Moisture (water) vs. Lubrication (oil)
Merriam-Webster defines moisture as “liquid diffused or condensed in relatively small quantities. To moisturize is to “make something less dry”.
One of the main complaints/concerns I get regarding natural hair is moisture retention. Many people feel that their hair is “too dry” or “doesn’t stay moisturized”.
When most people feel like their hair or scalp is dry, they usually reach for is their favorite oil or butter. This is because ever since we have been have been learning about our hair, we’ve been told that our hair needs oil when it is dry. A lot of us grew up with the tradition of oiling/greasing our scalps especially if we had dry scalp issues. The irony in that situation is that if our hair and scalp is actually dry, it is too late for oil and any addition of oil can actually make the situation worse.
Dry scalp (not to be confused with dandruff) is simply the absence of moisture on the scalps surface. Adding oil to a dry scalp will simply lubricate and seal the skin and make it appear healthy, however, you still have not moisturized it.
If you’re thirsty, do you reach for water or a milkshake?
When it comes to treating dry hair (and scalp) we are dealing with moisture vs. lubrication. Moisture comes from water and water-based products. Moisture creates pH change, which can soften and swell the hair. Lubrication comes from oil and oil-based products. Oils provide lubrication, which cuts down on friction and can create a seal.
Determining which products can and can’t penetrate the cuticle of the hair depends on their molecular composition.
Water molecules are smaller and tightly bonded together. Oil molecules are larger and have longer molecular chains.
Water is polar, meaning it contains positive and negative charges. This is what gives water its pH properties that affect and contribute to the condition of your hair. These pH properties are those that cause the softening and swelling of the hair cuticle helping product gain access the cortex.
*Oils on the hair and scalp can give one the impression that their hair is healthy because it gives off sheen which gives off the healthy appearance of being properly moisturized. *
Oils do not contain these positive and negative charges. They contain chains of fatty acids which can nourish the hair as well as coat and/or seal the hair.
Now that we understand the basic make-up of oils and water, let’s take a look at their characteristics and the part they play in hair care.
Water evaporates, oil does not. Water is more readily absorbed by hair and skin; oil will mostly rest on the surface.
This is why there is a connection between moisture and oils. Once there is moisture in the hair, it can temporarily be sealed in (before it completely evaporates) with an oil or butter extending the time that the hair feels moisturized.
On wash day after you’ve completed your conditioning/moisturizing routine is the best time to apply a small amount of oil or butter to the hair and scalp to boost moisture retention. At this time, your hair and scalp has gotten a fresh does of moisture in the form of water and other pH balancing products such as conditioners and leave-ins.
Many people with kinky, curly and/or cottony textures will complete their moisturizing routine by sealing their hair and/or oiling their scalps. However, I do not recommend this for all hair types. These hair types typically have a flatter surface (due to a more oval strand shape) and can be finer. Addition of oils to fine hair, especially low porosity hair can be overkill and keep much needed moisture out of the hair.
I personally recommend oils when the hair is about to go through a high friction or high stress style such as braiding or twisting, especially with extensions. The cuticle around the twists and bend of the individual hair strand are more vulnerable and susceptible to damage so additional lubrication in these areas can be helpful.
My personal hypothesis is that when using oils (that don’t go rancid) when styling can be helpful, especially with some braids and some loc styles and depending on the situation. This is because some oils can prevent moisture from entering some styles and prevent the growth of some bacteria and fungi. I would personally oil my natural hair before entering a pool or the ocean etc. I would oil it if I knew I would be outdoors or in heavily wooded areas for an extended period of time to protect from the elements (and buggies!)
I think I have rambled on enough. I just wanted to share a little information with you. I plan on updating more often so I look forward to interacting with you all. See you next time!