I Magnified My Hair x1000 & The Photos Completely Changed How I Thought About Hair Care
I stopped spending time on my hair a while ago. Somewhere in between starting a 9-to-5 and burning the side of my face one too many times with a curling iron, I found myself with a zero effort hair styling routine. This includes me washing and conditioning my hair once a day, brushing it with a Wet Brush, and letting it air dry. And that's it. If I get my hair done professionally, I'll let the experts use heat, but normally my easy, everyday routine involves the very bare minimum. For a long time, though, there was part of me that wondered if I should be doing a little more — running a wand through it every day, or finally mastering the art of the at-home blow out. Maybe I would look more put-together, or like I had hair a routine that indicated I knew what I was doing, I thought. And then there was the matter of whether what I was doing (aka not really doing anything) was even good for my hair in the first place.
Even as a beauty editor, the mixed messages of what's "best" for your hair and your hair's health can be confusing. I've had professional hair stylists tell me that washing your hair every single day is horrible for it, and others tell me it doesn't matter at all. That doesn't even take into account those who believe it's not just about how often you wash your hair, but rather what you're washing your hair with. There's the narrative that any heat on your hair at all will slowly destroy your it, but also the one that says using certain products will negate any effects of said heat. No matter what hair care camp you're in, you can probably find an expert that will tell you you're doing exactly the right thing and another one that will tell you you're doing everything wrong.
When I visited Unilever's global research and development facility in Port Sunlight, England with hair and body care brand ApotheCARE Essentials, I knew we were supposed to learn about ApotheCARE's unique formulation and approach to hair care, but honestly? I wasn't expecting to learn anything definitive. If anything, I was fully anticipating to hear, once again, that everything I knew about hair was wrong and to be even more confused than I was before. I also definitely wasn't expecting was to be sitting in a lab, having a small chunk of my hair cut off and put under a microscope. But there I was, agreeing to say goodbye to a few hundred tiny strands in the name of figuring out what my hair health actually was. I said yes because it was impossible to tell the hair was missing, but also (mostly) because I was curious.
As someone who uses the bare minimum of products and heat on their hair but still gets it colored often and washes it every day, would it be healthy or totally damaged? After years of hearing conflicting narratives from experts, I figured some science would tell me the truth. It was like 23 And Me for hair; I knew that whatever I found out wasn't exactly going to change my life, but I still wanted to know.
My hair was then photographed with a Sensofar 3D Optical profiler, which helps the "team" (aka scientists) observe fine details in the structural features of the hair follicle's surface. This is ultimately how the exact "hair fiber surface chemistry and physics" is measured and how the precise levels of damage are determined. Things that show up on the imaging are structural changes to the hair cuticle caused by things like combing, bleaching, color, and heat.
The people at Unilever's research facility explained to me that a healthy cuticle would have smooth scales with defined edges, meaning that heavy conditioners and treatments aren't really needed — that whatever your doing is working more or less. A heavily damaged piece of hair would have a cuticle with irregular edges. A stripped or torn cuticle is the worst case scenario, and would mean that the highest level of care should be taken with your hair.
When the final image was presented me, I was excited and then... immediately asked what exactly I was looking at. Turns out my hair was doing pretty darn OK. The tips of my hair strands (which, by the way, the experts at the lab estimated to be about four years old based on the length — weird, I know) were a little more damaged due to coloring, which you can see below with the textured/uneven parts of the cuticle.
This part is easier to understand when you can compare it to the less damaged, healthier root (photograph below), where you can see there is less texture along the cuticle. Also, those circles along the root that look like little drops are, according to the experts, probably droplets of conditioner that didn't get fully removed.
After going over my results, I was strangely proud of myself that my hair was actually pretty healthy, and on a practical level it was helpful to know that I was probably not washing out all of my conditioner when I showered. I was pleased. "Everyone should magnify their hair," I thought. Suddenly I felt a little less self-conscious about my low-maintenance hair routine. "Doing nothing was worth it!" I told myself. I thought having an excuse of, "Well, it's healthier this way!" to explain why I did nothing to my hair would make me feel better about my hair not looking a certain way every day. In reality, though, my non-routine routine doesn't exist because I was trying to achieve optimum hair health, but because my hair simply feels better this way. I'm more comfortable and confident doing nothing to it every day than doing something to it. Shouldn't that be the only thing that matters?
The beauty world is notorious for throwing a million different routines and treatments in your face and telling you that they are all correct. What most of them have in common is that they're telling you that if you follow them your hair will look a certain way — and that's what's most important. No one is talking about how your hair feels, or how you feel about your hair. Even though it was nice to learn that my hair was fairly healthy, it ultimately reminded me that I shouldn't need confirmation that my hair is strong and healthy to make me feel better about how I did (or didn't) style my hair every day. I liked my routine, and that was enough.
And this isn't to say a non-heat, zero effort hair styling regimen like mine is the only way to have healthy hair. Hair can feel good with any level of damage, but none of that matters as much as feeling confident and comfortable in your own routines, or finding products and regimens that make you feel your best.
Looking at a tiny strand of my hair under a microscope was cool, and, sure, I'll be a little lighter on the conditioner from here on out. Overall, though, what the experience really taught me is that I've found an everyday routine that works for me, and that sometimes that's all you need to know.