Set Free - The Book About Hair by Richard Stein

Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Stein


The Basics


Hair is protein, like fingernails. And even the liveliest head of hair is Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Steindead material, alive only at its source in the scalp. Any preparation you apply, therefore, can affect the hair itself only to the extent that it cleans, conditions, smooths, or protects the hair shaft and its cuticles. And while this can improve hair's appearance enormously, any real nourishment comes from the hair follicle, the scalp, and the blood supply to both, which feeds the emerging hair shaft (although what you put on your hair may affect both the look of the surface of the hair and the condition of the scalp). This is why nutrition and massage are each an important part of my philosophy.

A strand of hair is made up of a number of layers, wound like insulation around a core. The layers--and their shape (a round cross section is typical of straight hair, and a flattened one of curly hair)--determine hair texture (fine to coarse) and color (bleaching, for instance, removes the colored layers of darker hair). The number of hairs determines what is thought of as "thickness." Thick and thin, fine and coarse, are concepts that are frequently confused.

It is the outermost layer of the hair shaft that most determines how your hair actually looks how shiny and healthy it seems. This is the cuticle, the keratinized layer of the hair. The cuticle is really a series of overlapping scales. When these scales are not disrupted by damage to the hair, they lie flat and are smooth and shiny. When they have been abused by heat, chemicals, or rough treatment, however, they begin to look (under a microscope) like a shingled roof that has been through a bad storm--chipped, bent, awry, or broken off altogether. This is what causes frizz, dullness, split ends, and the "fried" look of some people's hair.

Cleaning or conditioning substances that smooth these "scales" down--fill the gaps with protein, silicon, or waxes and coat the hair strand to prevent further damage--help hair to look shiny, be manageable, and feel soft. But the healthiest-looking hair is going to have to be healthy when it emerges from the scalp; what you eat, how long and how well you sleep and exercise, and the quality of the blood supply to the forming hair will determine the health, strength, and beauty of each and every strand.


A great deal has been written about how the chemical composition of the hair reflects general health...just as the condition of your skin and nails says a great deal about the shape you're in and how you've been feeling. This is fundamentally true. Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard SteinThere is as yet, however, no definitive proof that what you eat, or the environment in which you live, will be accurately reflected in the chemical makeup of the hair (in spite of what hair analysts would like you to believe).

While it is only reasonable to be wary of extravagant claims for treating hair by regulating intake of certain vitamins and minerals, I do think it highly sensible to assume that what you eat will make a difference in how your hair looks. For heaven's sake--we all know it makes a difference in how you feel!

My nutritional advice sounded a lot more radical a decade ago than it does now; then, limiting one's red meat intake and concentrating on grains and fresh vegetables and fruit was still a hallmark of the wild-eyed, Earth-Shoe-wearing fringe. Now it is generally accepted. So much the better. Your hair will be much improved--as will your skin and body functioning generally--by shifting toward this lighter, more natural way of eating.

Supplemental vitamins I especially recommend for the maintenance of the good looks and health of your hair are A and E (in fact, E is of considerable help applied externally to trouble spots on scalp; more on this later). I recommend 400 units a day of E, and a "minimum daily requirement" (MDR) supplement of A. (You have to be careful not to take too much A, which can be toxic at high levels.) Other vitamins that affect the health of your hair are B complex (a good standard "stress B" should do it) and C (about 750 mg. every three hours--C is water soluble, and any excess is quickly discarded by the body--is ideal, but who remembers? A time-release C is a good alternative).

Trace minerals for the hair that you might want to consider adding to any daily supplemental regime (especially after illness or other physical or emotional trauma) include zinc and iron. There is some thought that we lose trace minerals in our body as we age, and that some graying and hair loss can be caused by deficiencies of these two trace minerals. Start with the MDR dose.

Potassium and iodine levels must also be maintained for optimal hair health. PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) the same chemical that is used as a sunscreen--also comes in tablets and, taken regularly in small doses, is said to be a substantial help in keeping hair from graying.


How well and how fast hair grows depends on your genes, your age and your general state of health. Being an optimist, I tend toward the assumption that state of health (which you can do something about) is more important than genes...with the exception of male-pattern baldness, which is (sorry!) inherited. (A man should check out his mother's brother, who's a pretty accurate indication of what is in store, because baldness genes are supposedly carried on the female chromosome.)

The best thing I know to keep hair growing fast and strong is to make sure the scalp and all those infant hairs nestled in their follicles get a steady stream of oxygen and nutrients (nutrients you will have ensured by eating right and taking the appropriate supplements) from a good blood supply. Encourage this supply not only by exercising your body--which picks up your metabolism in general and getting enough rest to counteract the modern plague of stress; you should also step up local blood flow through scalp massage. As far as I'm concerned, after eating well and keeping yourself in shape, the most critical impact on how your hair looks--as well as how fast it grows and how little of it you will lose--is directly attributable to the beneficial effects of massage. You can read all about it in Chapter 2.

Some hair loss, or hair fall, is a natural part of the renewal cycle of the scalp and hair--and can vary with season, menstrual cycle, and general health. You can expect a normal "shedding rate" of up to one hundred hairs a day; any more than this indicates a problem--almost always at the growth source in the scalp. It is also not unusual to experience hair loss one to three months after illness, childbirth, surgery, or a period of particular emotional stress and/or tension.

Hair loss and sometimes even skin infections may also be caused by physical trauma to the scalp--hair that is worn tightly pulled back, for instance, or too much teasing. Moreover, hair that is not trimmed regularly can get so dry at the ends that it tangles and so is pulled out with daily brushing and combing long before it is ready to give up the ghost (just one more good reason to have your hair trimmed every so often).

In cases where something does indeed seem to be wrong with your hair and there is no ready explanation like pregnancy or a recent illness, you might ask your hairdresser first whether s/he knows what might be causing the problem. If the problem remains unidentified, get to a trichologist (a hair specialist) if you live in a metropolitan area where these professionals are available, or to a dermatologist or your doctor. Sometimes hair loss is symptomatic of something more serious. I don't need to tell you that when you notice any substantial change in your physical self that is not readily explicable, you should immediately consult a medical professional.


Hair types are consistently misunderstood. As I mentioned earlier, the most basic misunderstanding is in the distinctions between fine and coarse, thick and thin. Fine/coarse defines the diameter of a particular hair strand, not straight or curly; either can be either--fine and straight (like most Nordic hair), fine and curly (like baby hair), coarse and straight (Oriental), or coarse and curly (black hair). Thick and thin is another blessing or problem--respectively. Everyone wants thick (although not coarse) hair; everyone worries about hair thinning with age, when the follicles begin to "tire out" and stop producing a luxuriant crop.

Thick hair may be hard to manage because of its weight. In cases where it is too heavy to sustain a style particularly when its growth pattern (all forward, for instance) is a problem or when it is extremely curly--it can be thinned judiciously to ease handling and encourage bounce and movement.

The real challenge to any hairdresser is not thick but thin--trying to make less look like more without resorting to hairpieces, wigs, or falls.

I will touch on creating the illusion of thick hair later, but just let me say one thing here that cannot be emphasized enough: You don't make your hair look thicker by refusing to have it cut. Just the opposite is true: hair that is trimmed regularly and attended to by someone who knows what s/he is doing will always look more luxuriant, healthier, and shinier than hair that is not.

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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