Last updated on December 14th, 2023 at 02:49 pm
Using natural humectants or products containing humectants is beneficial for all hair types but especially for those of us with curly hair. That’s because curly hair is the driest hair on the planet and using natural humectants for hair is the best way to remedy the dryness.
What Are Humectants?
According to WebMD:
Humectants are substances that attract water from the air or from deeper in the skin. They come in three main forms: natural or unchanged, naturally derived, and synthetic. You can find humectants mainly in skin care and hair care products, but many industries use them. They’re often added to food products as anti-caking agents. They can also be found in some medications, and agricultural products.WebMD
They are found in many personal care products including cleansers, conditioners and other cosmetics. For dry skin, humectants can be very beneficial.
As it relates to hair, humectants simply draw water molecules into the hair shaft. Your hair strands become softer and more pliable with the added moisture. However, as you will read shortly, they can also cause water to be drawn away from the hair shaft should they be used in the wrong environment.
It’s very important to know the weather conditions of your local environment when using humectants in your hair (your skin too). Is there low humidity? high humidity conditions? There really has to be a good balance when it comes to using humectants in your hair, especially curly hair.
For the purpose of this article, we won’t discuss synthetic humectants. We’ll only get into using natural humectants for hair and the most commonly used humectants in hair products. Some of these humectants are also natural oils.
Benefits of Humectants for Dry Hair
As mentioned at the start of this article, curly hair is the driest hair on the planet. Yet, while water is the ultimate moisturizer (and we all should know that), water alone is sometimes not enough to hydrate the hair.
When you use humectants or products containing them in your hair care routine, you’ll discover they can really help prevent dry hair in the first place.
How Humectants Work
The way humectants work is pretty interesting. When used at the right time (when the dew point in the air is less than around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Actually you can use natural humectants for hair when the dew point is as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) and as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius).
When using humectants in curly hair (or any hair really) when the dew points are too low or too high, you risk your hair’s moisture levels being depleted. Basically, your hair can dry out when your surrounding environment doesn’t have the proper humid conditions.
If the dew point is too low, the humectants will want to draw moisture out of your hair. When the dew point is too high in the air, while you can still use humectants you need to create some form of barrier that prevents the humectant from absorbing excessive moisture. You can use an anti-humectant product in conjunction with the humectant product to do so.
Here’s an example of what that looks like:
|Shea Butter or Mango Butter > Honey infused styler > Dampened or dry hair
You would first layer a styler containing a humectant over dampened or dry hair. Then, you’d add another layer of an anti humectant or rather an emollient like Shea Butter, Mango Butter or even coconut oil.
Some will say that hair butters like Mango Butter or Shea Butter are humectants but they are actually occlusive and acts as barriers to prevent moisture loss. So, in essence it helps with moisture retention. I liken it to the age old debate and belief that many naturals have of using natural oils to moisturize hair.
Oils do not moisturize. There’s no water content (the ultimate moisturizer) in them. Oils can lubricate, help to RETAIN moisture (and in some cases strengthen the hair). Moisture retention is not the same as moisture impartation. Butters and oils help with water retention, not impartation.
7 Natural Humectants for Use In Hair
There are natural humectants that are single in nature and there are hair products containing these humectants in their ingredients. While there are a number of humectants you can use in your hair, below you’ll find seven of them. If you’re wondering what the best humectant to use is, that’s not an easy question to answer.
As a guideline for healthy hair, I’d say to use the humectants sparingly in the right conditions alongside other natural ingredients. For example, using a deep conditioner containing humectants (which are washed out). Then, using a styling product with a natural humectant in it.
I’m listing seven natural humectants for hair below and you can try one or try all.
Why 7? Well, it’s personal. The number seven is God’s number of completion. So, that’s why I’m listing 7. God’s great creation including the different substances we have our disposal for self care is simply fascinating.
Common Natural Humectants
These are seven common humectants you can use solo or can look for on the ingredients labels of hair care products like shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and stylers:
Aloe Vera – often called a natural healer, aloe vera can pull water from the air into the hair. It works with the environment. Hence, it’s important to make sure the environment has the right amount of water (dew point) in it.
Agave Nectar – Helps to not only attract moisture into the hair but to also retain the moisture. It is made up of large molecules that cause it to attract water. It surprised me at how well it draws moisture into the hair. I’ve used it in place of honey in DIY recipes when I ran out of honey.
Avocado or Avocado oil – Works really well with hyaluronic acid to draw moisture into the hair and skin. It’s actually an anti-humectant with humectant properties. I know. Confusing right? But, have you ever made a hair mask with avocado? It’s super moisturizing. Also, dew point doesn’t really matter as much when you’re using it as a conditioner that you are going to wash out.
Glycerin (commonly purchased as vegetable glycerin) – like the other humectants, this simply attracts water from the hair into the skin. It’s likely the most common humectant in manufactured hair products.
Honey – likely the most popular in DIY products and manufactured hair products alike, you can achieve the best results when using it in a deep conditioner or a curl styler (in the right season). My favorite styling product for my wash and go’s when the dew point is right is Creme of Nature Pure Honey Shrinkage Defense Curl Activator
Related: Steps to a Successful Wash and Go
Hyaluronic Acid – according to Harvard Health, hyaluronic acid is capable of binding with over one thousand times its weight in water. Wow
Panthenol or d-Panthenol – you’ll find this ingredient in many hair products. It’s a component of pantothenic acid, also known as Vitamin B5
There are other humectants but you can widely find these for use in your hair. Many deep conditioners and hair styling products will contain one or more of these ingredients.
You’re probably also wondering how some of the humectants listed above could be oils. That’s because oils are typically emollients to soften and smooth. It’s their properties that make them humectant while still allowing them to be “light” sealants.
Humectants vs. Anti Humectants
While this article is to shine a light on how to use natural humectants for hair, I’d be remiss in sharing a little about its nemesis, anti-humectants.
While humectants attract water from the air, anti-humectants either provide a buffer between humectants and water, preventing moisture from being absorbed. Otherwise, they are simply sealants that prevent moisture from escaping the hair.
Anti-humectants can be beneficial as well. When there’s too much water in the air, the presence of humectants in hair can cause it to become very frizzy. it’s the anti-humectants (water repellants) that can help defy and prevent frizzy hair. Obviously, this could be a good thing if you are rocking straight hair that you don’t want to revert back to curly too soon.
Some anti-humectants include:
- Coconut oil
- Hydrogenated castor oil (an awesome barrier for protecting the ends of the hair)
- Silicones – some will say these are bad for curly hair but I beg to differ. Yes, they build up on the hair shaft and prevent moisture from entering. That’s what they are supposed to do. How do you think you prevent your curls from frizzing? But, that’s why we have clays and sulfate shampoos – to remove the sulfates when necessary.
- Shea Butter (there’s that double edged sword – an anti humectant with humectant properties)
Naturally Curly shares a pretty long list of anti-humectant products here. They have their place in hair styling and you should use it strategically just like you need to use humectants strategically.
How Coconut Oil Acts As An Anti Humectant
Coconut oil is such a widely used oil. Check out Why Coconut Oil is Such a Great Natural Resource.
It deserves it’s own explanation for how it is in fact an anti humectant. It’s anti humectant because it in fact, repels water. This is why it’s such a great pre-poo. When you use coconut oil on your hair, it penetrates the hair shaft to protect the inner structure of the hair from absorbing to much water, too much moisture.
When you wash your hair, it goes through a process of expanding and contracting when water enters the hair shaft. Coconut oil helps to cut down on the damage that can be done from all of that expanding and contracting. It does so by preventing the excess absorption of water within the hair strand.
Where to Next?
Hopefully, you see the great benefits of using natural humectants for curly hair but also how anti-humectants have a place as well.
Check out this DIY Goat’s Milk Conditioner recipe. It is formulated to be a conditioning humectant which won’t only strengthen your natural hair. It contains honey, one of the most widely used natural humectants for hair.
You may also be interested in: How often to moisture your natural hair