How do you moisturize curly hair? Episode 104

Question of the week: How do you moisturize curly hair?Hair_Windings

Chris says…My question is about the curly hair products that are out there now, brands like Diva Curl and Ouidad. They’re very expensive and targeted to people who have ethnic hair and want to go natural or girls with curly hair who don’t want to straighten their hair anymore. The whole thing is about moisture moisture moisture. I was just wondering if you think you need to spend a lot of money on products that are specifically made for curly hair or if there are drugstore equivalents that are cheaper that work the same way. Also what ingredients do you look for in haircare products that are moisturizing. For example if you wanted the most moisturizing conditioner or leave and what would you look for in the label?

Before we can talk about products for curly hair we need to say a little bit about what makes hair curly in the first place.

Two primary factors that control the shape of your hair

1. Shape of follicle
You can think of hair as little tubes of Play Doh that are squeezed out of holes in your scalp. If the scalp hole is perfectly round the hair is round and very straight. If the hold is a little more oval, the hair has an elliptical shape which causes it to twist and turn into a curl. And if the hole is sort of kidney-bean shaped, the hair grows out to be kinky (like African-American hair.) There’s nothing you can do about this although it may change as you age and experience hormone changes.

2. Protein composition of the cortex
Remember that the hair consists of three main regions: cuticle, cortex and medulla. The cortex is made of up two different protein regions: one is called the Ortho and the other is the Para. These regions absorb water differently and this differential absorption causes one protein region to swell more than the other. That causes hair to twist and turn as it absorbs moisture. That’s why hair gets curlier in high humidity.

“Moisture” vs “moisturize” vs “water”

This might be a good time to dispel what is perhaps one of the most deep-seated of all cosmetic myths. And that is the idea that you need to add moisture to your hair. It’s true that you need to fight the effects of having too much or too little water. But it’s not how much water you add to your hair – rather, the key is the lipid content and the integrity of the structural proteins that make up hair. Those things are much more important then the moisture content.

Why don’t you moisturize hair the same way as dry skin? First of all skin is a living organism where as hair is made of dead protein. One of the most important functions of skin is to control how much moisture your body loses that perspiration. Hair doesn’t work that way. It’s not like your hair is a hollow straw that wicks moisture through your scalp dissipates it into the atmosphere.

There is a certain amount of moisture this naturally present in here that’s somewhere between 7% and 14%. The actual amount varies depending on the humidity around you. Hair very quickly equilibrates to ambient conditions.

Another difference is that skin is a flat surface and it’s relatively easy to occlude by covering it with a barrier that moisture cannot penetrate. Think about it  – when you put on skin lotion put on a fairly thick layer and spread it all across your skin very evenly. It soaks into the upper layers and it does a very good job of barrier to prevent moisture from the escaping.

Hair, on the other hand, has much more surface area. Think about it as hundreds of thousands of tiny tubes each that are several inches long. If you wanted to seal moisture in hair the same way as you did your skin you would have to cover it with an equally thick layer which would feel greasy and flatten out your curl.

How do you moisturize curly hair?

When we talk about moisturizing hair we’re not necessarily talking about adding water to hair. What we really mean is that we’re fighting the effects of dryness (and damage.) How do we do that? For curly hair there are two key things you want to achieve with a moisturizing formula.

  • Smooth hair so won’t snag (reduce inter-fiber friction).
  • Avoid weighing hairdown so curls stay loose and bouncy.
  • Add texture to enhance curls (but that mostly comes from leave in products)

Which ingredients to look for

Chris specifically mentioned Deva Curl and Ouidad and asked about drug store products that may be equivalent but cheaper. To help you understand the ingredients used in curly hair conditioners, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent article published by the Natural Haven that shows you how to break down an ingredient list to separate the active ingredients from the extracts and other crap that’s just there for marketing. You should read that entire article but I’ll summarize it here and then we’ll use the product examples she cited to do a cost comparison.


First, let’s look at some ingredients to look for and to avoid

  • “backbone” ingredients cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol (explain not like ethanol)
  • -ium chlorides like Behentrimonium Chloride
  • Methosulfate quats don’t stick to hair as aggressively
  • other ‘cones amo dimethicone , dimethiconol
  • Polyquaterniums (more typically used in leave in). They can give hair more texture. Film formers.
  • Dimethicone (stay away from this one)

Next lets look at some specific product examples, including the ones Chris mentioned, in order of least to most expensive.

Herbal Essences Hello Hydration Moisturizing Conditioner

First up, at the low price of $0.34/oz, is Herbal Essences Hello Hydration Moisturizing Conditioner.

It’s based on Stearyl Alcohol , Behentrimonium Chloride , Cetyl Alcohol, and Bis Aminopropyl Dimethicone. It should do a good job of softening but it doesn’t contain any of the texturizing ingredients we talked about. If anything, this one might feel a bit too heavy for some people.

This is a very basic and common formulation approach which you’ll see used in a number of similar drug store brands. For example Pantene has a conditioner that uses the same basic approach for about the same price.

DevaCurl One Condition Ultra Creamy Daily Conditioner

Next let’s look the Deva Curl product that Chris asked about. All their products (as far as I can tell from the website) are no poo type cleansing conditioners. That means if they’re being true to the definition of a cleansing conditioner, you probably won’t find the type of ingredients that give you more intense smoothing like silicones, cationic polymers and so forth. Their “Maximum Hydration” product is their One Condition Ultra Creamy Daily Conditioner. It’s a bit pricier at $1.66/oz.

It’s also based on Cetearyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Chloride, Glycerin, and Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride. The main difference is the choice of the guar instead of a silicone which will certainly give a different feel to hair.

Kinky Curly Knot Today

Then there’s Kinky Curly Knot Today at $1.75/oz. It’s a very basic formula based on Cetyl Alcohol and Behentrimonium Methosulfate. As we said the methosulfate quats are less sticky to hair so you may find you prefer the feel of this one.

Ouidad Curl quenching Moisturizing conditioner

Here’s the other product that Chris asked about Ouidad’s Curl Quencher Moisturizing Conditioner. At $2.35/oz it’s starting to get fairly pricey. It claims to be a “vitamin and botanical rich” formula but looking at the active ingredients you can see that it’s really based on Cetearyl Alcohol, Dicetyldimonium Chloride, Panthenol, wheat amino acids, Amodimethicone,Glycerin, some sulfate quats (Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Linoleamidopropyl Ethyldimonium Ethosulfate, and Polyquaternium-37. PQ-37 is a classic conditioning agent known for its film forming and anti-static properties.

Jessicurl Deep Conditioning Treatment

There’s also this Jessicurl product based on Behentrimonium Methosulfate and Cetearyl Alcohol for $2.38/oz.

Aveda Damage Remedy Intensive Conditioner

Finally there’s Aveda’s Damage Remedy product based on Cetearyl Alcohol, Cyclopentasiloxane, Stearalkonium Chloride, and Behentrimonium Chloride at a whopping  $7.20/oz!

The Beauty Brains bottom line

  • You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good product for curly hair.
  • Remember that “moisture” isn’t the same as “moisturize” and it isn’t about just adding water.
  • Don’t pay attention to botanical extracts
  • Look for -ium and methosulfate quats. for effective softening
  • Look for polyquaterniums for added texture
  • Silicones are ok except for “dimethicone.”

Hard to pronounce beauty brands

I started off the show with an Allure article about how to pronounce beauty brand names. Randy didn’t do so well on the pronunciations.

iTunes reviews

You can REALLY help us out by reviewing the show on iTunes. If you do, we’ll give you a shout out like this…

Xhintns says..A Must to separate myth and marketing gimmicks from the truth —I was intrigued because I did not expect men to address beauty questions, but I read on and was impressed not only because they know what they’re talking about but also because of how they deliver their message. It’s clear, concise, and generally well-referenced.

Uniq 1 says… For the first time I can understand how things work in science. What is real and what is simply marketing and WHY .The beauty industry should take good note on what you do, because that is what actually the consumer is looking for: facts, simplicity and understandig concepts.

Improbable Products

We had a special guest star on this week’s game. Chuck the Chemist! Plus, it’s a special “new Hair styling trend” edition of Improbable Products. Can you guess which is the fake?

1. 3d printed hair extensions
Researchers in Milan have created a 3-D printer for curly hair. Using a combination of silk and plastic polymer filaments the scientists can print hair extensions in any almost shape and style you desire. These curly clips hold their shape permanently so you’ll never need your curling iron again.

2. Frozen hair styling
If you’re a fan of Disney’s smash hit frozen (and really who isn’t) then you’ll love this New hairstyling trend that’s sweeping the Yukon.
They freeze your hair at temperatures close to 30° below 0 C while you comfortably bathe in a tub of hot water. The result is a magical crystal quaff worthy of the snow queen Ilsa.

3. Pixelated hair color
A Madrid based salon can now imprint your hair with patterns resembling pixelated computer graphics.
This bizarre new coloring technique has a futuristic feel that brings to mind old-school eight bit video games.

Listen to the show for the answer!

Image credit: