What is hair?

And why do we care?

At The Wash, we’ve explored an encyclopedia’s worth of topics covering the best hair care for achieving healthy-looking hair, the origins of shampoo, the most effective hair care ingredients, the causes of frizz, and everything in between.  But do we know what hair actually is? Let’s dive in. 

Dissecting the strand

Starting at the root: Hair is mostly keratin, a fibrous structural protein that can be divided into three regions: the outermost protective shell called the cuticle, the thick interior cortex section, and the medulla at the very core.

Now, why do we have it in the first place? What are we, animals or something? Absolutely—and the details lie squarely in the story of evolution. Consider our mammalian friends. They’ve developed fur as a means to insulate their warm-blooded bodies from exposure to the cold, while at the same time shielding the skin from the sun. The funky reason our human ancestors lost most of their “fur” is because of our unique ability to adapt to any environment. Through strategic access to fire, shelter, and clothing, these comforts have reshaped the extent of our furriness over generations. The exception, however, is the hair on our head, because (you guessed it) living our lives upright on two legs requires cranial protection from the sun. And rather than shedding seasonally like mammals’ fur, our hair grows continuously, just under half an inch every four weeks.

The history of the “hairstyle” 

So, hair still sprouts in certain areas of our bodies to serve a purpose. Copy that. But why do we bother styling it? Well, animals invest a ton of time maintaining the health of their fur since a fine coat is a visual indicator of health to potential mates. Sometimes they take it to an extreme—just read how male macaque monkeys have been caught “paying” for sex by grooming females. For humans, turns out that sexual selection could also be the reason for our grooming traditions.

Hair doesn’t fossilize well, so it’s by studying the remarkably preserved ancient mummies of Peru and Egypt that researchers have made their astounding discoveries about hair history. One of them is that, since antiquity, even the most insular civilizations would style their hair in different fashions to woo potential partners. It’s no shocker that in modern society, we do the same, seeking out the most effective grooming products to subconsciously access youth and vitality, and ultimately appear more attractive to those around us. 

It’s in our DNA

So this is why we’re here, folks. While digging into the basics might make investing in hair care seem futile, it’s part of your DNA. Embrace it! We certainly are. Based on allllll the extensive research that spans millennia, our collective human mission to achieve healthy-looking hair is evolutionary. And we’re all in this together. Let’s all agree that at the end of the day, soft things can be nice. 

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