Many curlies have expressed concern over the best way to handle and prevent damage done to their hair by various contaminants and chemicals in their water.
Hard water: It is estimated that at least 65 percent of Americans have hard water at home. The degree of hardness varies tremendously with geography, but those with extremely hard water know intimately the problems associated with it. Pipes can clog, coffee pots die, clothes get a dingy, gray tinge, and the sinks and tubs develop unattractive residue. It is necessary to use more detergent, more hand soap, more shampoo, and more conditioner and fabric softener to get things clean and soft. Perhaps the most aggravating thing for us curly-haired people (and even our straight-haired friends) is the insidious build up that develops on our hair, rendering it dry and unmanageable.
Hard water contains dissolved minerals, usually carbonates of the metal ions calcium and magnesium. Calcium sulfate and iron deposits are also not unusual. These minerals react with soaps and surfactants, reducing their effectiveness at cleansing, and forming a salt that precipitates onto your hair (and your clothes, your skin, and your bathtub). This means that not only are oils and dirt more likely to accumulate due to your shampoo not working as well as it should, but also a scaly film gradually develops over the surface of the hair. This leads to hair that is dry (due to the inability of moisturizers to penetrate this film) and prone to tangles and breakage (due to the roughened cuticle surface). The best way to remove these alkaline inorganic salts is to use shampoos or rinses containing organic acids with multiple acidic sites (see figures below). These sites form a cage around the metal ion of the salt, and the entire complex can then be rinsed from the hair.
These acids are called “chelating agents,” and some examples are EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra acetic acid) and citric acid. Organic acids containing only one acidic site can also be used for removal of these minerals, but may be less effective and require higher concentrations. Some examples are acetic acid (vinegar), salicylic acid, and glycolic acid. Installation of a water softener or shower filter is the ideal method of avoiding this type of problematic mineral buildup at home. However, when that is not an option, the best approach is occasional use of a shampoo with a relatively short ingredient list containing EDTA or citric acid and a strong surfactant such as sodium lauryl sulfate. SLS helps remove any oily buildup that has occurred as a result of the mineral film, and a simple formula without lots of additives prevents interference with the chelating agent. For those who prefer to avoid shampoos and the surfactants found in them, a mixture of distilled water and vinegar can aid in the removal of the minerals. Follow up either treatment with a deep, moisturizing conditioner.
Chlorine Damage: Our hair gets exposed to chlorine both in swimming pools and in our shower. The effects of overexposure to chlorine can be excessive dryness, tangling, and breakage, as well as color fading. One way to minimize contact with chlorine in the swimming pool is to wet your hair prior to swimming and to saturate it with a good conditioner. This prevents the chlorine from entering the hair through the cuticle. After swimming, rinse hair immediately, in distilled water if possible. A mildly acidic rinse, in lemon juice, citric acid and water, or vinegar and water can also help remove chlorine from the hair. The acidic rinse also seals the cuticle, helping to maintain shine and minimizing tangling and breakage due to raised cuticle scales. Chlorine strips oil from the scalp and hair, so always follow up with a good conditioning treatment, as well.
If you experience problems with a green tinge to your hair after swimming, it isn’t actually chlorine causing the problem, but copper buildup that occurs when the pH of the pool is too low. It can be removed to some extent via a good chelating agent (EDTA, citric acid), but definitely adjust the pH of the pool as well (or recommend it be checked if it is a public pool).
As with hard water build-up problems, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. Several means of protecting your hair and skin from the ravages of chlorine exposure are:
- Wear a bathing cap in the swimming pool
- Swim in non-chlorinated water where possible
- Install a shower filter that removes chlorine
Since most of us encounter water with less-than-ideal components in it on a fairly regular basis, it is a great idea to have on hand a good clarifying shampoo with some EDTA, citric acid, or other acids and a deep conditioner. Non-shampoo users can try a vinegar rinse with distilled water and vinegar. These can help remove buildup from hard water and/or chlorine and keep hair clean and moisturized. Remember to look for a shampoo containing a chelating agent and without too many extra additives or conditioning ingredients.