10.5 Hair

Created by CK-12 Foundation/Adapted by Christine Miller

10.5.1 Fancy hair
Figure 10.5.1 Hair envy.

Fashion Statement

This colourful hairstyle makes quite a fashion statement. Many people spend a lot of time and money on their hair, even if they don’t have an exceptional hairstyle like this one. Besides its display value, hair actually has important physiological functions.

What is Hair?

 is a filament that grows from a  in the  of the skin. It consists mainly of tightly packed, keratin-filled cells called . The human body is covered with hair follicles, with the exception of a few areas, including the mucous membranes, lips, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet.

Structure of Hair

The part of the hair located within the follicle is called the . The root is the only living part of the hair. The part of the hair that is visible above the surface of the skin is the hair shaft. The shaft of the hair has no biochemical activity and is considered dead.

Follicle and Root

Hair growth begins inside a follicle (see Figure 10.5.2 below). Each hair follicle contains stem cells that can keep dividing, which allows hair to grow. The stem cells can also regrow a new hair after one falls out. Another structure associated with a hair follicle is a sebaceous gland that produces oily sebum. The sebum lubricates and helps to waterproof the hair. A tiny arrector pili muscle is also attached to the follicle. When it contracts, the follicle moves, and the hair in the follicle stands up.

10.5 Hair Follicle
Figure 10.5.2 A hair follicle has a sebaceous gland and an arrector pili muscle.



The  is a hard filament that may grow very long. Hair normally grows in length by about half an inch a month. In cross-section, a hair shaft can be divided into three zones, called the cuticle, cortex, and medulla.

  • The  (or outer coat) is the outermost zone of the hair shaft. It consists of several layers of flat, thin keratinocytes that overlap one another like shingles on a roof. This arrangement helps the cuticle repel water. The cuticle is also covered with a layer of lipids, just one molecule thick, which increases its ability to repel water. This is the zone of the hair shaft that is visible to the eye.
  • The  is the middle zone of the hair shaft, and it is also the widest part. The cortex is highly structured and organized, consisting of keratin bundles in rod-like structures. These structures give hair its mechanical strength. The cortex also contains melanin, which gives hair its colour.
  • The  is the innermost zone of the hair shaft. This is a small, disorganized, and more open area at the center of the hair shaft. The medulla is not always present. When it is present, it contains highly pigmented cells full of keratin.

Characteristics of Hair

Two visible characteristics of hair are its colour and texture. In adult males, the extent of balding is another visible characteristic. All three characteristics are genetically controlled.

Hair Colour

All natural hair colours are the result of , which is produced in hair follicles and packed into granules in the hair. Two forms of melanin are found in human hair: eumelanin and pheomelanin.  is the dominant pigment in brown hair and black hair, and  is the dominant pigment in red hair. Blond hair results when you have only a small amount of melanin in the hair. Gray and white hair occur when melanin production slows down, and eventually stops.

Figure 10.5.3 Variation in hair colouration. Which types of melanin are present for each hair colour shown?

Hair Texture

Hair exists in a variety of textures. The main aspects of hair texture are the curl pattern, thickness, and consistency.

  • The shape of the determines the shape of the hair shaft. The shape of the , in turn, determines the curl pattern of the hair. Round hair shafts produce straight hair. Hair shafts that are oval or have other shapes produce wavy or curly hair .
  • The size of the hair follicle determines the thickness of hair. Thicker hair has greater volume than thinner hair.
  • The consistency of hair is determined by the hair follicle volume and the condition of the hair shaft. The consistency of hair is generally classified as fine, medium, or coarse. Fine hair has the smallest circumference, and coarse hair has the largest circumference. Medium hair falls in between these two extremes. Coarse hair also has a more open cuticle than thin or medium hair does, which causes it to be more porous.
    10.5 Hair Texture
    Figure 10.5.4 Curly hair has a differently shaped shaft than straight hair.

Functions of Hair

In humans, one function of head hair is to provide insulation and help the head retain heat. Head hair also protects the skin on the head from damage by .

The function of hair in other locations on the body is debated. One idea is that body hair helps keep us warm in cold weather. When the body is too cold, muscles contract and cause hairs to stand up (shown in Figure 10.5.5), trapping a layer of warm air above the epidermis. However, this is more effective in mammals that have thick hair or fur than it is in relatively hairless human beings.

10.5 Arrector Pili
Figure 10.5.5 Arrector pili muscles will make hairs stand erect, more commonly recognized as goose bumps.  (1) Epidermis (2) Arrector pili muscle (3) Hair follicle (4) Dermis

Human hair has an important sensory function, as well. Sensory receptors in the hair follicles can sense when the hair moves, whether it moves because of a breeze, or because of the touch of a physical object. The receptors may also provide sensory awareness of the presence of parasites on the skin.

10.5 Eyebrows and Emotions
Figure 10.5.6 This young child is using her eyebrows to good effect to convey her displeasure.


Some hairs, such as the , are especially sensitive to the presence of potentially harmful matter. The eyelashes grow at the edge of the eyelid and can sense when dirt, dust, or another potentially harmful object is too close to the eye. The eye reflexively closes as a result of this sensation. The also provide some protection to the eyes. They protect the eyes from dirt, sweat, and rain. In addition, the eyebrows play a key role in nonverbal communication (see Figure 10.5.6). They help express emotions such as sadness, anger, surprise, and excitement.

Hair in Human Evolution

Among mammals, humans are nearly unique in having undergone significant loss of body hair during their evolution. Humans are also unlike most other mammals in having curly hair as one variation in hair texture. Even non-human primates (see Figure 10.5.7) all have straight hair. This suggests that curly hair evolved at some point during human evolution.

10.5 Straight hair in non-human primates
Figure 10.5.7 Like other non-human primates, this tamarin monkey has straight hair.

Loss of Body Hair

One  for the loss of body hair in the human lineage is that it would have facilitated cooling of the body by the evaporation of sweat. Humans also evolved far more  than other mammals, which is consistent with this hypothesis, because sweat evaporates more quickly from less hairy skin. Another hypothesis for human hair loss is that it would have led to fewer parasites on the skin. This might have been especially important when humans started living together in larger, more crowded social groups.

These hypotheses may explain why we lost body hair, but they can’t explain why we didn’t also lose head hair and hair in the pubic region and armpits. It is possible that head hair was retained because it protected the scalp from . As our bipedal ancestors walked on the open savannas of equatorial Africa, the skin on the head would have been an area exposed to the most direct rays of sunlight in an upright hominid. Pubic and armpit hair may have been retained because they served as signs of sexual maturity, which would have been important for successful mating and reproduction.

Evolution of Curly Hair

Greater protection from UV light has also been posited as a possible selective agent favoring the evolution of curly hair. Researchers have found that straight hair allows more light to pass into the body through the hair shaft via the follicle than does curly hair. In this way, human hair is like a fibre optic cable. It allows light to pass through easily when it is straight, but it impedes the passage of light when it is kinked or coiled. This is indirect evidence that UV light may have been a selective agent leading to the evolution of curly hair.

Social and Cultural Significance of Hair

Hair has great social significance for human beings. Body hair is an indicator of biological sex, because hair distribution is . Adult males are generally hairier than adult females, and facial hair in particular is a notable secondary male sex characteristic. Hair may also be an indicator of age. White hair is a sign of older age in both males and females, and male pattern baldness is a sign of older age in males. In addition, hair colour and texture can be a sign of ethnic ancestry.

Hair also has great cultural significance. Hairstyle and colour may be an indicator of social group membership and for better or worse can be associated with specific stereotypes. Head shaving has been used in many times and places as a punishment, especially for women. On the other hand, in some cultures, cutting off one’s hair symbolizes liberation from one’s past. In other cultures, it is a sign of mourning. There are also many religious-based practices involving hair. For example, the majority of Muslim women hide their hair with a headscarf. Sikh men grow their hair long and cover it with a turban. Amish men (like the one pictured in Figure 10.5.8) grow facial hair only after they marry — but just a beard, and not a mustache.

Figure 10.5.8 This style of facial hair is adopted by most Amish men after they marry.

Unfortunately, sometimes hairstyle, colour and characteristics are used to apply stereotypes, particularly with respect to women.  “Blonde jokes” are a good example of how negative stereotypes are maintained despite having no actual truth behind them.  Many stereotypes related to hair are hidden, even from persons perpetrating the stereotype.  Often a hairstyle is judged by another as having ties to gender, sexuality, worldview and/or socioeconomic status; even when these inferences are woefully inaccurate.  It is important to be aware of our own biases and determine if these biases are appropriate – take a look at the collage in Figure 10.5.9.  What are your initial reactions?  Are these reactions founded in fact?  Do you harbor an unfair bias?

Figure 10.5.9 What are your biases?  Are they fair?


10.5 Summary

  • Hair is a filament that grows from a in the  of the skin. It consists mainly of tightly packed, keratin-filled cells called . The human body is almost completely covered with hair follicles.
  • The part of a hair that is within the follicle is the . This is the only living part of a hair. The part of a hair that is visible above the skin surface is the . It consists of dead cells.
  • Hair growth begins inside a follicle when stem cells within the follicle divide to produce new keratinocytes. An individual hair may grow to be very long.
  • A hair shaft has three zones: the outermost zone called the ; the middle zone called the ; and the innermost zone called the .
  • Genetically controlled, visible characteristics of hair include hair colour, hair texture, and the extent of balding in adult males. ( and/or ) is the pigment that gives hair its colour. Aspects of hair texture include curl pattern, thickness, and consistency.
  • Functions of head hair include providing insulation and protecting skin on the head from . Hair everywhere on the body has an important sensory function. Hair in  and  protects the eyes from dust, dirt, sweat, and other potentially harmful substances. The eyebrows also play a role in nonverbal communication.
  • Among mammals, humans are nearly unique in having undergone significant loss of body hair during their evolution, probably because sweat evaporates more quickly from less hairy skin. Curly hair also is thought to have evolved at some point during human evolution, perhaps because it provided better protection from UV light.
  • Hair has social significance for human beings, because it is an indicator of biological sex, age, and ethnic ancestry. Human hair also has cultural significance. Hairstyle may be an indicator of social group membership, for example.

10.5 Review Questions

    1. Compare and contrast the hair root and hair shaft.
    2. Describe hair follicles.
    3. Explain variation in human hair colour.
    4. What factors determine the texture of hair?
    5. Describe two functions of human hair.
    6. What hypotheses have been proposed for the loss of body hair during human evolution?
    7. Discuss the social and cultural significance of human hair.
    8. Describe one way in which hair can be used as a method of communication in humans.
    9. Explain why waxing or tweezing body hair, which typically removes hair down to the root, generally keeps the skin hair-free for a longer period of time than shaving, which cuts hair off at the surface of the skin.

10.5 Explore More

Why do some people go bald? – Sarthak Sinha, TED-Ed, 2015.

Hair Love | Oscar®-Winning Short Film (Full) | Sony Pictures Animation, 2019.

Why do we care about hair | Naomi Abigail | TEDxBaDinh, TEDx Talks, 2015.


Figure 10.5.1

Hair by jessica-dabrowski-TETR8YLSqt4 [photo] by Jessica Dabrowski on Unsplash is used under the Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license).

Figure 10.5.2

Blausen_0438_HairFollicleAnatomy_02 by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license.

Figure 10.5.3

Figure 10.5.4

Curly hair by chris-benson-clvEami9RN4 [photo] by Chris Benson on Unsplash is used under the Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license).

Figure 10.5.5

1024px-PilioerectionAnimation by AnthonyCaccese on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en) license.

Figure 10.5.6

Pout by alexander-dummer-Em8I8Z_DwA4 [photo] by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash is used under the Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license).

Figure 10.5.7

Cotton_top_tamarin_monkey._(12046035746) by Bernard Spragg. NZ, from Christchurch, New Zealand on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC0 1.0 Universal
Public Domain Dedication license (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en).

Figure 10.5.8

Amish hairstyle by CK-12 Foundation is used under a CC BY-NC 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/) license.
©CK-12 Foundation Licensed under CK-12 Foundation is licensed under Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) • Terms of Use • Attribution
Figure 10.5.9


Blausen.com staff. (2014). Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436.

Brainard, J/ CK-12 Foundation. (2016). Figure 7 This style of facial hair is adopted by most Amish men after they marry [digital image]. In CK-12 College Human Biology (Section 12.5) [online Flexbook]. CK12.org. https://www.ck12.org/book/ck-12-college-human-biology/section/12.5/

Sony Pictures Animation. (2019, December 5). Hair love | Oscar®-winning short film (Full) | Sony Pictures Animation. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNw8V_Fkw28

TED-Ed. (2015, August 25). Why do some people go bald? – Sarthak Sinha. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8diYLhl8bWU

TEDx Talks. (2015, February 4). Why do we care about hair | Naomi Abigail | TEDxBaDinh. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDW5e3NR1Cw


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Human Biology Copyright © 2020 by Christine Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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