Hair woes

1) Dear Alice,

I was born with thick and coarse hair. It all sticks up when it is short. I lose confidence when I notice that people always look at my hair. Is there any way I can make them softer? Will medication help?

Your advice is much appreciated!



2) Alice,

I seem to have very untamable hair. I keep the hair on the side of my head really short because of this. It's not that my hair isn't uncombable or anything like that, but if the hair on my sides grow even the slightest they start sticking out at 45-90 degree angles to my head, and there is nothing I can do about (I've tried everything but STIFF STUFF....). I look at other people's hair and they don't even need to blow dry or comb it and it sticks firmly to the sides of their heads. Is there a reason why some people have such easy control over their hair? Is it something I'm eating or doing wrong? Thank you for any advice!

— For Me, Every day is a bad hair day

Dear Kelvin and For Me, Every day is a bad hair day,  

There are so many aspects of personal physical appearances to fuss over, or that one thing that you just can’t seem to get right. For you, it sounds like that’s your hair. While there are no medications that can help soften hair, there are a variety of possible solutions to help make hair more manageable. Thick or coarse and stiff or upright hair are just another hair type. That being said, people often feel most confident when they learn how to style their hair in ways that they like and feel represent them. For many people, hair textures and styles hold personal and cultural value. Learning how to style it can be reflective of those values. That being said, certain textures at times may feel more difficult to manage without the proper knowledge or tools. In these instances, they may need to try different techniques to find what works best for them depending on the potential cause of their hair troubles, type of hair, and the results they're aiming for.

Thick/coarse and stiff/upright hair may stem from a variety of reasons. One potential cause is hair anatomy, which varies by hair type. Hair types are commonly separated by African, Asian, and Caucasian ethnicities — please note that these groupings are quite broad and they have their flaws, so they may not apply to everyone. Generally, Afro and Asian hair tends to be thick and coarse because of the medulla, the innermost layer of hair. For Afro-ethnic hair, which is often curly with varied diameter and ellipsoid shape, it tends to contain less water which can make the hair both stiff and dry. Additionally, curly hair can become more stiff or dry because the oil from the scalp sometimes doesn’t get distributed along the strands as easily.

Some people may have Uncombable Hair Syndrome (UHS), which is a rare genetic disorder, caused by changes in the genes involved in forming the hair shaft. People with UHS tend to have silver-blond or straw-colored hair that sticks up and can’t be flattened by brushing. Other UHS symptoms include:  

  • Abnormal hair structure 
  • Coarse hair 
  • Trichodysplasia: having abnormal cells in the hair’s keratin spines 
  • Wooly hair: extremely tight curls that are often hyperpigmented  
  • Patchy alopecia: non-permanent patchy hair loss where the hair follicles remain intact  

Symptoms of UHS begin during early childhood (ages two to eleven) but regress as a person grows into late childhood. UHS is quite rare, and researchers are unsure of the estimated number of people affected by it. There are currently no medications or other solutions to it, other than just waiting for the symptoms to regress over time. If in doubt, consulting with a board-certified dermatologist may help provide more personalized recommendations.  

A more common reason for unruly hair is hair damage. The hair shaft wears down from root to tip, and this can be exacerbated by dry hair since there is more friction between the stands. Sometimes, even routine tasks like a person brushing their hair, can lead to more tangled and frizzy hair. The American Academy of Dermatology Association provides some tips that anyone can use to promote good hair health and to prevent hair damage. Here are some things to consider:  

  • How often do you wash your hair? The frequency you wash your hair depends on the amount of oil your scalp produces. The amount of oil may decrease with age or after chemically treating your hair, so less frequent washing is recommended. 
  • What do you use to wash your hair, and how do you wash it? Using shampoo can make hair softer, and conditioners neutralize the negative charge of hair which can decrease friction, detangle, minimize frizz, and make it easier to comb. Shampoo is meant to be applied to the scalp, and conditioner to be applied to the tips of the hair. 
  • What type of shampoo and conditioner are you using? For hair that’s been color or chemically-treated, you may want to look for products specifically designed for this.  
  • Are you a swimmer? Swim caps, swimmers’ shampoo, and deep conditioning can help protect hair from chlorine damage. 

Beyond regular maintenance, there are other things you can do to make your hair more “manageable,” that is to say, softer or easier to comb. Some of these options are more intensive, such as hair relaxing or a keratin treatment, but they sometimes have side effects that make some people wary. Hair relaxing is a process that breaks the chemical forces that holds curls together, and these results can last for several months. One study on hair relaxers found that for Afro-ethnic individuals specifically, no-lye relaxers may be a better choice because they’re better suited for very curly hair and sensitive scalps. The keratin treatment was found to release formaldehyde (a carcinogen) when heat was applied, and could lead to irritation in the eyes, mouth, and nose.

While these techniques may also make hair easier to comb for some, for some, these may not be desirable as they alter the natural texture of the hair. Learning how to care for your natural hair texture with the appropriate products, tools, and styles can also make it easier to manage. If you're unfamiliar with which products or tools to use, asking a hair stylist who knows how to style hair like yours may be a good place to start. 

Another option is to use more readily accessible products, such as butters or oils to improve the health of their hair. Mineral and vegetable oils make the hair more slippery, so there’s less friction between strands which could otherwise cause breakage. One study compared coconut, sunflower, and mineral oils, and found that of the three, using coconut oil before and after hair-washing led to less protein loss in the hair. Another study compared butters and oils, and found that applying hair butter made the hair more difficult to comb, whereas using oil could increase shine and reduce split end formation.  

While this advice may leave you with a shiny new do, there is one more issue here: your confidence! Remember, some heads of hair require big bucks and hours in front of the mirror to maintain, while others are more low maintenance. That doesn't even include all the wigs and hairpieces out there! There is nothing wrong with any hair type — what matters is finding techniques that work for you to help you feel and look your best.

Plus, you never know — some people might look at your hair and be jealous of how full-bodied it is. Spikey hairstyles are also sharp (pun intended) and offer a great look. Your hair has personality; the challenge is making it work for you! 

Wishing you good hair days ahead, 

Last updated Oct 14, 2022
Originally published Mar 13, 1998

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