Should You Detangle Wet or Dry? It Depends…
Photo by @youadoremunchkn

We are often taught not to put a comb to our hair unless it is drenched in conditioner. We are also taught never to brush the hair when wet. So which is it? In what state is our hair weaker or stronger?

Is our hair weaker or stronger when it’s wet?

To answer this question, we must understand the structure of the hair strand. Each strand of hair is made up of keratin proteins. Keratin has a long strand of amino acids made up of cohesive chains held together by the following chemical bonds:

  • hydrogen
  • saline
  • hydrophobic
  • the strongest of the bonds, disulfide bridges

The weaker hydrogen bond can be temporarily broken by water, heat, and humidity, making the hair moldable. The disulfide bridges are much stronger and can only be broken with chemical treatments. This breakdown of the bonds when the hair is wet makes it weaker, more fragile, and more malleable. When it dries the bonds are reinstated, strengthening the hair. For curly women this is easy to see. This entire process explains your shrinkage experience.

Wet hair is stretched and loose yet when it dries, it shrinks back to its original curl pattern. For this reason, wet hair is perfect for re-styling and “setting” or “cooling” the hair into different shapes and styles.

Grooming dry hair is much less damaging to hair than wet.- Dr. John Gray, Beauty Bulletin

Even though wet hair allows for temporary altering of the hair rather than permanent, hair is its strongest when it is dry and all bonds are intact. This really depends on your hair type and your preferred styling methods. The good news is that success can be achieved with both options given the right circumstances. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of dry detangling to wet detangling.

The benefits of dry detangling

The state of dry hair is much stronger than the state of wet hair. While the hair is dry there are a few different methods for grooming including finger detangling, combing with a wide tooth comb, or brushing with a paddle or vent (Denman) brush. When finger detangling, you should be able to gently undo minor knots and tangles. Those with tightly curled and coiled hair should coat their fingers with a lubricating oil to provide a smooth barrier that lessens friction. Long, smooth, or looser curl patterns can be detangled with a brush by starting at the ends and working up to the roots.

The downside of dry detangling

The downside is the time and patience it could take to gently dry detangle a head full of hair. Another risk is that combing dry hair could result in snapping strands or chipping away the cuticle as hair lacks flexibility in this state. If choosing to take this route, do so with an oil to protect the strands.

The benefits of wet detangling

The best advantage to detangling wet is the host of water-based conditioners you can use to assist you along the way. Today there are detanglers, leave-in conditioners, and even regular conditioners formulated to coat the hair strand and smooth the cuticle to support the hair shaft while you gently and fearlessly comb your hair from ends to roots. Although the strands are most fragile when wet, the hair is flexible in this state and can withstand a comb when used carefully with product.

The downside of wet detangling

The downside to this is that severely tangled hair could tangle even more when interacting with water. Not to mention the overall risk of manipulating a strand in its weakest state is breakage. If choosing to take this route, always apply a slippery conditioner to support your efforts and meet your delicate strands with a delicate touch.

Who should wet & dry detangle?

There are pros and cons to both wet and dry detangling and both techniques are the right answer for different circumstances.

If you have dry, coarse, or tightly curled and coiled hair

Dry, coarse, or tightly curled and coiled hair should use wet detangling only when laden with slippery conditioner. For severe tangling, finger detangle with coconut oil before wet detangling with conditioner. 

If you have looser curls, thick, and heavier density hair 

Looser curls, thick, and heavier density hair types could lightly spritz with penetrating oil like argan before dry detangling with a paddle brush or Denman brush before and during a cleansing session. After a cleansing session, coat your strands with a smoothing conditioner before combing or brushing.

Read next: The Best Brushes for Detangling Curly Hair – According to Curl Stylists

What method works best for you?

Writer Janelle Sands is a textured hair stylist with over 20 years of experience and the Founder of Secret Curl Society.

This article has been updated.

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