What Is A Hair Cuticle? Let's Ask Dr. Joe Cincotta

dr joe cincottaEver wondered what gives your hair its strength, shine, and texture? The answer lies in a microscopic, yet mighty part of your hair strand: the cuticle.

Alongside Dr. Joe Cincotta (PhD in Organic Chemistry), who is our resident hair expert here at Color Wow, let's explore its vital role in your hair's appearance and how you can keep it in tip-top shape for lustrous locks.

What is the hair cuticle?  

hair cuticleThe hair cuticle is the outermost surface layer of the hair strand. It’s comprised of over-lapping layers of dead cells that form a protective barrier, in the same way that roofing shingles form a protective cover and barrier on a house.

The cuticle layer plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and appearance of the hair.  

What is the hair cortex?  

hair cortexUnderneath hair’s outer cuticle layer you’ll find the middle layer, known as the cortex. The cortex makes up the bulk of your hair mass. It’s the cortex that gives hair strength and defines whether your hair is fine, normal or thick. 

The cortex is also home to the pigments (colors) that determine your hair shade, whether natural or artificial coloring from chemical dye molecules.

The cortex consists of long keratin (protein) filaments, which are linked together by disulphide and hydrogen bonds. The integrity and elasticity of these bonds is what determines how strong, resilient and supple your hair is. 

What is the hair medulla?

hair medullaThe medulla is hair’s innermost section, typically found only in very thick hair types. It’s made up of soft, thin transparent cells and air spaces.



What does a healthy cuticle look like?

healthy hair cuticle

A healthy cuticle is smooth and flat, so it creates a unified, reflective surface (this is what gives your hair the quality of shine!). When the cuticle layer is flat and tight, it acts as a barrier to stop critical inner moisture from leaching out AND to stop excess moisture (humidity!) from entering the strand and making it puffy. A closed, smooth cuticle is the key to keeping your hair properly hydrated, promoting strength and flexibility, and preventing frizz.

What does a damaged cuticle look like?

damaged hair cuticle

A damaged cuticle layer looks rough, ragged and uneven. When the cuticle layer is raised, individual hair strands can’t fall in smooth, sleek, flat alignment.

The overall effect of a raised cuticle layer is dry, dehydrated hair that looks dull, puffy and frizzy. 


Can you open/close a hair cuticle?

The cuticle can be opened by heat styling, chemical treatments (perms, hair color, bleach, hair straighteners) aggressive brushing or styling (tight braids or weaves, use of tight elastics) or environmental stressors like UV rays which can lead to dry, frizzy, and unmanageable hair. Even showering with very hot, steamy water can force open hair’s outer cuticle layer. 

An open-cuticle is the first sign of damage....and could lead to more serious hair problems like dehydration and breakage.

Once the cuticle layer is lifted by any of the factors mentioned above, it never closes permanently. But there are several types of hair products and new cuticle-smoothing treatments and appliances that can dramatically smooth, seal and hold the cuticle closed and flat for an extended time.

What is hair porosity? 

Porosity is your hair’s natural propensity to attract, draw in and hold moisture. Your hair’s porosity level and how moisture is retained or lost is regulated by how open or closed the cuticle layer is. Visit our ultimate guide to hair porosity to find out more about it.

high porosity hair cuticleHigh porosity: what does it mean to have high porosity hair?

If you have high porosity hair, the cuticle is raised and natural healthy hydration leaches out easily. As a result, high porosity hair is invariably dry and dehydrated. When this hair type gets wet, water goes into the hair but also evaporates and disappears as the hair dries, leaving the hair parched and in need of supplemental moisture.

For healthier hair quality (hair that’s supple, elastic, glossy) and in order to get the best styling result, this hair type usually requires you to use products with moisturizing ingredients. To find out more about high porosity characteristics and care tips, take a look at our guide.

low porosity hair cuticleLow porosity: what does it mean to have low porosity hair? 

If you have low porosity hair, the cuticle layer is closed down tightly and moisture has a hard time getting into your strands. But once it’s in, the moisture can be retained. This hair type takes longer to get wet, but also takes longer to air dry. Overall, low porosity hair tends to have a balanced level of hydration because the cuticle layer holds in moisture.

It is rarely frizzy, because the closed cuticle layer stops humidity from entering the strand.

The biggest problem with low porosity hair is product build up, because formulas containing moisturizers with large molecules sit on the surface of strands, rather than penetrating and entering the cortex. Everything you need to know about this hair type can be found in our comprehensive guide to low porosity hair

How to know if my hair is healthy

If you’re wondering “do I have a damaged hair cuticle?” we’ve got are some simple tests to figure out if you need some cuticle-smoothing intervention ASAP! 

Give your hair a quick, at-home check up with these four simple tests to work out if your hair is healthy

How can I protect my hair cuticle?

The right products, the right habits and some TLC can make a world of difference to the condition of your hair cuticle.

And while the goal is to smooth and flatten the cuticle layer of your hair, you want to avoid using heavy formulas that weigh hair down, or pool up on the surface and leave your hair greasy. 

Fortunately there are totally new hair technologies....many developed by Color Wow’s chief chemist, Dr. Joe Cincotta that can dramatically smooth the cuticle layer and give you the look of super glossy, healthy, frizz-free hair, but look and feel totally natural.

Dr Joe’s top tips for a damaged cuticle

  • Lower heat-styling appliance temperatures to avoid drying + frying cuticle
  • Always use styling products with heat protectant built in 
  • Do not use harsh chelating shampoos
  • Avoid super hot showers 
  • Use wide tooth combs and detangling brushes for less mechanical stress
  • Cut back on chemical treatment frequency (color and/or hair straightening)
  • Limit hair stressing and pulling styles: tight weaves, braids, ponytails + updo’s
  • Use styling products that block UV rays
  • Keep the cuticle smooth with products that help “glue” it down and keep it tight

    From damaged cuticle to sleek and shiny hair: products we recommend

    All Color Wow formulas support an optimally healthy, smooth cuticle. We have even devised the first volumizing formula that does not raise the cuticle and dry out the hair!

    Some are super-heroes when it comes to clamping the cuticle and enhancing the healthy, frizz-free look and feel of hair:

    • Money Masque – Powerful marine actives deliver deep hydration and help smooth the cuticle
    • Dream Cocktail Kale-Infused – Leave-in strengthening treatment is clinically-proven to reduce breakage by 50% in a single blow dry
    • Dream Cocktail Coconut-Infused – Leave-in hydrating treatment transforms frizzy, frazzled hair to silk in a single blow dry
    • Dream Coat Supernatural Spray – Advanced anti-frizz technology forms a imperceptible, water-resistant matrix over each strand to smooth the cuticle closed for glassy, frizz-free hair
    • Extra Strength Dream Coat – In addition to its advanced anti-frizz tech, this extra strength formula has more moisture + stronger anti-frizz resistance for lasting glass hair styles
    • Dream Coat for Curly Hair – One-and-done curl styler moisturizes, defines and glosses
    • One-Minute Transformation Styling Cream – Packed with ultra-nourishing Avocado Oil + Omega 3s to instantly silken and depuff frizz 
    • Pop + Lock High Gloss Finish – Non-greasy glosser moisturizes plus seals the cuticle closed for an ultra-shiny, smooth finish
    • Xtra Large Bombshell Volumizer – The first thickening formula that doesn’t blowout the cuticle in order to create volume. Instead, it sits weightlessly on hair’s surface, while keeping the cuticle tight and closed
    • Extra Mist-ical Shine Spray – Non-greasy, lightly moisturizing mist “melts” into hair for instantly glossy, healthier-looking results
    • Curl Wow Line – Formulated with new micro-dispersion technology to better moisturize, defrizz and define curls without feeling heavy, greasy or crunchy.



    Dr. Cincotta holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the City University of New York, and is currently VP of Research + Development at Color Wow.

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