Why You Want Your Hair’s Cuticle as Smooth as Possible

Last updated on September 27th, 2023 at 06:30 pm

Most people who think about proper hair care fail to take into consideration the importance of having healthy and smooth hair cuticles. In this article you’ll discover why it’s necessary to have a healthy cuticle layer, why you don’t want open hair cuticles for a prolonged period of time and how to close hair cuticles.

What Is The Hair Cuticle?

structure of hair

Your hair is made of three main parts:

  • the medulla
  • the cortex
  • the cuticle

Within these parts lies a complex structure of protein called keratin. We won’t go into the medulla or the cortex but let’s examine the cuticle layer a bit.

The cuticle is the outermost layer of the hair shaft. It’s unlike hair follicles which are deeper within each hair strand.

It’s also the protective outer layer of the hair shaft. It doesn’t matter what your hair type is. You have a cuticle layer and it’s important to keep it healthy.

The best way to describe the structure of the cuticle is to compare it to the shingles on the roof of a house. It looks a lot like that.

When you have a healthy hair cuticle, the shingle like structure is closed. Again, it’s the protective layer of your hair.

shingles
Image credit: Pacesetter Homes

When there’s hair cuticle damage, your cuticles will be loose and open. So, it’s like the shingles on the roof lifting, cracking and falling off. They are basically weathered and need to be repaired or rather, replaced.

Those with high porosity hair also have an open cuticle layer. Hair porosity is a fascinating topic.  it’s the porosity level of a strand of hair that will determine how tight your cuticle layer is. 

Unlike those with high porosity hair, those with low porosity hair will have a tight cuticle layer, making it difficult for moisture to enter and escape the hair strand.

Can you repair your hair cuticle?

The shingles on a roof can be patched up but the best thing to do is to repair the broken ones. It’s similar with hair.

When you apply a deep conditioner, protein treatment and even a rinsing conditioner to your hair, these hair products will help to soften and smooth out the hair shaft some. However, you can’t really restore a damaged hair cuticle to like new. All you can do is “improve” the condition of the hair to give it time to grow out and either shed or be cut.

The best way to maintain a healthy hair cuticle is to protect it from damage caused by things like overly heat styling and chemical treatments. Over time your cuticle naturally frays but without outside influences, by that time you’ll have new hair growing in.

When those shingles cuticles lift and stay that way, it’s virtually impossible for your hair to maintain it’s moisture levels. Certainly, there are times when you want open cuticles but most of the time, you want them as smooth (closed) as possible.

When You Want Open Hair Cuticles

We delved into hair structure components and specifically, the cuticle’s responsibility. Now, let’s examine the time when you actually want your hair cuticles to open. There’s actually a very important period of time where you want – no, need your hair cuticles to open.

That time is when you are deep conditioning your hair.

You’ll find a lot of information about how to deep condition for hair health. However, your deep conditioner is not most effective unless it is penetrating the hair shaft, going deep into the hair.

Because the hydration (not just moisturizing) of your hair occurs on wash day, you need your cuticles to open and receive all of the moisture and other beneficial nutrients your deep conditioner has to offer.

To get your cuticle layer to open up for your deep conditioner, you need to use heat. This is different from heat styling.

While you don’t necessarily want to use hot water to wash your hair, you do want to apply a heat source to your hair to promote those cuticles to open.

It doesn’t matter if you have straight hair or curly hair. To raise your hair cuticles, you can do so with the aid of heat in the following ways:

  1. Allowing your hair to run under warm water for a few minutes before staring the cleansing process.
  2. Steaming your hair (before or after applying your deep conditioner)
  3. Sitting under a hooded hair dryer with a plastic cap on (after deep conditioner has been applied)
  4. Using a heating cap (portable or plug in) after applying deep conditioner.

Things That Damage the Cuticle

things that cause hair damage

The hair cuticle is obviously very important to the health of hair. It’s also fragile and can be easily damaged. Here are some ways you can damage your hair cuticle:

  1. Using hair dye or hair bleach
  2. Chemical processing of the hair to “force” it to curl or straighten (i.e. relaxers, perms)
  3. Lifting your hair color more than two shades from it’s natural color
  4. Frequent heat styling with hot tools like flat irons
  5. Backcombing or teasing your hair
  6. Excessive combing and brushing
  7. Environmental factors like pollution and radiation from the sun’s UV rays

5 Signs Your Hair is Damaged

As you can, see there are many ways for your cuticle layer to get damaged. So, what signs can you look for to identify damage if you’ve done any of these things?

Here are some signs your hair may be damaged:

  1. Your hair appears dull no matter how many treatments you do to it.
  2. Your hair tends to re-tangle immediately after detangling.
  3. You may notice your hair feeling dry and brittle even after clarifying and moisturizing it.
  4. The roots of your hair may appear thick but as you reach the ends of your hair, it appears thinner.
  5. The natural color of your hair appears to be fading (and it’s not aging!)
signs of damaged natural hair

Ways to Prevent Further Damage to Your Hair

If you think your hair is damaged, the best way to prevent further damage is to first stop doing the things mentioned above that caused the damage in the first place. Put down the harsh chemicals and treat your hair like a delicate fiber (which it is).

If you want to recognize hair growth, in order to prevent further damage you may need to do something that may seem counterintuitive. Cut it.

Yes, cutting your hair may seem like it goes against the goal of you growing longer hair. However, if you hold on to damaged strands they can damage the remaining healthy hair.

Instead, do the things that support healthy hair:

Pre-Poo – The pre-poo can truly protect your hair from being damaged from the constant swelling and contracting that occurs when you are washing it. Applying a blend of coconut and olive oil on dry hair at least 30 minutes before washing it will give your hair time to absorb the oils to protect against damage.

Protein treatments – Using protein on damaged hair will help fill in gaps along the hair shaft. An alternative is to use a herbal hair mask containing Henna. Protein treatments are necessary especially if your hair has incurred heat damage.

Deep Conditioning – Making you deep condition after every wash will keep your hair smooth and hydrated.

Trim as Needed – Trimming away damaged hair is something you can do over time.  You may need to do so a little more often until all damage is removed or you can just trim as needed (for ex: when you notice your ends tangling up more)

Lastly, make sure you are using the right products for your hair porosity. Of course, natural ingredients are best whenever an option to use them. I’m no longer a fan of Shea Moisture but they do carry specific hair care lines based on porosity.

Why Do You Want Smooth Hair Cuticles?

The main reason you want your cuticles as smooth as possible is your hair holds onto moisture much better. It also shines better, reflecting light much better.

A head of hair that has really smooth cuticles from day to day can often retain moisture for 3-5 days on end. Secondary to nicely moisturized hair is having shiny hair. That is to say, when your hair’s cuticles are smooth, your hair is MUCH shinier.

frizz free curls with smooth hair cuticles

How To Close Hair Cuticles

As mentioned, your hair’s cuticles can lift for a number of reasons, even during the wash and conditioning process of hair care.

You want your cuticle to lift to allow the beneficial ingredients in your cleansers and conditioners to do the job they are paid (for) to do. Yet, once that has occurred, you then want to make sure you close those cuticles back down.

Healthy hair has an acidic pH level. The pH scale goes from zero to 14. When hair is in its healthiest state it has a somewhat low pH level of around 4.5-5.

Getting your hair’s cuticle to close can occur in several ways. Yes you can spend money on hair care products to balance out the pH of the hair after you’ve deep conditioned it. However, it doesn’t really take a special product to do it.

Cost-effective ways to close the Hair Cuticle

Here are some more cost effective ways to close your hair’s cuticles after completing your wash/conditioning session:

  •  Rinsing your hair with cold water – this should be your final rinse
  • Using a diluted solution of apple cider vinegar (ACV) to rinse your hair – a solution of 1 part water to 1 part apple cider vinegar is recommended. Never use ACV full strength
  • First, rinse all product from your hair. Then, apply a refrigerated leave-in conditioner (This is my personal preference as someone with low porosity hair for how to close hair cuticles).

If you haven’t figured it out by now, heat and cold have a big impact on how to close hair cuticles. 

how to close hair cuticles

Heat opens the cuticle. Cold helps shut it down.

Of course, this is an over simplification. It really applies to how you are caring for your hair on wash day. Cold weather has an entirely different impact on hair.

Lastly, after you apply a leave in-conditioner, if you follow that with one of many natural oils, it will help to smooth the hair’s surface and lock in much moisture.

Where To Next

For help with your natural hair regimen, check out the Master Your Hair Manual

Which method do you prefer for how to close hair cuticles for smooth healthy hair?

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6 Comments

  1. NeoshaGEE-ItsRatedNGEE says:

    Great post! I make sure to always rince my hair with water as well.

  2. This is some great info! Good research here.

    1. Thanks Brooke. Sometimes I can’t tolerate the cool water rinse so the refrigerated conditioner works very well

  3. I usually just rinse with cool water. I know what it does but it always leaves my hair feeling rougher than if I had rinsed with warm water.

    I also use a leave-in but I never considered refrigerating it before. Thanks for the suggestion.

    1. yeah try the refrigerated lic method. your hair shouldn’t get rough this way

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