There has been a lot of confusion about what moisture actually is, how to moisturize hair and what ingredients should be included in an effective moisturizer. Products containing emollients such as mineral oil and petroleum, natural oils and butters as well as silicones have been marketed as moisturizers. Women have used these products with no relief to their dry hair. Brittleness has continued with ensuing breakage. Because of this we need to take a deeper look into this concept of moisturizing our hair, dissect the formulas and really understand what makes a product an effective moisturizer.
What is moisture: a review
Moisture is property of water and this element makes the best moisturizer. Hydration contributes to the pliability and elasticity of the hair. Because water can quickly enter and exit the hair it’s difficult for it to remain moisturized for long periods of time with just water. Factor in conditions such as high porosity and chemical damage and keeping the hair hydrated seems as though it’s a losing battle. This is where an effective moisturizer is crucial.
What makes a good moisturizer “good”?
To summarize an effective moisturizer will contain:
- Occlusives or sealants
I absolutely love humectants. I think that if they are used correctly, they can effectively improve moisture levels in the hair for days before remoisturizing is necessary. When it comes to skin, the essential components to skin moisturization are humectants, emolliency and occlusiveness. If we extrapolate these principles to hair care we find the same thing. Exactly what is a humectant? Humectants attract water from the surroundings by absorption into the hair, and adsorption onto the hair, at defined conditions, which include temperature and humidity.
Glycerin - a Humectant VIP
Glycerin is probably one of the most popular and well-known humectants because it’s very effective and relatively inexpensive. It can absorb its own weight in water over 3 days. However, many naturals avoid glycerin products with glycerin because it can leave their hair feeling dry or looking frizzy. As a result, many natural hair care companies are manufacturing products that are “glycerin free”. I like to put things in context when it comes to the use of specific ingredients for hair care, their incorporation into a product and the result on the hair. To say that glycerin makes the hair hard or results in frizziness is relative depending on many things including the humidity, the product formulation and other ingredients in the product.
While glycerin is the most well known humectant there are several others. This is where I take issue with some companies that market products as “glycerin free” because they will leave out the glycerin, but often add other humectants. These include agave nectar, honey, sodium PCA, sodium lactate, propylene glycol, urea, honeyquat, sorbitol and panthenol to name a few. Certain humectants have more moisture binding capability than others and each humectant is unique bringing other properties to a formulation.
Let's Talk About Frizz
In high humidity frizz can ensue because moisture is taken from the environment into hair resulting in swelling of the hair shaft, raising of the cuticle and resulting poofiness. If hair is dry, damaged and overly porous it can be a hot mess! Humectants exacerbate this condition and some, such as glycerin, can become sticky once saturated with water. So in this type of weather or climates in which high humidity is characteristic, using products with high amounts of humectants can have a negative effect on the hair. This I understand and I’ve experienced the “cotton candy hair” during high humidity days this summer. However the other side of this and one of the arguments against using glycerin (and by extension it should apply to other humectants as well, no?) is this notion of it drawing water from the cortex of the hair in low humidity conditions such as dry, cold weather. Relevant research I found pertains specifically to the skin. Can this be applied to hair? Perhaps. Humectants are able to attract water from the atmosphere (if the atmospheric humidity is greater than 80%) and from the dermis. Even though they may draw water from the environment to help hydrate the skin, in low humidity conditions, they may take water from the deeper epidermis and dermis, resulting in increased skin dryness. For this reason, they work better with occlusive ingredients.
Sealants (aka Occlusive Agents)
What does this mean for hair care? If the same principles apply then in lower humidity conditions humectants may contribute to hair dryness if water is lost from the hair. Therefore they should be paired with occlusive agents, better known as SEALANTS. Sealants will work along with humectants to minimize the evaporation of water and subsequent dryness. This doesn’t just apply to glycerin but ANY humectant. What are good sealants? Natural sealants include butters such as shea butter and cocoa butter and waxes like beeswax and carnauba wax. Mineral oil and dimethicone are two other sealants that are very effective at minimizing water loss once used appropriately.
Typically oils are used to prevent or slow the evaporation of water from the hair to the environment. This loss of water will eventually happen; however a film of oil on the hair can slow down this process.
From J.C. of A Natural Haven:
A scientific study looked at the effect of applying oil to hair on both moisture retention and moisture pick up from the air (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pp 135-145, 2007). The oils used were coconut, sunflower and mineral oil. The 3 key findings were:
- Oil helps to prevent moisture loss from the hair fibre. Hair with an oil layer has higher moisture retention compared to uncoated hair.
- Oil has a sealing effect. Hair with an oil layer will take up less water vapour compared to uncoated hair which means that the oil layer slows moisture uptake. Coconut oil allowed more moisture in than mineral oil (i.e mineral oil is a better sealer).
- Oil layers on hair do not prevent hair from taking up water vapor. Although uncoated hair will take up the most water vapour from the air, hair coated with oil (mineral, sunflower or coconut) will also still take up significant amounts of water vapour from the air.
The conclusion is that oil slows the loss of water from the hair.
So, should you buy that moisturizer?
When it comes to moisturizing hair you’ll definitely need to find which product works for you. Navigating through the abundance of products seems daunting but understanding the ingredient list can help you narrow down your choices. In order to evaluate whether a moisturizer will be good for your hair or not you’ll need to know a few things:
- Your hair texture (fine, medium, thick)
- Is the product a light lotion or thicker cream?
- Is there water in the product to hydrate the hair?
- Are there humectants in the product? Where are they in the ingredient list?
- Are there any emollients?
- Are there any occlusive agents (aka sealants) in the product to minimize water loss to the environment?
So, how effective is your moisturizer at actually MOISTURIZING your hair?