Hair heritage: what your locks say about your genes

Have you ever wondered why your hair is the way it is? Its colour, thickness, the amount of it, the fact it's straight, wavy, or curly? The answer goes beyond what you got from your mum and dad, it goes back generations, in fact it goes all the way back to the dawn of man.

Warning: this is not a history lesson, but an article that will change the way you view your hair forever. Because knowing and understanding your hair’s heritage can radically alter your perception of what your hair needs and ultimately empower you to become a much more savvy shopper.

Who knows best

Connecting hair and heritage may be a new concept for British high street hairdressers, but it’s not at Lush, thanks to co-founder and CEO Mark Constantine, who brings his expertise as a trichologist to the company. In his experience, the level of haircare service and know-how declines dramatically in areas with a more diverse range of hair ‘types’, such as the UK.

Mark explains: "If you go and work in the Italian shops, on the whole everybody has very similar hair and they all know their hair really well. So when I went and worked in Milan, the juniorest of junior was better at advising on that hair type than I was because they knew it so well. You could have a conversation with someone who had exactly the same hair as you and so it was very easy to believe they knew what they were talking about.

“In Japan, even more so. There they really understand their own hair and what to do with it. What they have in common is they all believe in root health and I got the idea for Roots in discussing scalp health with them. So it’s very true that if you’re in a group where everyone shares the same ancestry; knowledge of that particular hair is much stronger. In Britain, it’s just chaos. I mean if you’ve got a ‘British’ hair type it would probably be Scottish ginger hair. But even that’s not ‘English’.

"[My daughter] Claire goes to a Japanese hairdresser in London because they understand straight, fine hair. So she does it in reverse. Do hairdressers understand the link between heritage and hair types? No. Do clients? No. Should they? Well, Claire has been quite clever in understanding that.”

So how do you unlock the secrets of your own locks? Combine a little knowledge of your family tree with the information that follows, and you’ll be equipped to understand every curl, kink and quirk of your hair - and exactly how to treat it.

In the beginning…

So let’s go back, all the way back, right to the start. We’re talking between 5 and 7 million years ago, when most evolutionary biologists agree the human species arose out of East Africa. From knuckle-dragging cave dwellers to ‘wise men’ homo sapiens, humans not only straightened up and developed a greater intellect, but their bodies also evolved (over very long periods of time) to eventually suit their environmental conditions. Cosmetic scientist and Lush product inventor Daniel Campbell explains: “Human life began in Africa. As humans migrated to different parts of the world, the environmental pressures changed us and the way we look; that’s the way evolution works. The genes that are best suited to the environment are the genes most likely to be passed on. It’s basic Darwinism, so it’s not the survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the most well-suited to that environment."

From curls to waves to straight

As humans evolved in Africa we shed the hair that covered most of our skin, leaving the majority to protect the top of our heads, and in the process our brains, from the blistering sunshine. Over a long period of time, our straight animal-like hair altered to textured tight coils as the hair follicle became oval shaped. There are many reasons why this is thought to have happened. First of all, curly hair is better at stopping UV light reaching the body and is therefore more protective. It responds better to sweat and moisture, quickly bouncing back to its original form, and its sparse density and airy, spongy texture helps increase the circulation of cool air on the scalp to prevent overheating.

“As humans migrated away from the equator and settled in places like North Africa, we see a loosening of the curl,” Daniel continues. “The hair is still thick but the curl is a lot looser and softer.”

As humans moved even further north, the hair lost its waviness and eventually became straight. It’s believed straighter hair better facilitates UV light entering the body which was essential for producing vitamin D in countries which lacked the same level of sunlight, enjoyed by their African ancestors. Caucasian hair, or European hair as it is also referred to as, is much finer, meaning it falls downwards, covering the ears and neck, perfect for trapping and retaining heat in colder climates.

Today, the hair industry tends to split hair types into three very broad classifications based on race: Afro, Caucasian and Asian. “Asian hair has elements of Northern African hair, where it’s dark, thick and there is a lot of it” says Daniel. "But it's also straight or a bit wavy like Southern European hair and the reason for that is because in order to get to Asia, humans had to migrate up to Europe to come back down again, so Asian hair carries traits of de-pigmentation then re-pigmentation.”

Going global

As millennia whiled away, humans continued to spread out all over the earth, Dan says the pattern of hair heritage can still be seen across the world today. “If you think about a globe with the lines across it, there is a commonality in the hair of the people where that line sits, because the environmental conditions are similar.” To name a few examples, the equator cuts through Indonesia, Northern Brazil, Ecuador, and Kenya. The Tropic of Cancer lies across Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and Southern China, whereas the Tropic of Capricorn penetrates Northern Australia, Chile, Southern Brazil and South Africa. “So it’s all sort of the same conditions, it's just the land masses are in different locations.”

Colour me intrigued

Our natural hair and skin colour is determined by the pigment melanin, and more importantly the amount of it. Scientists suggest that darker skin tones produce more melanin as it forms a stronger barrier against harmful UV rays, whereas lighter skin and hair has less melanin because it allows our body to more easily absorb sunlight and therefore produce vitamin D which is needed to keep bones strong and healthy. So where all human life started out in Africa, we needed protection from the sun on a daily basis, so our skin and hair was naturally dark, packed to the brim with protective melanin. But, as humans migrated north up through Europe, as ‘recently’ as 42,000 years ago, where the sun isn’t as strong, our skin and hair adapted, over many, many generations, to a level that balanced UV protection with the need for Vitamin D.

Scandinavia was the last area of Europe to be settled, after the last bit of ice had melted from the eponymous age, leaving the path clear for settlers just 11,700 years ago. As one of the places on earth to receive the least amount of sunlight, Scandinavians traditionally have the palest skin and lightest hair. “If we look at the classic hair type of North Africa and Southern Mediterranean, it’s obvious they are pretty similar,” Dan says. “Then as we move up from the Mediterranean into central Europe we start to see more traditional Anglo-Saxon hair types: lighter browns, reds and blondes start to emerge. Then as we move over from Britain, to countries like Denmark, the hair begins to lose its colour even more and becomes softer, flater, finer. Then as we go further and further up we lose more and more pigment from the hair to Scandinavia, where most of the people are blonde, and they’re blonde for a reason, they don’t need the pigment in order to protect their hair and skin.”

Seeing red

So a decreasing spectrum of pigmentation explains black, brown and blonde hair, but what about redheads? Well it turns out there are actually two types of melanin: the brownish, black of eumelanin, and the reddish yellow of pheomelanin. A lack or a low concentration of one will leave your hair colour a shade of the other. Red hair is the rarest of the hair colours and has the highest amount of pheomelanin, and very low levels of eumelanin, the varying quantities of which will decide whether a person is strawberry blonde, copper or red (least to most eumelanin).

Redheads are predominantly found in the Celtic nations of Ireland (10% of their population), and Scotland (5%), but the Volga region of Russia also celebrates a large concentration of gingers. Dan explains: “The way colour works is light comes in and depending on the chemical makeup of the thing the light wave hits, some light will be absorbed and the light that is reflected back gives you the colour. So you have different chemicals in your hair that reflect light at different wavelengths and that's why you get different colours. So as one type of protein is diminished you start to see different colours coming through, which gives you the blonde red of someone like Lily Cole, which is more Northern European, Scandinavian, whereas someone like Julianne Moore has more of a browner tone to her hair which is more Celtic.”

So where does that leave me?

“If you have diversity in your family, its really good to know because it will help you understand what your hair can and can’t do. We know about it because we formulate products based on it, but I don’t think the cosmetic industry does, because for the most part it tries to works around a standardised ‘one size fits all’ idea of what beautiful is. In order to be able to achieve what you want with your hair, having a knowledge of what it will respond to, will help you to achieve what you want to.”

Just like the old culinary manifesto of ‘what grows together, goes together’, Lush believes knowing your roots, can point you in the direction of which ingredients will be most effective on your hair. “I think that the answers always exist in nature,” Dan explains. “I’m a big believer in using ingredients in harmony with what you naturally have, so when I formulate and recommend products what I'm really interested in is using ingredients that are grown where those people come from in order to elicit the particular desired effects. I find it incredibly inspiring that people were able to develop and survive using what they had around them. Now, just as throughout history, people have wanted to look good, and they would have used whatever was around them to do that. The genetics that will have been passed on, will come from decisions based on attraction. So if these natural materials helped make our ancestor more ‘attractive’, why wouldn’t it work for us?

“Cut, colour and condition are the most important things to people when it comes to their hair. It can be helpful to know things like where you’re from or knowing what your hair says about your heritage, because it will help us suggest something that your hair will best respond to. Of course, the heart wants, what the heart wants, but when you embrace what’s natural about you, knowing what your heritage is, can be really important because it allows you to work with what you’ve got, rather than against it.”

Now you've brushed up on your hair knowledge, you can find the perfect tools for your tresses here.

By Natalie Denton

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