by Susan Walker of Earthtones Naturals

If someone were to ask me what is the number one challenge with
natural hair my answer would be maintaining appropriate moisture levels.
This topic has been covered extensively but dry hair is the the number
one complaint of many natural women I hear from and it warrants further

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?
Moisture is a 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

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A good moisturizer will hydrate and nourish the hair deeply within
the hair shaft. Water-based products are necessary. Anything anhydrous
or without water such as a 100% oil-based product will not be an
effective moisturizer. This is because oils and waxes DO NOT moisturize.
Oils replace lost lipids from the hair, nourish it and can create a
barrier to seal in moisture but they do not moisturize. Therefore using
an oil-based product with the hopes of moisturizing the hair will be an
exercise in futility and will likely result in dry hair especially
if there is no moisture in the hair shaft. Therefore a proper
moisturizing product will contain humectants and emollients to draw
water into the hair and occlusives to keep it there.

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

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 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.

Other Humectants
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
  • panthenol 

Just to name a few. Certain humectants have more moisture
binding capability than others and each humectant is unique bringing
other properties to a formulation.

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
[summer]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.

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

Emollients are lubricating and are film-forming. They help smooth and
seal the hair and can be oils, butters, hydrolyzed proteins, polymers,
and cationic quaternary compounds.

To summarize, an effective moisturizer will contain:
1. Water
2. Humectants
3. Emollients
4. Occlusives or Sealants

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:
1. Your hair texture (fine, medium, thick)
2. Is the product a light lotion or thicker cream?
3. Is there water in the product to hydrate the hair?
4. Are there humectants in the product? Where are they in the ingredient list?
5. Are there any emollients
6. Are there any occlusive agents (aka sealants) in the product to minimize water loss to the environment?

Have you found an effective moisture? What are the ingredients? 

This article was originally published in August 2008 and has been updated for grammar and clarity.