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Hair today, gone tomorrow!

                                        June 2010  


Hair today, gone tomorrow!

HairFor so many years most of us take hair for granted. Whether we like its colour, texture or style, nevertheless it is there, on the top of our head, an integral part of our lives, defining our looks and also to a lesser extent our character.

The average number of hairs each adult has is 100,000; interestingly blonds have more hairs with around 140,000 while redheads have the least with around 90,000.

While we may think a lot about style and keeping all these hairs under control, and while we may invest a lot on good cuts or hair products, few of us really spend time understanding what hair is and how it grows. It is often only as we get older and we begin to notice changes in our hair such as thinning, receding hairlines and fading colours, that we start to become more interested in how our hair grows.

Hair is made up of a strong structural protein called keratin, the same kind of protein that makes up our nails and also the outer layer of our skin.

Hair is very thin, so surprisingly it is made up of three distinct layers. Really it is the middle layer, the cortex, that is the most important as this layer provides the strength and also dictates the colour and texture of our hair. The innermost layer, the medulla, only occurs in large thick hairs and the outer layer, the cuticle (yes, same word as used on nails) is thin and has no colour of its own, it just acts as a shield for the cortex.

The actual colour of our hair is due to the presence of pigments; melanin gives us black or brown hair while pheomelanin gives us red or golden hair. If these pigments are missing altogether, the hair would be white. Grey pigments do not actually exist, they are simply a mixture of white and coloured pigments giving the overall colour of grey.

The hair grows from a hair root which fits inside a hair follicle just below the surface of the skin. At the base of the hair follicle is a little important structure called the dermal papilla which carries nourishment such as oxygen, energy and amino acids from the bloodstream to produce hair growth. An interesting aspect of the dermal papilla is that it contains receptors for male hormones and androgens. Androgens regulate hairgrowth, and can be responsible for hair follicles to weaken.

When we keep having to pay for haircuts, it can seem that our hair grows incredibly fast. In fact, it only grows around 10 cm a year and most hairs will stop growing after they reach around a meter in length; although this isn’t always the case and there have been cases were people have managed to grow their hair down to their feet. But this generally is very unusual.

Hair grows in a cycle of three phases; the anagen or growth phase; the catagen or transitional phase and the telogen or resting phase. The growth phase lasts a surprisingly long time - around two to six years. After that hairs go into the transitional or resting state for a few months and then they usually fall out and a new hair begins to grow. Usually we have around 90% of our hair in a growth phase while the remaining 10% is resting. We usually lose around sixty to one hundred hairs a day. New hairs grow faster and the growth rate slows down as the hair gets longer.

Age brings physical changes to our body which also affects our hair growth. Certain hormonal problems can contribute to hair loss (usually short term), especially problems with the thyroid gland. An inbalance in male or female hormones knows as androgens and estrogens is also associated with hair loss. However, the most common cause of long term hair loss is due to male pattern baldness, a genetic condition usually seen in males.

There is a lot of research going on at the moment into hair thinning and hair loss, and already some treatments and products are becoming available with some quite dramatic claims. But there is still a lot of work to do before we can simply take a pill and restore the lush thick hair of our youth. In the meantime, keeping healthy, good food and exercise plus looking after our hair without inflicting too many harsh chemicals on it is the best way to keep your head as you begin to age!


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