The effect of race on hair

One of the strangest things I've learned about hair in all my years is this: The amount of curl or wave hair has depends on the shape of the follicle in the skin from which that hair grows. Basically, if the follicle opening is round, the hair growing out of it will be straight. If the follicle opening is oval, the hair will be wavy. And hair growing from a 'flat' or elliptical follicle will be very, very curly.

There is absolutely nothing one can do to change the natural texture of his or her hair. There are, of course, a variety of options out there to style, flatten, curl and even chemically alter hair texture.

Typically, Asian, Native American, Latin and Middle Eastern hair is quite straight, while African-textured or Afro-textured hair and some Latin and Pacific Islander hair is extremely curly. Most hair of Pacific Islanders and Alaskan natives tends to be wavy, but depending on genetic history, it may be curlier or straighter. European (caucasian) hair is generally a bit straighter, but there's a lot of variation in the textures of European hair. (*Keep in mind, these are generalizations and are typically accurate, but there are always exceptions to every rule.)

The second notable hair characteristic to address is 'porosity.' Porosity is how porous or 'open' or absorbant the hair is. If the scales on the outside layer of the hair strand are lying down tightly against one another, like the shingles on a roof for example, the hair is considered to be non-porous. This means that hair will appear shinier, will be more difficult to curl and style, will tend not to get tangled, and will be more resistant to chemical treatments such as color or perms. Asian hair tends to be some of the most non-porous hair.

If the hair's cuticle scales are not so tightly sealed against each other, hair will appear to be more 'fluffy' or frizzy (with little or no shine). It will tend to get tangled. A lot. But it accepts chemical treatments much better and tends to hold styles very well and for a long time. These are qualities of 'porous' hair. Afro-textured hair is typically very porous. (**Tip: People with afro-textured hair or who are mixed race with part of their genetic combiation being black have a difference in the skin of their scalp. Their scalps do not secrete as much oil as those of other races. While some think of 'oil' as being a bad thing, it's actually important to keep hair protected, skin protected and the scalp moisturized. You may need to use oils or moisturizing, protective creams on the scalps of anyone with afro-textured hair- especially if the scalp tends to be dry or flaky, or the hair is experiencing breakage.)

European, Native American, Alaskan native, Latin, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islanders' hair all land somewhere in between those two extremes, with Middle Eastern leaning toward Asian, and Pacific Islander leaning toward African-texture.

There are wonderful products, styling tools, techniques and chemical treatments designed for every possible hair type out there- whether your goal is to enhance the characteristics your hair has or to alter the characteristics, there is almost always a way to get your (and your kids') hair to do what you want it to do.

But now that we know all that about race and hair, here's a big question: What about people of mixed race?

For some reason, the most 'dominant' hair types are Asian and afro-textured. Typically, the hair of a person of mixed race will tend to show characteristics of the more dominant hair texture and porosity. For example, the child of a white parent and a black parent will tend to have hair that looks and behaves more like Afro-textured hair, though it may be a bit less curly and/or a bit more porous than non-mixed Afro-textured hair. Again, all of this is different with each individual, but this is typical.

While the hair of people of most other races tends to be more in the 'middle ground,' if you will, when Asian or African texture is in the genetic mix, the hair will generally show those more extreme textures and porosities.

To care for mixed-race hair with Asian texture, keep in mind that this hair is, in one word- resistant. You can curl it, tease it, spray it... and it will fall right back to where it was before you did all the work! There are chemical treatments that can be done to 'roughen up' the cuticle and make hair easier to style. But there are also wonderful styling products designed to make this hair type more easily styled and 'controllable' without using chemicals. **Tip: This hair is super-strong, so don't be afraid to turn the temperature of your curling or flat iron up when styling it. This hair can handle high heat without getting as damaged, and the heat will help it hold style better. You may also want to talk to your stylist about it, because there are ways of cutting hair that adds texture and volume without damaging it.

To care for mixed-race hair with African texture, the thing to remember is that it is very porous, or 'open,' and it's quite fragile. Detangling products are oftentimes a must. With detanglers, brand names are not that important- and in fact, you can make your own detangler at home! If you have a conditioner you like or that works well on this hair type, simply diluted it anywhere from half and half to 9 parts water to 1 part conditioner and put it in a spray bottle. **Another tip: when hair is tangled, use a wide-toothed comb or pick and start at the bottom of the hair strands, working your way up. If you start combing at the scalp, the hair will get more tangled as you work your way down. If your or your child's hair tends to curl up tightly in certain areas (with this hair type, hair tends to curl up more tightly in the nape area, and is worse at night or when the person is warm), you may want to simply tie, braid, knot or otherwise place the hair so it can't get tangled.

This hair type often takes curling or straightening quite easily, but it sometimes requires more heat. But unlike Asian hair, this hair can experience breakage quite easily, so use the lowest heat setting that will still give you the style you want. Protect it with thermal protectant styling products, and don't forget to add some oil or what some call 'grease' prior to ironing- there are oily products and additives that will not only add shine, but will help protect this hair from damage the heat can cause. (Note: these products may smoke when you iron over them- that's okay! It's the product, not the hair, that's smoking.)

With this hair type, you may want to add some shine, too, if there's not any shine in your styling products. Because the scales of this hair type's cuticle are not tightly sealed down, the hair may have a dull or even frizzy appearance. Choose products with protective properties and shine ingredients to help it stay healthy and shiny.

As far as brand names and specific product names go, this gets a bit tricky. As a professional hairdresser, I usually stick with professional products- they've got the highest quality ingredients and the most research behind them. But in my opinion, there are exceptions that can be made for Afro-textured hair. There is a dark brown-colored hair gel that works wonders on afros and doesn't flake, for example, that you can buy at Sally Beauty Supply for three bucks. KMS has a complete line of hair products called "Flat Out" that works wonders on curly hair. Every product adds shine, a bit of control, and 'slip,' which softens hair and keeps hair from tangling up. The Flat Out Relaxing Balm is definitely one of my favorites. I have black clients who use and love the fairly new line WEN, whose foundation is being all-natural. In my research, I came across a complete hair care line actually called "Mixed Chicks," created by two women of mixed races who got tired of trying to fit their hair into the products out there and so they made products to fit their hair! I have not yet used it, but I'm very interested and will be checking it out soon.

Basically, what it comes down to is finding the products, tools and styling techniques (and sometimes chemical treatments) that best help you achieve the look and style you want. This can take time, but armed with this knowledge, it hopefully will be a less painful process.

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