of the hair.
The effect stays even after you rinse out the cationic surfactants, with the freshly flat flakes staying as they are. This causes light to naturally bounce off the strand and make it look shiny.
But all of this delicate chemistry still does not answer Gabe’s primary question, what the hell does volumising mean? To answer that, we need to venture out into the marketable world of additives.
Additives are what allow brands to market their products as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘specially formulated’. On top of the active ingredients in each product, they are able to place extra ingredients which can fix other perceived issues in the hair.
While the act of conditioning itself strengthens hair, other ingredients, such as keratin, can infiltrate the slowly dying cells as a kind of ‘patch’.
Dandruff becomes a problem as the sebum and other oils on the scalp provide a place of growth for a fungus that eats the skin cells on the scalp. Anti-dandruff shampoo includes a higher amount of the active ingredient to take away the oils that the fungus is living in.
Conditioner itself is able to prevent dull hair as smooth hair strands will naturally bounce light off of them. If this is not enough, some companies will add a pearlescent lustre to their products that stick to the hair and increase the amount of light reflected off of it. Like a highlighter (for readers who are not make-up inclined – a shiny powder to accentuate features) you would use on your face.
But now to the one additive that started this whole haircare information hunt;
Volume is an interesting additive agent to a product as it isn’t actually given by any specific ingredient. It is usually found by a lack of an ingredient. The act of volumising means to lift the hair off the head to give the appearance of more hair. The silicon molecules used in most conditioners can physically weigh the hair down, so if the company in question wants to lift the hair off of the scalp, they simply remove some of their silicone.
An overly simple answer to a question I had never thought to ask.
If you find this interesting and want to read a more in-depth article, Professor Maria Gavazzoni published a fantastic overview article in the International Journal of Trichology that can be found here.