The pH of products we use in natural hair care play a critical role that could either facilitate or hinder natural hair growth. In order to select products that work well with the hair, it’s important to understand the role that pH plays in product formulation. And even if you are big on DIY hair care like myself, knowing the final pH of products you make is extremely helpful in determining how your coils will respond and possible corrective measures in case of mistakes. For those who use commercial products, understanding how pH works when it comes to natural hair will be vital in selecting products that are pH balanced and therefore ideal for hair.
pH simply stands for the potential of Hydrogen or the power of Hydrogen. The difference in terminology is just semantics between scientists – both phrases mean the same thing. The concept seeks to figure out how much of H+ ions are in a given solution. Therefore, we can measure the pH of water miscible (soluble) compounds. The pH scales begin from 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline). The number on which a product falls on the pH scale is determined by increasing or decreasing H+ ions in water. For example to make a shampoo, most companies begin with water, which is equilibrium or neutral at pH 7. As ingredients are added, the number of H+ ions changes which in turn changes the pH of the product. Let’s say the second ingredient in our shampoo is Sodium Lauryl Sulphate which is pH 10. Adding even the slightest amount of SLS to water will significantly decrease the amount of H+ ions in the water resulting in an alkaline solution. That explains why most shampoos that are not pH optimized tend to be highly alkaline.
The pH of our hair ranges between 4.5 – 5.5. It’s therefore critical that the pH of whatever products you use fall within this range. With modern technology, it’s relatively easy to find out where your favorite hair care products fall on the pH scale. pH strips are an effective and affordable way to measure out the pH of every product you use on your hair provided the product is water soluble.
Anything outside the idea pH range of hair is essentially impacting the hair. The effect increases logarithmically with each change in pH. At pH 7, water is 100 times more alkaline than hair (pH 5) or we can reverse this and say hair (pH 5) is 100 times more acidic than water. This difference explains how water opens the hair cuticle allowing the hair strands to hold as much as 30% of their weight in water. It also explains why water is a key ingredient in most hair care products.
Over-acidifying or alkalinizing the hair will both impact the hair negatively. Extremely acidic conditions cause the cuticles to shrink and harden, which prevents movement of products in to the hair shaft. Alkalinizing leaves the cuticles open and lifted, which exposes the hair shaft leading to severe loss of product. Either extreme will lead to relentlessly dry hair that easily breaks off. And unless the pH is rebalanced the dryness will persist.
The best way to balance pH is to use a pH optimized shampoo and conditioner from the same brand. Conditioning frequently with an optimized product will correct the pH of hair over time. Once your pH is restored, you can proceed to DIY products or other favorite commercial hair care products but always making sure to check the pH.
PS: I am working on an E-book that will go into a lot more detail about pH and its role in natural hair care. If you haven’t already, subscribe to the newsletter to know when the e-book comes out. Subscription form is on the sidebar.
Also, below are the strips I use to check for pH. These are from Macherey-Nagel, a German company at the fore-front of analysis technology. You get 100 strips (one-time use each) for $13.95, which totals to about $0.14 per strip. It’s totally worth it if you ask me.