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Protecting the hair cuticle is key to preventing dehydration and breakage.

You probably know that your nails have cuticles, the layer of skin atop the nail bed that protects against harmful bacteria. Well, hair also has a cuticle that plays an equally important and protective role.

Each of your hair strands is made up of three sections. At the very center is the medulla (not everyone has a medulla), the role of which is little understood. Around the medulla is the cortex, which provides the majority of the hair fiber and gives the hair stiffness of rigidity. And the top, or outermost, layer of each hair strand is the cuticle.

The cuticle is comprised of a series of layers, like shingles on a roof, that sit on top of the hair, acting as a barrier.

The condition and composition of the cuticle determines many defining characteristics of your hair, such as: frizziness, shine, porosity, and more. 

Each cuticle cell is approximately 0.5 µm high, with about a 5-µm exposed surface, and approximately 45 to 60 µm long. Human hair is usually 5-10 scales thick. The cuticle prevents water from seeping into or out of the cortex and acts as a shield against damaging UV rays.

Protecting the cuticle is key to preventing dehydration and breakage.

The single best thing you can do to maintain your cuticles: apply conditioner to the ends of your strands after every shampoo.

Everyone's cuticle pattern is different, but in general, healthy hair has cuticles with smooth and unbroken edges. Damage can cause these edges to lift and break. UV damage can cause these layers of shingles to fuse together. Using products with UV protection can go a long way in protecting your hair cuticles.

The cuticle is very delicate, and it’s easy to inadvertently inflict damage if you’re not careful. Cuticle chipping can occur during brushing, towel drying, shampooing, and touching hair. Stretching hair can produce splits or cracks in the endocuticle and cell membrane complex and transverse cracks in the cuticle layers. As the hair fibers rub against each other, the cuticle can chip. Avoid dry brushing hair and only wet brush with plenty of conditioner. Consider a microfiber towel and a satin pillow case to reduce friction on your hair strands.

Your hair is composed of a certain amount of water, and maintaining that hydration level is pivotal to maintaining bouncy, strong strands. If you lose your protective layer, the water in your hair can easily escape, leading to dryness and brittleness. If your hair is drying out very quickly due to damaged cuticles, use conditioners and sealing oils to form a protective layer on top of each hair strand.

Interesting Side Note: sometimes hair static occurs when your hair builds up an electric charge, meaning it has gained extra electrons.

This is more likely to happen with lifted cuticles or cuticles with sharp edges. These rough cuticles rub against one another causing friction, which leads to static. Think about rubbing your socks against the carpet. Extra static results in frizz and flyaways. Products that help combat against frizz try to either neutralize this static by giving the extra electrons a new home or they try to prevent frizz by reducing friction by lubricating or soothing the cuticles.

Bleaching and coloring hair can lift the cuticle scales because it eats at the cell membrane complex that holds your cuticle scales together and to the cortex. Lifted cuticle scales expose the cortex of the hair shaft, and the cuticle scales themselves are vulnerable to breakage and damage. When done by a hair professional, bleaching and hair coloring can be safe, if proper precautions are taken. Box colors and home bleaching kits can have an irreversible effect on hair’s cuticles and cortex. If you expose hair long enough to the chemicals in bleach or to other harsh chemicals, you can completely lose all definition in your cuticles.

So, you get the point—the cuticle is important, and if you don’t consistently and adequately care for your strands, you’ll end up with dry, frizzy hair. Moreover, the less structured and aligned your hair’s cuticles, the duller your hair will look. The single best thing you can do to maintain your cuticles: apply conditioner to the ends of your strands after every shampoo. Conditioners help smooth down the cuticle layer and aid in creating shine. Not to mention, conditioning detangles the hair, which protects the cuticle from friction damage. Trust us on this—Regularly conditioning is a simple and surefire step in preserving a vital component of hair health.