What is Moisture?

Moisturization or hydration is a primary characteristic of water. Water is the universal moisturizer. Good moisturizers will always contain water as the first ingredient. But water is always on the move, and as a result, the hair’s moisture levels are always in a state of fickleness. Water’s tendency to rapidly enter and exit the hair’s cuticle and cortex means that hair cannot be maintained in a moisturized state for prolonged periods with water alone.

Did You Know?

Hydro= Water

Phobic= Fear/Fearing

Hydrophobic= “water fearing” it lacking affinity for water.

(Merriam Webster)

Moisturizing formulas often contain humectants and blended emollients and oils to draw additional moisture to hair and keep it there.

The primary action of moisturizers is two fold. Moisturizers support the hair’s infrastructure by replenishing internal water and other essential elements that have been lost naturally to the surrounding dry air and processes such as heat styling, chemical processing and dyes or color.

Blended emollients and oil ingredients support and restore the hair’s lipid rich outer layer to prevent the escape of this moisture back into the surrounding environment.

What’s in Water-Based Moisturizers?

Water forms the base of any effective moisturizing product, but a host of other ingredients work together with water to provide a moisture benefit to the strands. Humectants, emollients, and occlusive ingredients play in important role in moisturizing hair.


Humectants draw moisture from the surrounding air and bring it to the hair or skin. On the scalp, humectants also draw moisture from the deeper skin layers up to the stratum corneum, The uppermost scalp skin layer. One of the most effective humectants found in products is glycerin.

Other common humectant ingredients and products include:

  • NaPCA (sodium pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA)

  • Panthenol

  • Urea

  • Propylene glycol

  • Sorbitol

  • Sodium lactate and

  • Some hydrolyzed protein

Keep in mind that while the presence of humectants in a moisturizer is great, products with high, concentrated volumes of humectants can leave you hair with the sticky or tacky, coated feel if applied too heavily.

Some suggest that the use of certain humectants, particularly glycerin, in the colder, winter months (Or during periods of low humidity) causes the humectants to actually draw most are away from the hair. The reasoning is that without moisture from the air to draw in, glycerin and other humectants may seek out the next best source of moisture and begin to pull moisture from the hair back into the environment.

When glycerin and other humectants are used on their own, they can draw moisture from the hair, but when used as part of a larger water-based mixture, glycerin molecules support hair moisturization by utilizing the water inherent in the product or mixture to saturate and stabilize itself.

To combat winter dryness, always use humectants as part of a balanced, water-based mixture, and seal sources of water based moisture with a heavier oil or butter product to prevent moisture escaping into the surrounding environment.

If humectant rich products continue to present a dryness concern for your hair, opt for moisture products that do not contain them in large concentrations and have them listed further down the ingredient list.


Emollients are lubricating, film producing ingredients that fill in cracks along the cuticle surface. They can be water or oil based and are used in products to help smooth and seal the hair fiber. They are also lubricants that provide increased slip, which makes detangling easier. Some can penetrate the interior structures of the hair and act as plasticizers, improving elasticity, toughness, and suppleness.

Common emollient ingredients:

  • Ceramides

  • Silicones

  • Fatty alcohols

  • Fruit and vegetable-derived oils and butters

  • Proteins and hydrolyzed proteins

  • Mineral oil

  • Petrolatum and

  • Polyquaterniums (cationic polymers)

Note: Hydrolyzed proteins and fruit and vegetable oils are typically smaller molecules with fatty acid components that are hydrophilic. This can enable these to act as both emollients and as mild humectants. Some of these can also penetrate through the cuticle layer into the cortex and significantly improve the mechanical properties of the hair (for some people, this can weigh the hair down and disrupt curly pattern or swell the hair strand and raise the cuticle, creating frizz).

Occlusive Agents

Occlusive agents are exactly what they sound like: product ingredients that occlude or block the entry and exit of water through the cuticle. These ingredients, when present in high concentrations, contribute to the greasy feel of some moisturizing products.

Common occlusive ingredients include:

  • Petrolatum

  • Mineral oil

  • Waxes

  • Other oils and silicones

Occlusives are primarily responsible for the shine moisturizer‘s give, but, the price for shine with these products, unfortunately, is the the film they leave on the hair fiber.

When occlusive ingredients build up on hair and scalp, moisture is unable to enter the hair shaft or reach the scalp skin, creating a cycle of dryness. To remedy this problem, many people pile on more of the product, which continues the cycle of dryness. If you use these ingredients regularly, make sure to clarify your scalp and hair.

When Should You Moisturize Your Hair?

Selecting a moisturizer is perhaps the most challenging part of the regimen building process. It is very important to make sure that the moisturizer you’re using is indeed a moisturizer. In most product formulation, the first five or six ingredients set the tone for the nature and quality of the hair product. Because there can be no moisture delivery without water, water is always listed as a first ingredient in moisturizing products. 

Moisturizing your hair will depend on your hair’s need. You should moisturize your hair either several times per week or whenever your hair feels dried out by the surrounding air. Daily moisturizing can be extremely important for those who are just starting out with their healthy hair regimens. Having to apply a moisturizing product multiple times throughout the day, on the other hand, also can be an indication that either the product is not a true moisturizer or that there is damage to the hair cuticle.

If you find that you have to apply moisturizer to your hair several times in one day, you may be dealing with a porosity the issue. Your cuticles may be damaged and releasing moisture just as fast as you’re applying it there. Those who follow a dedicated deep conditioning regimen often find that their hair‘s daily moisture requirements drop significantly, and that they are able to go on an average of three to four days or longer between moisturizing touch ups.

I’ve found that the best time to apply moisturizing products:

  • Prior to bed. Before putting my hair in a pineapple- this will give you a fresh, moisturized start in the morning. If you go to bed with dry hair, more than likely, you will wake up with even drier hair.

  • Before outdoor activities. Especially in the summer and cold months. Extreme temperatures can deplete moisture down to zero, leaving your hair a dry, brittle mess.

  • After I’ve rinsed out a conditioner during my normal wash day regimen. A leave in conditioner may follow a water-based moisturizer in your normal wash day routine or depending on the moisturizing product, replace a leave in conditioner altogether. For those with fine hair, leave in conditioners often work well as water based moisturizers.

Tip: Focus all moisturizing efforts on the ends of your hair, where the hair is oldest and/or damage is most prevalent.

Sources: “Scalp Anatomy”, Emedicine. Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified.