How To Moisturize Hair: 14 Expert Tips For Soft, Healthy Strands
Keeping hair hydrated is the utmost priority for most: Dry hair can look dull and brittle, and dryness may lead to damage. On the flip side, when your hair is hydrated, curls appear springier, strands look shinier, scalp health is better, and overall hair is stronger. Given how many benefits you may expect from keeping hair moisturized, you may be curious about the best and most effective ways to do so.
Don't worry; here we gathered the best advice about keeping hair conditioned and hydrated from all our favorite experts:
It's a tent pole of clean beauty: sulfate-free shampoos. Sulfates, which includes sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, are what gives traditional shampoos that sudsy lather. However, they are highly stripping of your scalp's natural oils, can disrupt the delicate scalp microbiome, trigger skin conditions like dermatitis, and can contribute to frizz, physical damage, and the fading of hair dye.
When you switch to sulfate-free shampoos, just note that you will not get the same foamy feeling. (So prepare for a different sensorial experience.) And also, lathering is not an indication of effectiveness. Think about your face washes for a moment: You know that an oil, cream, or balm cleanser can be just as effective at washing your face as a sudsy one.
Co-washing stands for "conditioner washing," or using a very specific type of conditioner that hydrates the hair and scalp while lightly cleansing it as well. "Co-washing allows the gentler cleansing without the drying detergents that can harm the scalp and hair. Also, co-washing protects the integrity and strength of the hair while maintaining its natural oils," says hairstylist Miko Branch, founder of natural hair care brand Miss Jessie's.
Co-washing is all about your schedule, too: While everyone is going to have a different hair wash routine, you do need to properly shampoo your hair weekly—but between your shampoos, you use your co-wash.
Use shampoos with emollients.
Along with skipping sulfates, you should look for shampoos that have natural emollients. Look for botanical oils, natural fruit extracts, and oils and butters (check out a good list here). If you aren't one to read the ingredient label, just look for shampoos that are marketed for "smoothing" or "frizz-free," as these are often chock-full of natural hydrators.
Lean on your conditioner.
Conditioners do just what the name implies: They condition your strands. "This type of conditioner will hydrate your hair and help it to be less frizzy, as its purpose is to also smooth your cuticles and add softness," says hair expert and consultant Sarah Roberts. "Think of when you add softener to your clothes after washing them."
Opt for regular masks.
For extra moisture, add in a mask weekly or more often. These are typically thicker, contain more active ingredients (and therefore cost more, too)—but once you feel your strands after use, you'll understand why.
"A deep conditioner is an intensive moisturizing and nourishing treatment, also called 'deep treatment' and 'masque.' These can be broken down into two categories: those meant to provide proteins, and those primarily for moisture," writes Roberts. "As you may know, healthy hair is a balance between moisture and protein, so we need to use both, depending on the individual needs of our hair. These conditioners are normally quite thick in consistency and should be left on the hair, with heat, for 20 to 30 minutes. Think of deep conditioners as a five-star meal for your hair."
Mix up some DIY treatments.
The good news is you don't have to lean on expensive store-bought treatments: Some of the best hair treatments are ones you can make right in your kitchen. DIY hair masks can be made of anything from coconut oil, aloe vera, honey, or avocado—you name it. If you want a list of inspiration, see our favorite DIY hair masks here.
Try a pre-shampoo treatment.
Pre-shampoo treatments are beloved expert products, in which you apply a hydrating cream or oil on your hair before you wash it. The idea is that you apply your product for about 30 minutes prior to showering, letting the conditioning agents settle into the strands, so they are better able to absorb the nutrients. Some favorites are castor oil, coconut oil, and argan oil.
Apply hot oil treatments.
Hot oil treatments are a popular, time-tested tradition used in many, many cultures. It's a hair care method in which slightly warmed oil is used to coat and mend dry hair. Traditionally, this is an at-home treatment (although some salons offer it), and it tends to be best for very dry, coarse hair.
The oil is heated because it is thought to help open the cuticle and let the oil penetrate deeper. "The idea with heat is that it breaks down the bonds and helps coat it better," says board-certified dermatologist Doris Day, M.D. "I get the theory behind it; there isn't data to prove it, but it's been done for a long period of time, and we haven't seen damage from it."
The treatment in practice varies quite a bit: There isn't one definitive method that all users agree on, so you'll end up seeing a lot of different recommendations out there. For our guide, read more about hot oil treatments here.
Adjust your wash schedule.
How often should you wash your hair? Well, experts and consumers alike struggle with this because there's no exact equation that works for everyone, all of the time. "It really just comes down to education: Learn about the factors at play when it comes to your scalp and hair health, then you can adjust your behaviors based on that," says certified trichologist Shab Reslan. And one way that you may see that your wash schedule isn't working for you is dry hair.
See, over-shampooing or shampooing with too harsh of a product will cause dryness of the scalp and hair. A dry scalp usually feels tight, itchy, and might come with small dry flakes. If you suspect this is your issue, wean yourself off your shampoo schedule. Start by skipping one wash day a week for a few weeks, and then skip another—do this until your scalp feels less irritated and your natural oils are balanced.
Use leave-in conditioners.
"The role of these conditioners is to refortify the cuticle with a protective coating and add additional moisture to the cortex, allowing the hair to keep growing without breaking. A leave-in conditioner is to be used after washing your hair to replenish and maintain moisture," says Roberts. "They are useful for controlling frizz, detangling strands, and keeping curls smooth. These conditioners are normally light lotions, creams, or liquids. Leave-in sprays are also effective; they are easy to apply to the ends of hair that need special attention and protection for retaining length." See some of our favorite leave-ins here.
Seal in water with oils.
Oils have natural occlusive properties. A reminder: Occlusive ingredients are ones that create a thick, impenetrable barrier around your hair. In the natural world, these are your waxes like candelilla, carnauba, and palm kernel, beeswax, or lanolin ("traditional" examples include silicones and petroleum). They are also many types of oils, like jojoba or olive oils. Given that they act as a water retention barrier, they also act as a barrier to outside forces: This is why they should be the last step of your routine. After you slick on an occlusive, anything layered on top isn't getting past it.
Layer and cocktail ingredients.
When styling hair, especially for those with curly hair, the key to keeping strands hydrated is through layering, such as the LOC method. It was coined by the natural-hair community, a mnemonic device for the order of products you should use post-rinse: That is, liquid (or leave-in), oil, and cream. "For me the LOC method is something you do whenever you're doing a wash-and-go curly style," adds hairstylist Anthony Dickey, founder of Hair Rules.
The idea here is that you trap in water and nutrients from the wash and leave-in with the oil—then you drop it off with the cream to add hold and definition.
Silicones are a class of compounds that add slip and silky texture to hair and skin care products. Silicones are occlusive in nature: "Their main function is to create a physical barrier coating on the skin and hair that is resistant to water and air," says board-certified dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, M.D., FAAD. "They are the extra filler that helps a product feel more luxurious." They are used in hair care because they are cheap, effective, and make hair appear shiny and frizz-free.
However, silicones are hydrophobic1, meaning they repel water. They do this by nature, and it is the reason they are theoretically great at reducing frizz (frizz is caused by humidity lifting up the hair's cuticle2, resulting in a frayed, puffy texture). But when you wash hair, these silicones cling to hair and don't easily rinse off as they are repelling the water instead of dissolving in it.
So if you use a leave-in conditioner with silicones then go to wash it with a shampoo that contains silicones, and then condition with silicones, that routine is likely causing quite a bit of silicone layering and buildup on the scalp and strand. So even if these individual products contain good-for-hair ingredients, those nutrients may not be able to penetrate the shaft because of the occlusive silicone coating. Over time this will dry out your hair.
Skip hot tools altogether—or at least don't use every day.
It should come as no surprise that hot tools, especially when used at high heat, cause strands to dry out. (I mean, a blow-dryer's job is literally to dry your hair, no?) It not only causes dryness, but it causes damage to the hair shaft. Heat can restructure and restyle your hair pattern by breaking down the hydrogen bonds in your hair; while that process gives us the curls or straight strands we want, do it daily and it can be pretty damaging. One study even found that daily heat styling can cause significant breakage and roughness3, which seems a little counterintuitive for those who constantly run a flat iron through their hair to smooth out the texture. Alicia Miller, national master trainer for Davines North America, agrees: "Giving our hair and scalp time to reset and rest increases overall appearance and health."
How to apply moisturizers to your hair.
How to use hair moisturizers entirely depends on what your specific product is. Here, we break down best practices per product
Conditioners should be applied on freshly shampooed hair. Shampoos remove dirt and buildup at the scalp, lift off product residue from the strands, and open up the cuticle. Then when you follow up with your conditioner of choice, the formula’s nutrients are able to penetrate the shaft as well, help lay down the cuticle, and seal the strand for increased shine and reduced frizz. If you have oily roots, you’ll only want to apply it from the midshaft down; drier strands can coat the entire head. After letting it sit for a few moments, you can rinse it out in lukewarm water.
Most recommend using a mask once a week in place of your normal conditioner, as an amped-up hair treatment. However, if you have dry or damaged hair you can use masks as your full-time conditioner (they tend to be pricer, which is why people may not want to do this.) Finally, you can also apply masks on bone dry hair, letting it sit for 30 minutes before shampooing it out. As far as application on the strand, you should follow the same rules as the conditioner: skip the roots if they are oiler, apply all over if you’re on the drier side.
Co-washes can be used several times a week in place of your normal shampoo and conditioner routine. Just be mindful of how many times you co-wash before adding in an actual shampoo again. Since a good co-wash gently cleanses the scalp, you should apply the formula all over, root to tip.
Leave-in or oils.
Leave-ins or oils should be applied to damp hair post shower as to help trap in the water. When applying, use a dime sized amount, warm it in your palms, then disperse it throughout your evenly section by section (adding more product to your palms as needed.)
What causes dry hair.
There are several reasons why your hair is dry—and it’s worth evaluating each cause so you can better treat it.
- Hair type. Curly and coily hair tends to be drier naturally. It takes longer for oil from the scalp to travel down and coat the strand. Without this natural hydrating mechanism, the hair is less protected and more vulnerable to damage, breakage, and water loss.
- Heat damage. One of the most drying things you can do to your hair is regularly heat style. It zaps the hair of water, nutrients, and breaks down the bonds of our strand, making it more susceptible to breakage overtime.
- Chemical damage. In the same vein, chemical damage (such as relaxing and coloring) alters your hair’s cuticle, so the hair is less able to hold in water.
- Environmental damage. Dry air, sun, pollution, and so on can cause hair to appear drier—temporarily or through chronic exposure.
- Products. Shampoos with detergents strip the hair of it’s natural oils and blast open the cuticle.
Getting soft, hydrated hair is totally possible—it just takes some extra love and attention. Here, we gave you the best tips available, with some help on how to apply them and the potential causes.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.