Before the natural hair movement, there was a perception that African hair does not grow past the shoulder length. This was probably because most of us had hair that stagnated at that length. However, over the recent years we have started seeing African women particularly those who have transitioned to natural, grow their hair to as long as thigh length.
*This is a very detailed post on 4C hair growth and breakage. You can navigate to specific sections such as “Reasons why your hair is NOT GROWING” using the table of contents*
Looking at many women who have decided to go natural, you can see a clear connection between how African women were managing their hair ‘then’ and the stagnation/shoulder length phenomenon. The clearest connection is the use of relaxers on hair. There are many other factors such as over-manipulation, excessive use of heat and environmental factors that I will explore below.
In this guide, you will learn about:
Hair Structure and Composition
Learning to take care of your hair is incomplete if you don’t understand the basics and so let us begin from the basics. Understanding the hair structure can be confusing. I will try and make this as simple as possible.
Hair is made of two main parts: The part you can physically see above the scalp – Hair Shaft. And the part that you cannot see – the Hair Follicle.
The Hair follicle is the club shaped structure in the skin. At the end of the follicle, there is the Papilla. The Papilla is a network of blood vessels that are responsible for supplying hair with nutrients to feed and grow the hair.
Surrounding the Papilla is the bulb which is associated with the Sebaceous gland. The Sebaceous gland secrets Sebum that natural lubricates and conditions the hair.
The hair shaft is composed of a protein called Keratin. Keratin is responsible for making the hair strong and flexible. The Hair shaft is made up 3 layers: an Inner Medulla layer, a Cortex and an Outer Cuticle
- Medulla: this is the innermost layer of the hair shaft, composed of an amorphous, soft, oily substance.
- Cuticle: thin protective outer coating that contains the nourishing portion essential to hair growth. It contains high amounts of keratin, composed scale-shaped cells that are layered one over the other, measuring about sixty micrometers long and about six micrometers wide.
- Cortex: this is the main component of the hair, it contains long keratin chains that increase hair elasticity, flexibility and resistance to your hair. The cells of the cortex are joined together by some intercellular cement rich in lipids and proteins. Each cell has bundles that lie in the direction of the hair length: these are macro fibrils which are made up of micro fibrils, which in turn contain protofibrils.
This might be too much to take in or understand but it is crucial to know the structure of your hair in order to understand things like, which part is responsible for x,y…? or what part is damaged, and what you can do about it.
Hair grows out of the follicle. Blood flow is supplied by a small vessel (papilla) that passes through the inside of the hair shaft, providing the hair with all the necessary elements it needs to stay healthy such as amino acids, mineral salts or vitamins. The hair shaft is surrounded by sebaceous gland, which produces sebum that naturally lubricates the hair.
4C hair growth stages
Hair grows out of the follicles in phases. There are three hair growth phases as described below.
1. The Anagen Phase
This is the active growth phase. During this phase, cells within the hair papilla continuously divide and form new hair fibers. Lasting up to eight years in any given person; however, this phase is determined purely by genetics. If your hair remains longer in this phase, the longer the hair will grow. Eighty five percent of the hair on your head is in Anagen phase all the time.
2. The Catagen phase
This phase is usually called the transition phase. In this particular phase hair becomes detached from the dermal papilla; it loses its blood supply and becomes pushed out of the dermal layer. This stage lasts up to about three weeks.
3. The Telogen phase
The Telogen phase is also referred to as the resting phase. During this phase, the hair follicle just lies dormant. This can last between one to four months. As this phase ends and a new Anagen phase starts, the old hair follicle is pushed out by the freshly growing hair. This causes shedding. Ten to fifteen percent of the hair on your head may be in Telogen phase at any given time.
Rate of 4C hair growth
It is common knowledge that the rate of hair growth is primarily determined by genetics. Your genes define the rate of your hair growth i.e, ‘the ceiling’. All other factors such health, hair care routine, environmental factors only work to either get you to your potential growth rate or work against you.
I have talked about the rate of hair growth in this article but in summary,
The results of a study done in 2005 in Journal International Journal of Dermatology shows that the rate of hair growth varies from race to race. On average the rate of hair growth in African women is 4 inches (10cm) per year, in Asian women, the hair growth rate is about 6 inches (15cm) per year and in Caucasian women, about 5 inches (13 cm) per year.
Factors that determine hair growth
1. Genetics – Your genes determine your maximum growth rate. As explained above the average growth rate varies from race to race.
2. Age – On average our head contains approximately 100,000 follicles but as we get old, some follicles are unable to or stop producing hair thus leading to thinning of hair.
3. Hormones – Hormonal changes play a role in determining your growth rate. A classic example is most women report to see increased growth rate during pregnancy. The estrogen levels in the blood, during pregnancy period, will make your grow longer and thicker.
4. Nutrition and health – Your body needs to be kept healthy in order to grow healthy hair by taking the right vitamins, nutrients, minerals, and other supplements. The body should get the right nutrients for it to enable faster growth rate of hair.
5. Exercise – There is increased blood flow to the scalp when you exercise regularly. The increased blood flow to the scalp supplies nutrients to the hair leading to growth. Exercise also reduce stress levels which influences hair growth, the less stressed you are, the greater hair growth you experience. Stress can also lead to hair loss by breakage
4C Hair Breakage: Reasons why your hair might not be growing
Now that we know that African hair on average grows at a rate of 4 inches (10cm) per year, you probably must be wondering why a lot of us African women do not grow hair past the shoulders. Poor length retention is usually due to hair damage. 4C hair particularly is very fragile and prone to damage due to its structure. Because of the coils/bends along the hair shaft, moisture, lubrication and protection from sebum is limited. This hair type also tends to loose moisture and break very easily because every ‘bend’ along the hair shaft is a point of weakness.
This is not to scare you further and make you think that it is difficult you grow long, healthy 4C hair. With this information, you now know better why you need to take really good care of your hair.
In the next section, I will go through the common causes that limit us from achieving the full growth potential of our hair.
To help you remember all the causes of 4C hair breakage/damage, below is an image you can pin for future, quick and easy reference. Hover over or click on the image and a pin it button will appear.
1. Chemical Damage
In my view, this is the number one cause of damage in textured/kinky hair. Applying chemicals to your hair, no matter how ‘safe’ they are labelled and/or how carefully they are applied, results in some degree of hair structure alteration which is most often permanent.
Examples of chemical damage culprits are: relaxers, texturizers, permanent hair colors, curly perms etc. Some Shampoos and hair products in general can cause damage by drying out your hair and stripping it off its natural oils. It is always good to test a product to ensure it does not damage your hair before committing to the product. You can do this by looking at reviews by people of the same hair type or buying small quantities for testing.
2. Physical Damage
Physical manipulation of the hair shaft is another popular cause of hair damage especially to 4C hair that is very fragile as earlier mentioned. Below are the main causes of physical damage:
- Keeping your hands in your hair all the times is a form of manipulation, over styling your hair is another. When you frequently change hair styles you are exposing your hair to damage when taking the style, detangling and re-installing a new style. This is why low manipulation protective styling is the song of every natural these days.
- Most of us want that perfect looking hair and always carry combs and brushes in our bags, for brushing and combing our hair just in case we mess up our hair styles. You actually do not need to brush your hair as much as you think. When detangling, it is advisable to use your fingers since you will feel the knots and removes them gently compared to using a comb. I personally have not used a comb for the close to 1 year (at the time of writing this article)
Tying your hair frequently in tight hairstyles, or using elastic bands to tie your hair up, leads to hair breakage. Tight hairstyles make your hair stretch or break from the root. If you regularly wear your hair in tight styles such as buns, cornrows, or braids, you might end up with a type of hair loss called traction alopecia. This type of hair loss might be temporary but may progress to become permanent if it keeps happening. Elastic ties pull the hair tightly increasing the risk of breakage or damage. Wear your hair in a variety of loose styles to relieve pressure on your hair.
Have you ever wondered why most naturals these days use a t-shirt to dry their hair? It is because they understand that towel drying damages the hair. Rubbing a towel against the hair damages it, increases frizz, and causes breakage. It’s is better wrap your hair gently using a t-shirt to remove excess water and then letting your hair to air dry.
You might be tempted to straighten your hair using heat every time you feel like its tangled or you want your hair to dry faster. This can cause damage to your hair shafts and rid your hair of moisture leading to brittle hair and hair breakage. Some of the heat treatments that can damage your hair include: Blow-driers, Straighteners and curling tongs.
3. Nutritional Deficiencies, Disorders and Stress
Nutritional deficiencies have a negative effect on your hair. Your body will prioritize supplies nutrients where they are needed most and thus always ensure you have adequate nutrition so that your hair is nourishes as well. Your hair needs a proper balance of vitamins and minerals to flourish.
Thyroid disorders are also a cause of hair damage. If you have a thyroid disorder, you may notice that your hair is very brittle, dry, and dull. Hair also becomes thinner or sheds excessively leading to bald patches.
High levels of stress can cause damage to the hair. This condition is called Telogen Effluvium. Severe shock or stress causes the hair roots to reach the resting stage of their growth cycle earlier than they are meant to and the hair comes loose from the scalp. Once stress reduces, you will usually find that the hair regrows. In case you notice unusual amounts of hair shedding, see the doctor to check for any underlying cause.
4. Environmental Damage
Ultraviolet rays from the sun, extreme temperatures, heavily chlorinated water in pools, ocean water, hard water are some of the examples of environmental causes of damage. These environmental factors either fade the natural hair color or disrupt the internal moisture balance in hair.
Tips to minimize 4C hair breakage/damage in order to retain length
Here are 9 easy to remember tips that you can consider to minimize hair breakage and hence retain length. These tips are addressing some of the root causes described above. Pick the relevant tip depending on what you have found to cause damage to your hair.
Moisturize your hair daily to maintain optimum moisture levels since 4C hair tends to be dry leading to breakage and damage. You need to use water based moisturizers as they are easy to penetrate into the skin. Water gives hair elasticity which prevent it from breaking much further. For more details on how to keep you 4C hair moisturized, here is the link to the article about moisturizing 4C hair.
Minimize the use of combs on your hair. Use your fingers to detangle or section your hair when needed.
Minimize the use of heat. If you want to achieve a stretched look, there are plenty of method to stretch your hair without heat. Click here to learn more about the various methods of stretching hair without heat.
Wear low manipulation protective styles. Remember not to leave the styles in for too long without moisturizing and conditioning, otherwise you will experience breakage and damage.
Ensure a good moisture and protein balance. If you use too much moisture in your hair, it will lead to your hair becoming mushy and excess use of proteins can cause hair to become hard and brittle causing breakage. You should not overdo the use of protein treatments as the hair is already made up of keratin which is a protein. Protein treatment is only required upon manipulation of the hair which gives it strength.
Trim your ends to get rid of split ends if you are really concerned about the health of your hair and not length. There is no better way to deal with split ends other than cutting them off, otherwise the splitting may continue further down.
Protect your hair when sleeping by using a Satin scarf/bonnet or Satin pillow. Most of the beddings are made out of cotton which tend to suck moisture from the hair.
Be careful with hair accessories as many of them will do more harm than good as they snag your hair causing breakage. Go for plain accessories that does not damage your hair.
Avoid using a towel to dry your hair as the fibers on the towel will snag the ends of your hair causing it break off, instead use to use a t-shirt.
I hope you found the information useful. If you did, let someone else know, you can do this by pinning the images from this article or sharing using the social media links below.