Q: What exactly is hair made of and how does it grow?
A: The best way to answer this question is to reverse the two parts.
First, your hair grows from follicles within the skin. The part of the hair
inside the follicle (below the skin's surface) is known as the hair root,
while the portion you see protruding from the head is the hair shaft. At
the base of the hair root is the hair bulb where nutrients are received and new cells are formed.
Also within the hair follicle are the dermal papilla (a cone shaped
protrustion at the base of the follicle which feeds blood - and therefore
nutrients - to the hair bulb), the sebaceous gland (or oil gland) which
lubricates and keeps the hair healthy and shiny, as well as the arrector
pili, a tiny muscle anchored to the follicle. The arrector pili respond to stimulus (fear or
cold) causing them to contract and make the hair stand up straight.
Taking nutrients from the dermal papilla, the hair bulb generates new hair cells.
As these cells move up through the hair root, they mature through a process called
keratinization, fill with fibrous protein and lose their nucleus. When the cell loses its
nucleus it is no longer alive. By the time the hair emerges from the skin it is merely fiber
made of keratinized proteins.
The fibrous protein emerging from
the hair follicle as the hair shaft has a
specific construction. It forms a strand
with three layers: an outer covering of
overlapping keratin scales called the
cuticle, a middle layer of keratinized
protein fibers called the cortex, and,
usually, a central 'core' of round cells
called the medulla. A medulla is almost
always found in coarse hair, and often
is absent from naturally blonde hair
and very fine hair.
(Click to enlarge)
In fact, your hair is approximately 91 percent protein, and is made up of long
chains of amino acids. These chains are found within the fibers of the cortex of the hair.
The amino acids of these chains are made up of the elements carbon, oxygen,
hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur (are also the building blocks of the skin and nails) and
are joined together by peptide bonds. Long chains of these peptide bonds are called polypeptide chains.
The polypeptide chains are in turn joined by side bonds. There are three types of
side bonds: salt bonds, hydrogen bonds, and disulfide bonds. The salt and hydrogen
bonds are most prevalent, but are weaker and are broken by heat and moisture. It is
the action of salt and hydrogen bonds that allow the use of wet roller sets and curling or
flat irons to change the amount of curl in the hair. Disulfide bonds are fewer, but are
much stronger. When you get a permanent wave service, or a relaxer, it is the disulfide
bonds that are broken and reformed to give you the change in the amount of curl.
Each type of side bond accounts for about one-third of the hair's strength.