Find out how to get the sweetest qualities out of honey

If you peruse the CurlTalk discussions, you'll see honey mentioned on numerous threads.

This should come as no surprise, given honey's long history as a health and beauty ingredient.

The use of honey has been documented throughout human history, with mention found as far back as in various Sumerian tablets. The practice of cultivating bees for the purpose of harvesting their honey was an integral part of ancient Egyptian culture. Honey was widely used in Egypt and Babylon as a hair and skin treatment, in cosmetic mixtures, for medicinal purposes, and as a bath component. Through trading, honey gradually found its way into the lives of humans all around the globe.

Honey as a hair conditioner

Honey has long been used in the cosmetics industry.

During the post World War II era, many natural ingredients typically were replaced by lab-synthesized chemicals, which were touted as being superior to nature and were valued for being “modern.” Recently natural ingredients are experiencing a renaissance. This has driven the cosmetic industry toward the development and marketing of products containing natural ingredients such as honey.

There are many hair and skin-care products being marketed that highlight the inclusion of honey. There are also many recommendations for the use of honey in recipes for home conditioning treatments and rinses for curly hair.

So what’s the real story on honey? What sorts of things should one be aware of when using honey in a hair-care routine?


Chemical Composition of Honey

Honey is composed of a number of ingredients, including such simple sugars as fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Depending upon the source of the honey, there are also trace amounts of various minerals, vitamins, proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients. These small ingredients can provide benefits to the hair.

The water content of honey is quite low, usually between 15-20%, with the remaining 80-85% being mostly a fructose/glucose mixture.

So What Does it Do ?

The sugar molecules that make up the majority of the composition of honey contain several hydroxyl (-OH groups), which are extremely hydrophilic and attract water to them from the environment. For this reason, the primary function honey performs when used on hair is to act as a humectant (attracting and binding water to the hair). This can be beneficial for some types of hair in some climates. Many users report that their hair feels much softer after using a conditioning treatment containing honey. However, as discussed in previous articles, there can also be drawbacks to using a lot of humectants on curly hair. That's why it is a good idea to be aware of potential complications that can arise from the use of humectants in certain conditions.

Honey, by itself or used as rinse in an aqueous or vinegar solution, is not sufficient to provide the necessary conditioning properties to curly hair. One of the requirements of a good conditioner is that it smooths the hair surface by flattening the cuticles and filling in bumpy or rough spots. Another requirement is that it provides good lubrication so that adjacent hairs may slide across one another or through a comb without getting tangled, snagged or broken.

Honey, as a solution of sugar molecules, is not capable of providing these properties. Instead it is sticky and bumpy, which can actually increase surface roughness and make hair more prone to tangling or breakage. It is likely that these sticky properties are what attract adjacent hairs together and create improved curl-clumping effects for some users. As the sugar molecules re-crystallize on the hair when it dries, they form a glassy film, which is what can lead to a feeling of stiffness or "crunchiness" to the hair.

One way to obtain the beneficial properties of honey at home is to combine honey with other oils, or to add just a small amount of it to your existing conditioner. Of course, you can also always look for a pre-manufactured product containing honey in its ingredients list.


Hair Lightening?

Many cite the use of honey as a bleaching agent. In a quick review of the chemical composition of honey, this property can seem a bit baffling. However, when exposed to water, small amounts of peroxides are formed with some of the components of honey. These peroxides are responsible for the highlighting and lightening capabilities of honey. As with any other bleaching process, this is indicative of damage being done to the hair, and should be done infrequently and in conjunction with a protein-replacing conditioning routine.


Take-away Message?

Many consumers are really enjoying the results they obtain from using products that contain honey or from using honey mixed with things they can find in their home. I know I notice a positive difference when I use it occasionally on my hair, in conjunction with a good quality conditioner. The main element to keep in mind is that it should not be used as an exclusive replacement for other conditioning products or ingredients. Enjoy using it sparingly, and as a part of a routine that includes some excellent moisturizing products.


Email your questions to Tonya.