What Is Hair and How Does It Function?

Hair, that long, luscious and voluminous strand of keratinized cell protein, is one of the most distinctive features on our bodies. It helps us identify ourselves, communicate our emotions and even protect our internal organs. But aside from its display value, what is hair and how does it function?

Located on the head and body, hair is actually a keratinous filament that extends from a follicle in the skin. The follicle, which is attached to an oil gland called a sebaceous (sih-BAH-shiss) gland, gets nutrients from blood vessels that run underneath the epidermis. The hair shaft, a structure of tightly packed keratin cells, is pushed up through the follicle by hair papilla cells. The keratin cells then harden, a process known as keratinization (kair-AT-in-ih-ZAY-shen). When a strand is pulled up through the scalp, it is stretched, which gives it its shape, and the protein coat becomes thicker. The cellular structures that make up the strand are also elongated, forming a helical coil. This gives the hair its strength and color.

In many mammals, hair provides thermal regulation, camouflage and serves as a form of communication by giving off warning signals such as those displayed by polar bears. It can also serve as a form of protection by covering the body with an extra layer of warmth.

Humans use their hair as a way of showing their mood, indicating their emotional state, and expressing themselves through fashion and grooming. People have a tendency to touch their hair when they feel nervous or anxious. They may even compulsively twist, pull and comb it to control their feelings. Hair is also an important social cue, displaying sexual preference and social status.

The color and texture of hair can give an indication of a person’s personality, as well as their ethnic origin. There are also a number of stereotypes related to hair, such as bleached blondes being dumb or gullible and sexy redheads being seductive. However, most of these are unfounded and rooted in biases, particularly those related to gender, worldview and socioeconomic status.

Whether your character’s hair is a little wild and free or perfectly styled, describing it effectively can help you reveal a lot about them. Here are some tips for describing the texture, length and color of your character’s hair.