Everything You Need To Know About Moisturizing Natural Hair

Photographed by Lara Callahan.
Just about every curl cream, twisting butter, detangling conditioner, and strengthening mask in the natural hair section of the beauty aisle promises one thing: moisture. And there's a valid reason for that. Curly and coily hair types — by nature — are dry AF.
"Our scalp produces oils but, given the coily nature of Afro-textured hair, that oil doesn't travel down the shaft," Yolonda Lenzy, MD, explains to Refinery29. When these natural oils don't reach the ends of hair, strands need to be moisturized another way. Hence, the thousands of hydrating products marketed to women and men with natural hair.
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But really moisturizing Afro hair requires more than slathering on oil and calling it a day. Understanding your hair, customizing your routine, and getting the right products are key to curls that are healthy and juicy. Ahead, we rounded up expert-approved tips for moisturizing your natural hair at home.
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Proctor & Gamble Principal Scientist Rolanda Wilkerson, PhD, says that before you plaster on pounds of product, you should get familiar with your hair's porosity.

In simple terms, porosity translates to how easily your hair absorbs moisture. Your hair can either be high porosity (easily absorbs moisture) or low porosity (doesn't easily absorb moisture). "Curly hair is more porous than straight hair by nature," Wilkerson explains. "Given that our hair is more porous, it also makes it more prone to damage."

Chemical treatments (like keratin straighteners, relaxers, and permanent hair color) change the hair on a chemical level, damaging the outer layer of the shaft and making the hair more porous. But even if you've skipped all those treatments, your daily routine could effect your porosity. "Excessive manipulation and brushing of the hair can also remove the outer protective layer over time, causing strands to be more porous," says Wilkerson.

So, how do you know whether your hair has high or low porosity? If you frequently heat style or colour your hair, you can safely assume that your porosity is high. If it takes a long time for your hair to get wet (or dry), your porosity is probably low.

You can also try the "float test," which is popular among naturalistas on YouTube. Place a strand of product-free hair in a clear cup of water and observe. Does your hair sink? If so, that's a sign that your cuticles are lifted, which means your porosity is high. Did your hair float to the top and stay there? Then you're dealing with cuticles that are tightly sealed, leaving you with low porosity curls. If your strands fall somewhere in the middle, you can consider your porosity normal.
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You may be thinking: Can't I just wet my hair to moisturize it? That would be a no. Wilkerson says that while water is a great source of hydration, it shouldn't be the only step in a moisturizing routine.

"Think of water as a vehicle to get other nourishing ingredients to the hair," she says. "You need other ingredients to protect the lipids and the outer layer of the hair shaft." This is especially important for high porosity hair, because although it easily absorbs moisture, it has trouble retaining that hydration. Therefore, it's important to have moisturizing ingredients that seal the cuticle and prevent frizz. Also keep in mind that the water in your shower isn't pure H2O. "Some water contains damaging metals, which can break down the proteins and lipids that give the hair strength," Wilkerson adds.

But that doesn't mean you should totally rule water out of your routine. Dr. Lenzy recommends using water-based curl refreshers or leave-in conditioners to hydrate the hair with between washes.
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According to Wilkerson, adding products that mimic the protective layer that is often stripped from the hair helps to keep strands nourished. This is where a great deep conditioner comes into play.

Wilkerson recommends using protein-packed and antioxidant-rich conditioners to strengthen the hair follicle and replace lost protein. "Ingredients, like polyquaternium silicone, are attracted to the damaged areas on the hair fibre," she says. "It doesn't coat the entire fibre, but it targets where it needs to go. That way, it will act like a hair fibre that is hydrophobic [water repellent] and healthy."

Dr. Lenzy recommends deep conditioning your hair every time you shampoo for maximum moisture. "Many of us aren't adding moisture back into our hair daily," she says. "Deep conditioning every time you shampoo will help the hair look and feel healthier." Once your conditioner is on, Dr. Lenzy recommends adding heat. "That will cause swelling of the cuticle and allow the ingredients to better penetrate the shaft," she says.
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Healthy hair starts at the scalp, but it shouldn't be moisturized in the same way you take care of your strands. "The scalp produces natural sebum," Dr. Lenzy says. "These natural oils protect and keep your scalp hydrated, so you shouldn't be applying additional oils or grease directly to the scalp." When applied to your scalp, oils can actually feed bacteria and yeast, causing dandruff and scalp acne.

However, itchy, dry scalp happens. We get it. If your scalp is acting up, you can nourish it with a zinc-based product. According to dermatologist Neil Sadick, MD, of Sadick Dermatology in New York City, zinc has anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties that reduce fungus on the scalp. Zinc can also help ease an annoying itch without leaving behind much residue, making it safe to use as a part of your regular routine.

"You can incorporate an elixir or scalp spray to keep your skin stimulated," Wilkerson says. But, be sure to cleanse your scalp — regularly — to remove buildup left behind from styling products, pros warn.
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It's a common misconception that oil-based products (like butters, finishing oils, and hot oil treatments) moisturize the hair. Unlike the oils your scalp naturally produces, styling oils, like argan and olive, have larger molecules that coat the hair. "A lot of oils and butters sit on our skin but won't penetrate," says Wilkerson.

But that doesn't mean oils don't have an important place in your hair-care routine. "Oils should be saved for the last step of your routine because they act as a sealant that smooths the cuticle," Dr. Lenzy says.

This sealing of the cuticle is an important step because it locks in the moisture from all your previous products. Before adding your oil, use leave-in treatments that have hydrating humectants, like glycerin and honey.
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