Magnesium sulfate, aka Epsom salt, is a useful curl activator with some harmful results.

Magnesium sulfate

Magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salts, is an inorganic compound that exists as a hydrated material, magnesium sulfate septahydrate (MgSO4• 7H2O). This salt is extremely hydrophilic and thus easily dissolved into an aqueous solution that can be spritzed onto the hair. It attracts and binds water molecules from its surroundings to itself.  When MgSO4 is applied topically to hair it does not affect the covalent disulfide bonds, but it does impact the physical crosslinks formed by hydrogen bonds. By increasing the number of hydrogen bonds, the Epsom salt tightens the curl pattern of the hair.

The mechanism by which magnesium sulfate achieves this curl activation consists of two steps.

  • First, the magnesium neutralizes the excess negative charges on the surface of the keratin and brings it to its ideal pH (also known as its isoelectric point).
  • Secondly, a dehydration mechanism via a salt-protein interaction increases the quantity of hydrogen bonds (physical crosslinks), which makes the hair curlier.  This second part is what is critical to understand.

Hair keratin protein incorporates water into its structure. This moisture gives it softness and pliability and is why we strive to maintain properly hydrated hair. However, in a highly hydrated environment, the formation of hydrogen bonds between adjacent cysteine amino acids is minimal. But, in the presence of the highly hygroscopic salt, MgSO4, the keratin protein becomes dehydrated. This dehydrated environment is what permits the formation of additional hydrogen bonds and the curl activating properties of magnesium sulfate. Thus, the very quality that permits magnesium sulfate to boost curl formation is also the one that generates the poor results in subsequent uses.

Magnesium sulfate also forms fairly large crystals, and these structures can roughen the surface of hair, yielding an unpleasant texture and tactile experience for some. They may increase tangling as well, if adjacent hair strands get caught on them. For this reason, it is advisable to use a good lubricative leave-in conditioner along with a magnesium sulfate. (Dare I say it? A silicone might work nicely and not interfere with the curl forming effects of the MgSO4).

Magnesium Oil

Some products are beginning to advertise that they use magnesium oil, rather than magnesium sulfate.  These are typically a supersaturated aqueous solution of magnesium chloride (MgCl2). The chlorine molecule changes the properties of the salt, rendering it slightly less hydroscopic. For this reason, it may not boost curl as significantly, but also will not dehydrate and potentially damage the hair as much. It seems a reasonable type of product with which to experiment.

Take-home message:

Magnesium sulfate can indeed be a useful curl activator or curl booster and has a place in the arsenal of every curly girl (or guy).  However, the mechanism by which it achieves this effect leaves hair, especially fragile curly hair, very vulnerable to damage due to dehydration.  This effect can be minimized by using magnesium sulfate infrequently as an emergency agent, or using it in conjunction with products that deeply moisturize and protect the hair.  Definitely condition very well after every use!