“We don’t go natural; we return. Natural is where it began.”
– Tenoiya Carter
The way a woman wears her hair can be a representation of who she is and how she presents herself to the world. Throughout history, hair has been a symbol of beauty, individuality, culture, strength, resistance, and power. For black women, hair is a major part of our culture, with styles and practices stretching all the way back to our ancestral roots in Africa.
Now, before I get into the science, let me tell you about my own hair journey. To begin, I’m a 29-year-old woman from the beautiful islands of the Bahamas who currently lives in Florida. I’m also a proud woman of mixed race: mainly black, white, and native American. Growing up, I had some thick — and I mean THICK! — hair. I’m talking about hair that took 3-4 hours to do. Hair that popped hair ties, dismantled hair bubbles, and laughed at any scrunchie trying to hold it down.
If you grew up in the late 90s-2000s with natural hair like mine, your curly hair product options were limited, to say the least. Products were more focused on “taming” hair instead of hydrating and defining the curls. To keep my own hair manageable, my mother would dedicate hours to detangling, blow drying, and plaiting (or braiding) my hair. After hours of labor, she would want the style to last 2 weeks, which meant no swimming, tying it up and night, and taking a tremendous amount of care to keep my hair neat. During this time in my life, I would have LOVED to know why my head was full of these thick curls, so let’s talk a little about that.
There are 3 main parameters that determine your hair pattern:
The shape of the hair follicle plays a major role in hair texture. The follicle shape for straight hair is round, while curly hair follicles have an oval shape. The more oval the shape, the curlier the hair. Also, follicle size determines the thickness of hair.
The angle at which the follicle tunnels out of the scalp affects the shape of your hair. Straight hair grows vertically out of your scalp, while curly hair grows at an angle.
This angled growth pattern is why curly hair is one of the driest hair types, as sebum (our skin’s natural oil) isn’t able to travel the length of a curly hair strand as efficiently as with a straighter strand. This certainly explains why when the directions of a hair product say “use a dime size amount” I’m taking a small fortune out!
Now, I promise not to go into too much depth, but let’s talk a smidge about the chemistry. There are 3 major chemical bonds that contribute to hair shape:
Disulfide bonds are strong and permanent, and the more present, the curlier the hair. Hydrogen bonds are flexible, temporary bonds and the primary bonds for changing hair shape. Salt bonds contribute to the hair’s strength and are broken by pH changes.
As a kid, I dreaded those plaits. I dreaded my curls, which I honestly saw as knots. All I wanted was hair that blew in the wind like the characters on TV. As I grew older, plaits were definitely not cute or sexy or whatever I was trying to be. So, at the mature age of 15-years-old, I relaxed (or permanently chemically straightened) my hair. I went from plaits to silky hair that, YES!, blew in the wind and YES!, did look cute. Over the years, I processed, straightened, and ultimately damaged my hair to the point you would never know its original texture or thickness.
After 7 years of straight hair, I was ready for a change. So, at the age of 22, while holding a Chemistry degree and working toward my master’s degree in Cosmetic Science, I decided to forgo the chemicals in my own hair and “go natural”. This meant that I had to start over, cut off all my chemically-processed hair, and allow my natural hair to grow out. I had to learn my hair and, most importantly, love my hair. Not the easiest thing to do, since most of my life I tried to tame, hide, or break down my curls, but as my hair grew, so did my confidence and self-love for it. I even wore it natural for my micro-wedding last year!
Currently, I am a Senior Scientist in personal care product development who rocks her naturally bold and curly locs proudly to work each day. “I’m also working toward having my own line of hair products one day. For now, I’m growing my curly hair Instagram page to help educate women on how to love our curls well.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can never go wrong embracing what God has given you. Don’t ever underestimate your curl power!
Nicole McCardy-Miller, AKA “The Curly Chemist”, is a Senior Scientist in personal care product development. She is a proud Bahamian woman who loves to sing, eat good food, and spend time with her family. She’s also working toward having her own line of hair products one day and loves helping others prep products at home. For now, she is growing her “curly hair chemistry” Instagram page to help educate women on the science of curls and product development, and how to love their curls well. Nicole is a newlywed and currently lives in sunny Florida with her husband.
For more curly hair science, follow her @the.curlychemist on Instagram!
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This is such good encouragement for us to learn about our hair and to love it, too! You rock, Nicole!