Defy the Dry
Winter might be a wonderland in some ways but it definitely doesn’t do wonders
for your hair, which can go dry and frizzy this time of year. But by selecting natural
hair-care products and getting plenty of head-friendly nutrients, you—and your locks—
can laugh at Old Man Winter’s chilly bluster.
Icy winds rattle naked tree limbs pressed against a blue sky while the sun dazzles off of freshly fallen snow, or maybe sheets of rain pummel puddle-pocked streets. No matter whether you’re reveling in the weather or trying to escape from it, one thing’s for sure: Winter’s got you by the hair. Throw in a half-hearted hair-care routine—plus a lack of proper nutrients—and one bad hair day can last the entire season.
Winter here in the northern hemisphere twirls Earth the farthest it gets from the sun all year, giving us shorter days and colder temperatures. Frigid, arid conditions are hard enough on your hair, but that’s just the beginning. If you’re a snow bunny spending hours outside, any exposed hair is hit by the sun’s harmful UV rays, made even brighter as they reflect off the white stuff. Once inside, you hunker down with central heating and blow-dry your hair more often. Every day you’re constantly breathing dry air, moving from high to low temps, and constantly forgetting to drink enough water.
All this can wreak havoc on your hair, making it dry and brittle. Your hair deserves to be treated well, especially in winter—it’s hard work for your body to grow those hundreds of thousands of strands poking out of your head. The key to robust and lustrous locks during the year’s coldest months lies with the right hair products (and knowing how to use them) coupled with a wholesome, balanced diet.
Fighting the Frizz
It all begins with the hair follicle. Attached to the follicle, the sebaceous gland produces sebum, an oily substance that protects and waterproofs the hair. In the follicle itself, blood and cells form the root of the hair shaft. As the cells muscle up through the shaft, they die and harden, becoming keratin, which makes up 88% of what you run a comb through every day.
Whether that hair is curly or straight depends on the structure of the keratin’s sulfide bridges, the force that binds keratin proteins. Your hands touch the outermost layer of the hair shaft, the cuticle.
This thin coating of cuticle cells, under a microscope, appears as transparent, overlapping scales, similar to those of a fish. Rub those scales the wrong way—by stripping them of oils with a cold winter breeze—and they stick out, making your hair dry and frizzy.
The more oil your hair produces, the better it can stand up to winter weather’s abuses. Dark hair has more oil than light hair, but African-Americans and Asians hold their oil at the hair’s roots, so the rest of the hair seems dryer. Curly hair is also dryer than straight because its sulfide bridges are more prone to damage.
“Healthy hair should be smooth, soft and shiny,” says Sarah Cimperman, ND, of New York City. “If I have a patient whose hair looks dull and dry it’s a signal for me to see what else is going on with them. Are they just not making the effort to take care of their hair or is it something else?”
Problems with your thyroid (which helps process fat), some medications, an imbalance in sex hormones, stress, aging and bad nutrition can all lead to parched and listless hair. But frizzy tresses may also signal a much more serious hair problem. According to Gary Goldenberg, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “Lots of patients in our clinic come in for brittle and broken hair, but what they actually have is hair loss, breakage at the roots.”
Help dry hair by starting with what you use when it’s wet. “Whatever you put on the hair, the hair absorbs it,” says cosmetologist Reginald Mitchell, PhD (a.k.a. “Dr. Hair”) who serves as director of education for a hair products manufacturing company. “So read the hair product’s label. The ingredients are listed from the largest amount to the least.”
Made primarily of water and detergent, with added botanicals, vitamins and proteins, shampoo effectively removes sweat and dirt. But it also washes away the hair’s natural sebum layer at the same time. That’s why you want a shampoo that contains oils. “Choose types with jojoba, emu, avocado and hemp oils, for their omega-3, -6 and -9 essential fatty acids—something your body needs, but can’t produce,” says Satya Ambrose, LAc, ND, who practices in Portland, Oregon. “Olive, palm kernel and lauric oil (from coconut) are also great,” as is evening primrose oil. Tea tree oil helps invigorate the scalp and unblock clogged follicles while also discouraging dandruff.
Over-shampooing strips away too much of your natural oils and dries out your hair—once or twice a week should do it. Use water that’s lukewarm, not hot, since heat is also drying. With your fingertips, gently rub your scalp in small, circular motions and massage the lather through your hair.
Or skip shampoo altogether. That’s right. “But only if your hair is naturally curly or particularly dry,” says Cimperman. Instead, use a conditioner the way you would shampoo.
You’re going to need a conditioner, even if you use a shampoo that boasts one, “because there’s not enough of it in there to do the job,” says Mitchell. But before you put anything on your wet head, blot your hair dry (don’t rub it) with an absorbent towel.
The less you wash your hair, the less conditioner you need, but it can make a huge difference. The oils in conditioners—Ambrose suggests olive, emu and kikui oils—replace your hair’s natural oils washed away by shampoo. And their surfactants smooth down the hair’s cuticle cells (those “fish scales”), so they become flat and even, making your hair less dry and frizzy. Ones with humectants protect your hair’s water content.
With all the botanicals they contain, you’d think you could eat some of those conditioners. Green tea, horseradish and garlic? Dig in! “They have antioxidants that help preserve your hair’s oils,” says Ambrose. So do sage, rosemary and juniper oils, which also increase moisture, along with olive oil.
For especially dry hair, try a deep-conditioning treatment every month, leaving it on for 30 minutes. Or apply a few drops of olive, jojoba, kikui, wheat germ or evening primrose oil directly to your hair (not on the scalp), letting it soak in. Depending on your hair, you can rinse it out or leave it in. “Oil moisturizes by lubricating the hair shaft,” says Mitchell. “It gives it pliability and increases its elasticity.”
“Pure shea butter is one of the best moisturizers,” notes Cimperman. “It comes in a hard lump, and the heat of your fingers makes it nice and soft. Rub a bit between your hands and scrunch it around the ends of your hair.” She suggests that you leave it on wet hair for hours (or overnight) before rinsing, or use it on dry hair (in small amounts) as a frizz-zapping styling aid. “For winter a styling cream with silicone to coat the hair shaft is better than a gel, which usually includes alcohol and is more drying.” Hair sprays are particularly drying, except those that contain silicone.
When it comes to intentionally drying your hair, don’t pick up that blow dryer. “It’s not good,” says Ambrose, “unless it’s an ionic hair dryer that adds moisture back in. Otherwise, it’s better to dry your hair naturally.” And whatever you do, don’t go out with wet hair. If it’s 32 degrees or below, “the water around your hair freezes, which could damage the hair shaft,” says Cimperman. “If it’s above freezing outside, it’s not as bad, but it’s still not a good idea.”
You could always cover your wet hair with a hat. It’s better than nothing (for dry hair, too). That wool ski cap or beret does more than keep you warm and protected—it also keeps the moisture in your hair. Make sure your hat is lined, or wear a scarf under it, in a fabric that breathes and wicks moisture, such as silk or polypropylene, not cotton. A hat that’s too tight will rub your hair and break it, and leave your scalp gasping for breath. Wear a hat for too long, your scalp sweats…and what you don’t need are serious scalp problems.
Stimulate your scalp regularly. “I do inverted yoga postures and hang upside down at the gym,” says Ambrose, who also massages her scalp and takes a natural-bristle brush to her waist-length hair every day. “All these things increase blood circulation to the head, bringing nutrients to the scalp.”
While you exercise your scalp, don’t forget the rest of your body—it all shows up in your hair. Sure, you’d rather cuddle up with a good book or movie during that winter snowstorm or relentless rain.
But, as Mitchell says, “You need to increase blood flow and keep your stamina going.” If you’re a swimmer, though, beware of chlorine, which is drying. (When you do stay indoors, consider a humidifier, or place shallow pots of water near your heat vents, to add moisture to the air.)
You can pour, squirt and spray the right things on your hair; you can pet, primp and pamper it, and you can create the perfect weather in your home. But if you don’t put the right things into your body, your hair will respond by—you guessed it—being dry, frizzy and lifeless.
“It’s easier to treat dry hair internally than externally,” says Cimperman. You already know the value of a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes, and (if you’re not a vegan or a vegetarian) free-range, organic animal protein. The most important thing for dry hair? “Essential fatty acids,” she says.
Eat so-called good fats, such as olive and coconut oils, avocados, ground flax seeds and raw nuts (not roasted because heat breaks down the fatty acids), such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts and Valencia organic peanuts; many of these are high in both omega-6 fatty acids and minerals. More minerals, along with omega-3 fats, flourish in wild, cold-water fish (not farm-raised, which contains less omega-3), including salmon, cod, herring and sardines.
Also, eat your vegetables. “My hair got luscious when I started drinking carrot, celery, cucumber, dandelion and chickweed juices,” says Ambrose. She also eats eggs. “They’re high in biotin, which helps process fatty acids.” And though you probably aren’t as thirsty now as you are in summer, drink plenty of water (six to eight glasses per day), which hydrates more than just your hair.
Add a smart smattering of vitamins and minerals found in a reliable daily multiple. The best ones contain antioxidants—vitamins A, C and E, and beta-carotene and selenium—to help disarm free radicals, toxic molecular structures that can damage your cells. “Vitamins B5 and B6, inositol (a relative of the B vitamins), manganese, copper, zinc and calcium help in the manufacturing of hair keratin while they aid the thyroid,” notes Ambrose. She and Cimperman also recommend a good quality fish oil. In addition, the supplement MSM provides the sulfur that proteins—including those found in hair—require while silica adds volume.
Herbs round out your healthful diet, with the most effective ones for hair being horsetail and nettles. “They’re rich in vitamins and minerals,” says Ambrose, who also recommends turmeric for proper liver function and to help the body process protein and oil. In addition, saw palmetto and ginkgo both help promote luxurious hair growth as do a number of Asian herbs, including Chinese knotweed and false daisy.
A healthful diet does more than make your hair look great; it also boosts your immune system and keeps your heart and other organs in good shape. As Ambrose puts it, “Healthy hair is a reflection of your internal good health.” Watch what you eat and how you treat your hair, and you’ll see it not only survive from autumn’s end to spring’s first sprouts, but also thrive—all year long.