Q: I was looking online for a hair steamer. I did some research and found a site that said there are not many studies for hair steaming. Is this true?
TheBeautyBrains Answer In case you’re not familiar with that this process, hair steaming it is exactly what it sounds like. You apply steam to your hair because it supposedly makes it smoother, softer, and more moisturized. The practice is especially popular for natural hair. Typically this is done with a bonnet like device into which steam is pumped or from a handheld device that puffs steam directly into your hair as you comb through it. I assume the practice goes back much further but I remember seeing hair steaming units for the first in the 1970s .
This has such a commonsense kitchen logic to it that I’m surprised the beauty industry hasn’t exploited this idea more. There really aren’t very many hair steamers on the market. Why is that? Probably because it doesn’t work as well as expected. The idea that “injecting” your hair with steam is good for it doesn’t hold up scientifically. If you’re trying to moisturize your hair, just soaking in water works perfectly fine. Steam doesn’t provide any additional benefit in terms of getting moisture to penetrate more deeply.
In fact, too much exposure to high temperature steam can actually damage hair. There’s some classic research done by the hair care ingredient company Croda that showed when you apply a flat iron to wet hair you get little blisters or bumps in the hair shaft from, presumably from the steam evaporating. Granted, flat irons provide a higher temperature than just exposure to steam but still this could be an indication that heat and steam are not friends of your hair.
There hasn’t been very much written about hair steaming in the scientific literature but The Natural Haven blog does reference one study from 1934 that looked at the effect of steaming on wool fibers. (X-Ray Studies of the Structure of Hair, Wool, and Related Fibres. II. The Molecular Structure and Elastic Properties of Hair Keratin) In case you didn’t know wool is a pretty good surrogate for testing human hair. It’s not exactly the same but there is some overlap.
Anyway, the study wasn’t focused on hair care benefits but rather on manipulating the fiber for using it in fabrics. In particular they look at fiber stretching. The researchers found that if you take a wool fiber put a weight on the end of it and then expose it to steam, the fiber will stretch it out longer than its original length and it won’t shrink back afterwards. In other words the fiber was permanently straightened and lengthened. They hypothesized that the combination of heat and stress severed some of the disulfide bonds that control the structure of hair.
This might lead you to think that steaming hair could help straighten out your curls however there’s two problems with that. First of all the time of steam exposure in the study was something like 15 hours. There’s no way you’ll be able to expose your hair to steam for that period of time. And secondly they only saw a straightening result when weight was applied to the fiber. Even if you’re brushing or combing your hair while you steam it it’s difficult to reproduce the effect of applying the force of a weight to each strand of hair. Also, I would think that since you’re not re-oxidizing the bonds to lock in the new straight configuration, there could be some reversion. Hard to say, again this isn’t very well studied. According to The Natural Haven, the long and short of hair steaming for natural hair–
1. Steaming hair for under 30 minutes is generally considered safe in terms of not damaging hair
2. Steaming hair is pretty similar to wetting hair meaning hair absorbs moisture and swells. It can feel smoother as a result of the swelling.
3. Steaming will allow hair to stretch a little more than wetting hair would with the same force (therefore be gentle when handling steamed or wet hair)
4. Steamed hair will remain elastic provided you use reasonable gradual force and remain under the 30 minutes.
5. Steaming over 30 minutes can induce disulphide (disulfide if you are on the other side of the pond) bonds to break – essentially, yes, steaming for long times CAN relax your hair