Many curlies may find themselves on the unfortunate side of damaged hair either from chemicals (e.g. color), heat styling, manipulation, or a variation of the three. It is common and may even be expected from time to time as we get bored, lazy, or overzealous during our hair journey. What is the harm if you repair and maybe even repent? Well, knowing how to properly repair is central to healthy hair.
We hear about the benefits of protein for hair as it temporarily repairs the damage inflicted to the hair’s cuticle, but is it the only protector for our strands? It would seem so since poor ceramides rarely get much love. There are more assets to strengthen or reinforce our hair’s backbone than just proteins, and while some feel proteins are everything, there are others that see ceramides as just as vital, if not more so.
Ceramides are one of the three types of lipids found in the hair’s cuticle (18 MEA and cholesterol are the other two) and their purpose is to keep the cuticle layer in place by acting like glue. It keeps the cuticle lying flat and remaining intact, and according to scientific consultant Yolanda Anderson, M.Ed., "Ceramides have a waxy texture that coats the hair and improves the tensile strength of the hair while also holding in the much-appreciated moisture." They have high levels of linoleic acid, an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid that stimulates hair growth and controls moisture loss in hair. Several natural oils that have linoleic acid also have ceramides and one of the highest would be safflower oil and grape seed oil, because they both have over 70% linoleic acid and in turn have high levels of ceramides.
Despite adding strength to the hair, ceramides and proteins are not the same and actually have very different functions. Proteins can penetrate the hair’s cuticle and fill up the holes or gaps in the hair shaft while ceramides coat the hair to protect it and hold moisture in our strands. Another difference between ceramides and proteins is which types of hair benefit the most from either of them. Proteins aid all hair types equally but ceramides are most useful in chemically damaged hair and with virgin or natural hair they are far less effective.
Ceramides are naturally occurring in the hair, but as we inflict daily styling, heat tools, chemicals, and even environmental elements, they can become depleted just as the hair’s cuticle can become chipped or raised. Often we look to nature in the form of foods or supplements to replenish what we have destroyed.
Ceramides help keep protein in the hair’s cuticle and replenish the internal cuticle’s oil but proteins patch up the cuticle’s surface. It would appear neither is better than the other and both are equal cogs in a vital partnership perfect for optimal hair health. I say why do you have to choose? It would seem they both serve a powerful purpose in hair strength so why decide? There is no need to replace one for another unless there is a problem. Well, if your hair is protein sensitive then solely relying on ceramides for hair’s strength may be an asset. Also, remember that if you are sensitive to one protein that does not mean you will atomically be sensitive to another type. Lastly, please note that ceramides only reinforce the hair strand and are not as effective as strengthening the hair’s inner layer like protein will.