Expert Tips to Help Determine Your Hair Type
It's the first step to achieving healthy hair
Any beauty magazine will tell you that knowing your hair type is a keystone for unlocking the styles you want to achieve. But determining your hair type is more difficult than it looks. It involves a lot of factors, such as porosity, density, follicle diameter, and curl pattern. And those factors can change depending on your age and whether your hair has been damaged due to heat, chemicals, or even the weather.
“The best way to get a read on your hair is to see your stylist,” says Keya Neal, a colorist, curl specialist, and beauty brand diversity and inclusion strategist in Gambrills, Md. “And remember, you may have different textures in different places on your head—like tight, coily hair in the back and more loose, curly hair in the front.”
If you can’t make it to a stylist, you can try to determine your hair characteristics at home, which will help you find the right products for it.
Know Your Curl Pattern
Your curl pattern is the shape your hair falls into naturally. Experts say it’s best to evaluate your hair after you’ve washed it and let it air-dry.
If you’ve ever researched “What’s my hair type?” online, you may have come across a chart that breaks down the different kinds of hair based on curliness. This is the Andre Walker Hair Typing System, a means of classifying hair that was developed in the 1990s by Oprah Winfrey’s stylist, Andre Walker.
Neal sees Walker’s chart as a resource, a prism through which you can understand your hair. His chart divides hair into four categories, with two or three subcategories each, largely based on curl pattern. According to Neal, Walker’s original chart has evolved among stylists to include curl patterns from very straight to coily curls.
Know the Porosity of Your Hair
Essentially, hair porosity is your hair’s ability to absorb and retain moisture, Neal says.
A hair shaft is made up of three parts: the cuticle, which is the shinglelike protective outer layer; the cortex, which contains fibrous proteins that create the shape of your hair as well as the pigment that gives your hair its color; and, in certain cases, the medulla, which is the softest, central part of the hair shaft.
Hair porosity refers to your hair’s cuticle. With low-porosity hair, the cuticles are close together, making it difficult for moisture to enter or escape, and in high-porosity hair, they’re spaced farther apart, which means it absorbs moisture but also releases it easily. Damage to hair can also cause the cuticles to raise, which creates gaps that make it easy for moisture to flow in and out.
“Some people are born with porous hair,” Neal says. “But it’s often the result of damage from heat or chemical treatments.”
Hair with high porosity is more fragile and can easily dry out because the cuticle doesn’t trap moisture well.
To determine your hair porosity, Neal recommends plucking a strand from different parts of your head, such as the back, front, top, and sides, after washing. That’s because different parts of your head may have different porosity levels. Then put the hair in a glass of water.
“As a rule of thumb, if it floats to the top, it’s low porosity,” Neal says. “If it sinks, it has high porosity, and if it’s somewhere in the middle, then you have medium porosity.”
Why Knowing Your Hair's Porosity Is Important
“My first question to anyone who comes into my salon is, ‘What does your hair look like on a humid day?’ ” Amaral says. If it lacks moisture, she says, it’s likely porous and will absorb what’s in the air, causing frizz.
If you have high porosity, you’ll want to cut down on treatments that might damage your hair, such as heat and bleach. Neal recommends using products with protein as needed, such as hair masks and treatment kits, which can help smooth the cuticle down like a top coat. Those with low-porosity hair, however, may want to avoid heavy products, such as gels, creams, and thick oils, because they’re likely to sit on the surface of the hair rather than being absorbed by it.
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Know the Density and Texture of Your Hair
The terms we associate with density and texture are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Knowing the difference can help you determine how to care for your hair better.
Density refers to the amount of hair that you have. Those with thick hair have more hair on their head than those with thin hair.
One way to determine whether you have thick or thin hair is to look at your scalp in the mirror. If you have thick hair, you won’t be able to see your scalp beneath it. If you have thin hair it will be quite visible, especially when parted. If you’re somewhere in the middle, you have medium-density hair.
Texture refers to the actual size of each hair follicle. Hair with a smaller diameter is considered fine, while hair with a larger diameter is considered coarse. Hair that’s somewhere in the middle has a medium texture.
“Texture is often used interchangeably with curl,” Neal says, “but everyone’s hair has texture.”
She suggests that you pick a strand out of your hairbrush and hold it between your fingers. If you can barely feel it, then you have fine hair. If it’s coarse, it should be quite noticeable, like holding a piece of thread. And if your hair is neither barely there nor obviously there, you can assume it has a medium texture.
Keep in mind that just because you have thick hair doesn’t necessarily mean you also have coarse hair. Hair can be coarse and thin as well as fine and thick.
The same goes for every hair characteristic; one does not necessarily correlate with another.
Tips For Good Hair Health
“The terms ‘good hair’ and ‘good hair days’ are ubiquitous in the hair world,” Cohen says. “But everyone has good hair. What we should strive for is hair health.”
Nilofer Farjo, an England-based hair restoration surgeon and president of the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery, says that preventing damage is the best way to maintain hair health.
The basics: “For hair health, it’s important to remember that the part of the hair outside the scalp is not alive,” Farjo says. “So the most important things are what goes on inside your body that will affect how your hair grows.”
According to Farjo, the body needs protein, vitamins, and minerals to grow healthy hair. While it may be unusual to have protein deficiency in the Western world, there are some people whose diets lack protein. Women also commonly get an iron deficiency, which can cause anemia and hair thinning.
Vitamin D is also a common deficiency in men and women, Farjo says. The body produces it through exposure to sunlight, but now that we use sunscreens to prevent skin cancer, we may not get enough sunlight to suit daily requirements. To bulk up your intake, look for food products that have vitamin D added, such as some cereals and milk.
Farjo notes that a lack of sleep and excess stress have an effect on general health, which can have an impact on hair. “When we are stressed the body uses sugar, protein, and fat for essential body functions first, so the hair can miss out,” she says. “Also, faster-growing body cells are affected by any dietary changes associated with stress. This includes skin, blood cells, and hair.” She explains that stress can cause hair to go from a growth phase to a resting phase, which means that you may see an increase in shedding.
Scalp health: “Most people don’t wash their hair properly, which involves washing the scalp,” Farjo says. “This means there is buildup of dead skin [scales], oil, and dirt on the skin surface. This can cause skin irritation and in some people seborrhea, dandruff, or eczema.”
She adds that some chemicals, such as those in smoothing treatments and bleach, are very strong and can cause skin damage by burning the scalp. This chemical burn can destroy hair roots, which can create an area of complete hair loss.
Clarifying shampoo and other products: For people with curly or coily hair who may be seeking that “holy grail product” that tames frizz while keeping curls lovely and intact, Amaral suggests using a clarifying shampoo every week, and then trying different moisturizing products, such as leave-in conditioners and curl enhancers.
“Minerals in hard water and products you use all build up in your hair,” Amaral says. “A clarifying shampoo will give you a blank slate, and then you can go to that hair-care product graveyard under your sink and find out which one actually works for you.” If you don’t have a product graveyard to pull from, go to a store like Sephora that provides samples of products. This can save you money during the trial-and-error period of finding the right product for your hair.
Brushing: “If you have straight or wavy hair, brushing it is a game-changer,” Cohen says. Use a soft brush with boar hair or nylon bristles to stimulate the scalp, which increases blood flow and keeps the follicles healthy. The brushes can also add volume to your crown and help transfer natural oils through your hair.
Cohen also warns people to never brush or comb hair when it’s wet. “Hair is like fabric,” she says. “And just like a T-shirt stretches when it’s wet, so does your hair, which makes it more prone to breakage.”
Trimming your hair: Regularly cutting the ends of damaged hair helps to remove split ends, Farjo explains.
The ends of the hair “are the areas where damage occurs first,” she says. “When damaged, the ends split and the split travels up the hair shaft, so removing the split ends before this happens is a good idea.”
Losing hair: If you’re seeing hairs in your brush or comb, remember that it’s normal to lose about 50 to 100 strands a day. But if you’re losing more than that, Cohen suggests seeing a trichologist—a hair and scalp specialist—or a dermatologist to figure out what’s going on.
“There are many myths around hair and hair loss,” Farjo says. “One of these is that not washing your hair is beneficial.” But she says that skipping shampooing can result in a buildup on the scalp that can cause irritation and lead to hair loss.
“Another myth is that shaving your head makes it grow back thicker,” she says, but this is only an illusion. “The hair carries on growing as it was before," she says, "except that it has blunt ends instead of tapered or pointed ends.”
Towel type: Cohen suggests you swap your regular bath towel for a more gentle microfiber towel. “Simply wrap your hair in the towel and secure it in place,” she says. It will absorb the dampness from your hair, which will transform the way it dries after. “How long you leave it on for and if you layer in a moisturizing product like a leave-in conditioner before or after is unique to each person.”
Heat protection: When it comes to using hot tools, such as curling irons, straighteners, and blow dryers, Cohen advises balance. “Use a heat protector before putting a hot iron on your hair, and try to keep the heat settings in a midrange, not on the highest setting,” she says. “Hot tools will cause breakage and dry out your hair, so in between uses, make sure to nourish and hydrate your strands with a moisturizing product.”
“How you ‘talk’ to your hair matters,” she says. “Be patient and be kind to it.”