No-poo, LOC method, pre-poo… you've heard a lot of different methods for cleansing natural hair, and we're pretty sure you're well-versed on your labels, specifically in regards to nixing sulfates, parabens, and artificial fragrance. But how often do you consider the pH of your haircare products? Believe it or not, the acidity level of your go-to poos and conditioners largely affect the state of your strands and scalp. So to get some guidance, I tapped two hair gurus that have been in the hair game for decades: Miko Branch, who is a pioneer of the natural hair care movement (and former hairstylist) thanks to the 2004 launch of Miss Jessie's, and Sadi Evans, who is a L'Oréal Professional Artist and Educator.
Meet the Expert
- Miko Branch and her sister Titi revolutionized the hair care market by being the first to develop original hair products (Miss Jessie's) designed to enhance and enrich every type of textured curly hair for people of every ethnic background.
- Sadi Evans has been a hairdresser for almost a decade. She is currently a L'Orèal Professional Artist & Educator at Paul Milina Salon in San Francisco.
Before we jump into this session, we need to cover a few basics. How do we discover our hair's natural pH, and what clues will our scalp and hair give us to let us know when it's "off"?
"The pH of hair naturally lives between 4.5-5, which is in the acidic family," says Evans. As far as clues that let us know when our hair and scalp pH is out of sync, you'll be able to feel the difference. "You can tell if your pH is off if you notice itchiness, flakiness, or dryness. These can be the result of your hair being too alkaline, meaning the cuticle has been opened, and the response is a dry, itchy, or flaky scalp."
For the natural hair community, we can thank the oils in our hair for making the natural pH of our hair and scalp more acidic, but producing excess oil has its benefits. "The natural pH for us is more acidic because the oil that the scalp produces is actually helpful at fighting off bacteria and the growth of fungus. So when we use a product such as a shampoo that has a pH of 7 or higher, that high alkalinity can cause irritation to the scalp."
If you find yourself with an irritated, itchy scalp even after wash day, a shampoo like KeraCare's Dry & Itchy Scalp Anti-Dandruff Moisturizing Shampoo sits at a pH of 6, which, based on Evans' pro-tips, is ideal for natural hair types.
Now that we've covered the basics, what are the benefits of pH-balancing shampoos?
pH-Balancing Shampoos Can Reduce Frizz and Prevent Breakage
My 4c hair prone to frizz, breakage, and even excessive dryness, but the right shampoo can help manage those issues. "pH-balancing shampoos can benefit natural hair by reducing frizz and dryness and preventing breakage and tangling while keeping the cuticle sealed. Shampoos that are pH-balanced are ideal because they don't strip the hair and scalp of its natural oil," says Branch.
pH-Balancing Shampoos Can Help Manage Itchy Scalp
Your hormones affect the health of your hair as well. Says Evans, "If you suffer from hormonal imbalances or your hair produces more oil than you prefer, that can be managed with the correct pH-balanced shampoo. For example, if you were suffering from dandruff and an itchy scalp, I would recommend a shampoo or product that was pH-balanced between 6-7, no higher—this applies to color-treated hair as well."
pH-Balancing Shampoos Can Keep Your Hair Color Alive
For those of us who color our hair, maintaining your hair's hue is likely the main focus, but keeping the hair pH-balanced is critical to not just preventing your beauty investment from fading, but it is a must for keeping your coils from breaking. Evans explains, "During the coloring process, the hair's cuticle has been opened with a dominant alkaline product, so closing the cuticle and keeping it contracted is best for color longevity and preventing the hair from dryness." If you've bleached your hair, add a moisture-rich purple shampoo to your routine to keep your color bright and your hair feeling its best.
pH Shampoos Can Seal The Hair Cuticle
Balance seems to be the ongoing theme of this story, but that's why we're here—to understand the science and importance of maintaining our hair's natural balance. If you have ever wondered why your hair feels less dry and seemingly retains moisture when it's silk-pressed or relaxed, here's why: "Curly hair is naturally more dry than straight hair," says Evans, "meaning curly hair has a higher pH level than straight hair does. That being said, finding a product to contract the cuticle—to partially close it—would be beneficial. A product or shampoo that is more acidic-dominant would help to neutralize or balance the existing alkalinity in the hair."
Since these shampoos are a must for our wash days, how often should we be using a pH-balancing shampoo? I personally opt not to cleanse my hair too frequently with anything other than a co-wash because I find that it keeps my hair from drying out, but in the event my scalp is itchy, I focus cleansing only on that problem area. Branch co-signed my preference recommending shampooing natural coily hair bi-weekly with a pH-balancing shampoo. "Bi-weekly pH-balanced shampoos will be excellent for keeping frizz down and helping to maintain the hair's natural shine," she says.
Evans adds, "A pH-balanced shampoo can help to keep your hair looking cleaner for a longer period of time. An improperly balanced shampoo will strip away too much of your hair's natural oils. Your scalp will then overproduce oil to compensate, creating your hair to be oily and possibly getting dirty quicker." In the meantime, she recommends co-washing, "because the conditioner is used to close and seal the cuticle. Most conditioners have acidity regulators in them to maintain a balanced acidity level. Although we are unable to penetrate the hair at level C (the cortex) and drive moisture into it from a co-wash, we are able to reseal the cuticle just in case it has been opened from alkaline-high styling products." Evans adds, "This will help with detangling curly hair."