The Science Behind Beach Hair

To demonstrate how adding more salt to your hair beefs up its side bonds, I went to the beach. (Also, I explain what side bonds are.)
Publish date:
August 30, 2013
science, beachy waves, How-To, DIY, beach hair, salt sprays, ph

The novelty of taking a train ride to a beach will never wear off to me. This is one of the reasons (besides my fly bootay) that I am thrilled to be a pedestrian in New York City. Deciding to take a field trip to the beach just to create "beach hair" is as simple as a swipe and a 37-minute express train.

There are many beaches within walking distance of NYC’s 24-hour transit system, but for me, Brighton Beach is my new favorite. Also known as Little Odessa, nearly every sign is in Russian, and there is no good pizza. (Sounds a lot like Chinatown, where I live.) But I will surely take a quick hop over to Brighton when I need some vitamin D and don’t have 150 minutes to spend getting to and from the Rockaways. That’s also six trains. I have a boyfriend--I don’t need to see the "hot hipster nouveau surfers."

Back to the matter at hand: hair!

Hair is comprised of a cuticle, the outermost portion, cortex, the inner portion where hair color lives, and in some strands, the medulla, the innermost portion of only thick and coarse hair.

The cuticle is a transparent layer of cells arranged like shingles on a roof from root to tip. Keeping this layer smooth is the first step in combating frizz and tangles. Some tangles form when cells of the cuticle layer are "roughed up" like the effect of teasing, and hairs become stuck together like microscopic velcro.

Amino acid chains form the cortex of the hair, much like a drawing of DNA, they are two coiled columns held together by hydrogen and salt bonds, or side bonds. These physical bonds are easily changed to create a style. (There are also disulfide bonds, but they do not pertain to hairstyling, only to chemical services, so I am saving that one for later.)

Salt and hydrogen bonds represent two-thirds of the hair’s overall strength, and they are responsible for curl pattern and style. Side bonds like these harden as hair is dried or cooled, and a style is born!

One of the reasons why a salon blowout lasts so long is because the stylist literally sculpts the hair into style as it is being dried; this is one of the longest-lasting heat styles you can get. Side bonds are also important to wet styling, especially "scrunching" and using things like sea salt spray.

To demonstrate how adding more salt to the hair beefs up the side bonds in your hair, I went to the beach!

The rule of thumb to create lasting style is that hair must be sculpted while wet, and fully dried in the position of the desired style, where all bonds harden and dry while hair takes on the shape you want.

With "beach hair," I used twisted sections saturated with real ocean water, let them dry, and was left with beautiful, subtle, matte waves. I almost always touch up sections with my curling wand if I need a little more polish. I also scrunch in my finishing product--in this case olive oil--to try not to separate the curls.

Since the hair is wet with ocean water, more hydrogen and more salt are floating around under your hair cuticle. As the hair dries, the extra salt reaches the cuticle layer, forming more microscopic fibers between cells, and curls or coils form much easier. The difference in pH is also what lends longevity to your style.

Hydrogen bonds are weak physical bonds that are broken by water and heat. This is how curling irons and flat irons work, and this is also why blow drying works so well. Roller sets (the little old lady kind) are also a stellar example of how any hair can have a super-tight coil if it is completely dried and cooled on a curler. These are the bonds of everyday styling.

Salt bonds are also weak physical bonds, but not quite as easily broken as hydrogen. After all, hydrogen is a single atom, and salt is NaCl or sodium chloride--two atoms! These bonds are broken by changes in pH.

The pH of hair and skin is around 5. This is fairly acidic. For example, water is about 7, hair color is about 9, and household ammonia is 11. Overly acidic or alkaline substances open up the hair cuticle, allowing changes in the salt bonds present in the cortex.

This is how sea salt spray enters the hair and creates temporary extra "strength" for your hairstyle. The salt bonds reform when the pH of your hair lowers back to a nice dry 5 after being a big ol’ wet 7 full of water and fish poo.

It is important to note that salt sprays and ocean sprays can dry your hair out if you don’t add a buffer. I always use a serum or oil before any salt exposure. The combination of greasy-salty is as good as a bag of potato chips. And don’t try bringing ocean water home with you in a spray bottle; I promise you it will spoil in, like, two hours and smell like sushi catering company on my block’s garbage. YUCK, DO NOT WANT.

If you don’t want to buy a spray but don’t have acess to a $5 dollar round-trip free beach with more thongs than Miami and more Eastern Europeans than Odessa (RIP!) in the East Village, make your own spray!

I use two pints of water, (four cups peopleeeee) four tablespoons of epsom salt, one tablespoon of your emollient of choice (I use coconut oil, argan oil, and olive oil--I have heard of people even using conditioner, but meh). Shake well and distribute evenly over towel-dried hair for a faux beach day instantly.