Given all of the rules, regulations and restrictions of natural hair care, if you’re one of those women who has been taught and believes that glycerin dries out your hair and makes it hard then you probably should stop reading this article. Or maybe you should continue – to discover that truth, that is.
If your hair is incredibly dry and brittle then you’ll definitely want to keep reading.
I’ll never really understand why anti-glycerin campaigns are common among some naturals. You’ll read the blogs and view the videos of some women who state that glycerin shouldn’t be used or to look for products that are glycerin free and all sorts of “interesting” information.
And while I completely understand that each person’s hair is different and requires specific types of ingredients and products to look and feel it’s best, all hair types have one specific requirement that is a foundational requirement to looking and feeling its best:
If you hair is not “moist” then it’s dry, brittle, breaking, flaking. You name it, your hair experiences it when it’s not properly hydrated.
A key set of ingredients in getting your hair to be moisturized is to humectants.
Humectants are used in hair and skin care products to promote moisture retention. They have the wonderful ability to attract water from the atmosphere. Many different molecules have the ability to be effective humectants and how well they do this depends on how many water-loving sites they contain for hydrogen bonding with water molecules. The strength of this bonding between the humectants and water improves moisture retention by slowing down water loss due to evaporation. Because of their water-binding abilities, humectants are ideal for dry, thirsty hair. That was so nice, I’ll state it twice.
Because of their water-binding abilities, humectants are ideal for dry, thirsty hair.
Let’s go a bit deeper. You know I’m all about the “why” so you’ll develop an understanding of the principles I’m discussing.
Now for the scienc-y stuff so bear with me. This will only take a minute.
In Tonya McKays’ article The Effects of Relative Humidity on Hair and Humectants, she points out that the laws of thermodynamics have a daily influence on our hair.
Thermodynamics is the study of energy. Energy exists in many forms such as heat, light, chemical energy and electrical energy. Everything in nature is always trying to reach a state of equilibrium or point of balance. What this means is that molecules that are highly concentrated in one area will typically move to an area where they are less concentrated until the concentration is equal for both areas. This is called diffusion. Diffusion occurs in substances that are solids, liquids or gases. You can demonstrate diffusion easily yourself. Fill a glass with water and add a few drops of ink or dye to the water carefully. The colour will sink to the bottom initially because it’s denser than the water. However over time, if left undisturbed, the ink at the bottom of the glass will spread upwards from where it’s more concentrated (at the bottom) to where it’s less concentrated (at the top). Eventually all of the water in the glass will be the same shade. This is the point where there are no more differences in the concentration of molecules.
Why is this important? Because when it comes to hair, this same law of molecules trying to reach a state of equilibrium or balance applies. And the molecules we’re most concerned with are water molecules.
Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. Dry hair usually doesn’t contain a lot of water. When it’s exposed to a very humid environment the hair will eventually become saturated with water molecules as water moves from an area of higher concentration (the humid air), to an area of lower concentration (the hair). Textured hair is more susceptible to this because it is more porous than straight hair. On the one hand this is good. The hair is super moisturized. On the other hand once the hair is exposed to high humidity environments the cortex can swell causing cuticle scales on the hair shaft to lift contributing to what we experience as frizz.
So what happens in dry, cold conditions? Dry air typically contains little to no water vapor, or has a low relative humidity. Hair that is exposed to this type of air will tend to lose water and moisture to the atmosphere as water moves down its concentration gradient from more concentrated (the hair) to less concentrated (the air). The resulting hair is dry, brittle hair which can be prone to frizz, split ends and breaking.
Humectants can be a curly girl’s best friend or worst enemy depending on the situation so you need to know when and how to use them. The most important influence of how humectants will behave in your hair is the climate.
While the topic can be quite complicated it’s important to note that for the sake of hair care and the use of humectants, there are two main weather conditions: low humidity and high humidity.
Low humidity conditions are those such as cold, dry winter air. In this case, if you use products that contain a lot of humectants, there is not a lot of water in the air for the humectants to attract to the surface of your hair. What can occur is that the humectants in your products may prevent the evaporation of water from the hair into the air. Ultra-moisturized hair from humectant use ALONE in this type of climate isn’t going to happen. In fact there is a chance that humectants may remove moisture from the cortex of the hair into the air. Remember diffusion? Moisture will move from areas of high concentration (in this case the hair) to areas of lower concentration – the air! This can result in dry, icky feeling hair. Not cool! Don’t panic. Humectants are still necessary but you’ll need to add something extra to ensure your hair lock in moisture as long as possible and feels soft and moisturized. You’ll need to use an oil to seal.
With high humidity conditions such as warm or hot summer air, there can often be A LOT of moisture in the air. Some moisture is good; a lot of moisture – not so much. If your textured hair is dry, damaged and overly porous it can absorb a lot of water from the air. This can lead to swelling of the hair shaft, lifting of the cuticle, tangling and frizz. Combine this situation with a product that is high in humectants (especially glycerin) and you have a situation where a lot of water is attracted to the surface of the hair. This can lead to hair that always feels wet, takes forever to dry and is a sticky, tangled mess. In other words, cotton candy hair. Not hot at all! Again there is a way to tame the frizz.
You wanna get really anal and technical? Figure out the humidity using dew points
So how can you assess the humidity in the air? This is a complicated topic that’s difficult to wrap your head around if you’re not a meteorologist or physicist. However, you don’t have to be either one to get a basic understanding of how to determine how your hair will behave on a particular day. Something we can use is called the dew point. The science-y definition of dew point is the temperature below which the water vapor in a volume of humid air at a constant barometric pressure will condense into liquid water. Huh???
What you need to know is that the dew point is associated with relative humidity. The higher the dew point, the more moisture there is in the air. The lower the dew point, the less moisture in the air. To gauge how dew point makes you feel in general, dew points above 65 F (about 18 C) make it feel sticky and humid outside while dew points less than 65 F are more comfortable. The higher the dew point above 65 the stickier it will feel outside.
With respect to hair, knowing the dew point can really help you in managing your hair and style and determine whether or not you’ll use humectants, and if so, how much. You can check the dew point of your location on various weather channels and online. If you have the time.
Complicating things EVEN MORE: Types of humectants
There are several different types of humectants found in skin and hair care products.
A few examples include:
- Propylene glycol
- Agave nectar
- Sodium PCA
- Sodium lactate
- Hydrolyzed protein
What’s interesting about humectants is that each one has a different ability to bind to water. Glycerin, sodium PCA, sodium lactate and propylene glycol are humectants that have really strong water-binding capabilities while the other humectants have less.
I’ve used various humectants and my absolute favourite is glycerin. It’s available, relatively inexpensive and extremely effective.
Here are a few interesting facts about glycerin:
- It can hold onto water helping to increase the water levels in the hair
- Natural hair with glycerin can sustain higher levels of force before it breaks
At high levels it’s effective; however it can get pretty sticky. So it’s typically mixed with other ingredients and oils. However the bottom line is that it is an extremely effective moisturizer and can make a huge difference in your hair care regimen
So how do you use it? Here are a few tips:
- Don’t use straight glycerin. Mixing 1 part glycerin with 4 parts water is a good formula to start with. You’ll need to find that glycerin “sweet spot” (no pun intended) for your hair, so experiment!
- If your hair feels soft after you use the glycerin it’s adequately moisturized or you’ve used too much glycerin. If it feels sticky then you’ve definitely used too much. Glycerin can be washed off easily with water so you can just apply a little water to your hair to remove the stickiness.
- If you have a moisturizer that’s not quite cutting it the great news is that you don’t have to go out and buy another moisturizer with adequate levels of glycerin in it. Use what you have and look for one that’s more effective later. In the meantime, add a glycerin and water mixture to your hair care regimen and note the difference in the way your hair looks and feels.