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Curly Hair: Understanding Moisture vs. Hydration

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Table of Contents

Curly girl having both hair hydration and hair moisture

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Have you ever wondered about the distinction between hair hydration and hair moisture? If you have, you’re not alone. These two terms can often be perplexing, but they hold distinct meanings.

Curly hair moisture refers to the adequate presence of water molecules within the hair fibers, which is essential for maintaining the hair’s elasticity, flexibility, and overall health. Curly hair typically requires higher moisture levels compared to straight hair due to its natural tendency to be drier and more prone to frizz. Proper moisture balance in curly hair helps prevent dryness, breakage, and brittleness, allowing for more manageable and well-defined curls.

With the expertise of my friend, a hair science specialist and cosmetic formulator with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, we will clarify the distinctions between hair hydration and moisture. Our goal is to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of these vital concepts and empower you with practical knowledge and techniques for effective hair hydration and moisturization.

Curly Hair Moisture vs Hydration

Hair hydration and moisture are fundamental aspects of any hair care routine, and they often take the spotlight in marketing hair care products. But what exactly do these terms signify?

These commonly used words catch our eyes as consumers and are frequently employed to position hair care products. After all, who wouldn’t want to have beautiful, well-hydrated, and moisturized hair? However, they can sometimes be a source of confusion.

You’ve likely come across terms like “Hydration,” “Hydrating,” or “Moisturizing” on shampoo, conditioner, treatment masks, or styling gels. These products claim to increase the water content in your hair when used.

We often associate ‘hydrated’ and ‘moisturized’ with healthy hair. But what do these terms truly entail? Does the presence of water have an impact on the quality and health of our hair?

In this exploration, we’ll delve deeper into the science of hair hydration and moisturization, seeking to understand their significance and how we can effectively maintain or enhance hair moisture levels.

Understanding Hair’s Dependence on Water for Health

Photo of water for hair hydration blog.
Photo credit: Kate Tepl

Water is a vital element in our lives, and much like our skin, our hair relies on a continuous supply of water molecules for its well-being.

Hair, being a protein fiber, contains about 30-35% water.1 The moisture content in our hair can fluctuate with changes in humidity and temperature.

In the absence of water, hair becomes dry, brittle, porous, and prone to frizz. Dry hair is challenging to comb, style, and manage and is more susceptible to breakage.

One way we gauge the moisture content in hair is by assessing its porosity, which gives us insights into its strength.2,3

Washing our hair (wet stage) absorbs water molecules and takes in moisture from the surrounding air, particularly in high humidity conditions. Scientific research has shown that hair can significantly swell when exposed to moisture, causing an increase in its diameter.4

The structural protein in our hair follicles, known as keratin, plays a role in absorbing water through a concentration gradient.

Hair fibers absorb more water molecules in environments with higher humidity and more water concentration. Conversely, fewer water molecules enter the hair fiber in dry, low-humidity conditions.

Hydration versus Moisturization: What’s the Difference?

The two terms stand for almost the same thing; however, there is a slight difference. 

  • Hydration is the “addition of water molecules”
  • Moisturization stands for “addition, as well as preservation of hair water molecules”

In hair care science, both strategies work together to add water molecules as well as preserve the already present water molecules in hair.

  • Humectants are known to impart water molecules to the hair fiber and boost hair moisture content.
  • Emollients can also be called moisturizing agents.
  • All natural oils and butter are known to preserve hair moisture content by minimizing the evaporation of water molecules from the hair shaft.

How to Hydrate Hair

To keep your hair fibers well-hydrated, it’s essential to choose a cleansing and conditioning formula that’s gentle and free from harsh chemicals.

Some sulfates found in certain products are known to be harsh on your hair and scalp, leading to dryness by stripping away essential lipids. This is especially important to consider if you have curly hair, as it tends to be more prone to dryness.

For curly hair, look for cleansing formulas containing ingredients like glucosides or isethionates, as they offer ultra-hydrating benefits.

To help you get started, here are some curly hair shampoos to incorporate on wash day that include these hydrating ingredients. And don’t forget to double-check the product size on each website to ensure you get the right fit for your needs.

We strongly advise using a conditioner and mask treatment containing a blend of humectants and cationics.

See below for a list of our preferred hydrating ingredients under the heading – The Most Effective Ingredients for Hydrating and Moisturizing Hair.’

How to Moisturize Hair

Apart from incorporating hydrating ingredients, consider the added advantages of emollients in your curly hair routine. Natural hair oil, butter, or their derivatives can work wonders in preventing moisture loss from your hair and scalp.

These hydrophobic materials create a protective, water-resistant barrier around each hair strand, thus preventing water loss.

If you have curly hair, opt for lightweight oils to avoid weighing down your hair and maintain your curls’ vitality.

To ensure your curly hair stays bouncy and healthy, look for formulations that combine both hydrating and emollient ingredients for the ideal balance.

Assessing Your Hair’s Moisture Needs

You can easily gauge the condition of your hair fibers through visual observation and touch.

  • Do you see any frizz or dullness?
  • Is your hair difficult to style and manage on a daily basis?
  • Does your hair cuticle feel brittle or rough when you run your fingers through it?

If so, it needs hydration and moisturizing.

More common signs that your hair needs moisture:

  1. Dryness
  2. Rough hair
  3. Difficult to comb wet hair
  4. Tangles easily
  5. Curl knots
  6. Split ends
  7. Lifeless curls / Fragile strands
  8. No gloss/shine
  9. High porosity hair

Hydrating and Moisturizing: Marketing Gimmick or Scientific Reality?

You’ve probably seen the terms “Hydrating” and “Moisturizing” on numerous hair care products. But are these just marketing buzzwords, or is there real science behind them?

Believe it or not, these terms are supported by scientific research. Studies have demonstrated that the use of hydrating and moisturizing agents, such as humectants and emollients, can increase the water content in hair and prevent water loss.5

Many manufacturers now provide scientific evidence to support their claims, making it easier for consumers to understand the benefits of these products.

The Most Effective Ingredients for Hydrating and Moisturizing Your Curly Hair

Maintaining healthy hair is a universal goal, regardless of your curl pattern or hair type. To achieve this, using the best products and keeping your hair hydrated and moisturized is essential. But which ingredients are the most effective for accomplishing this?

Here are several key ingredients to look for, whether you’re choosing a sulfate-free shampoo, styling product, or a deep conditioning treatment:

Hydrating Agents

Glycerin is a traditional humectant that causes tackiness and is not highly recommended for wavy hair or curly hair; however, it depends on the formulation and how your hair responds to it.

Propylene glycol is another traditional humectant with no tackiness.

Propanediol is a nature-derived hydrating and emollient with other multifunctional benefits, which is highly preferred.

Betaine is a natural hydrating agent extracted from beetroot that is more effective than traditional ingredients. It is strongly recommended for dry curly hair.

Moisturizing Agents

Natural Oils – There are a wide range of good options to choose from, including popular ones like coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and more. For curly hair, it’s best to opt for light-textured oils and butters such as sesame seed oil, refined olive oil, avocado oil, argan oil, crambe oil, grapeseed oil, and baobab oil. Keep in mind that while castor oil is popular, it may be too heavy for curly hair when used on its own.

Natural Butter – Butters have an excellent moisturizing effect with a unique sensational aesthetic feel. Shea butter and mango butter are preferred for curly hair due to their gentle application and non-greasy texture.

Natural Waxes – Natural waxes are gentler than synthetic materials. Jojoba oil is a favorite, a natural liquid wax with amazing sensorial and moisturizing benefits for skin and hair.

Aloe vera – This is a very gentle natural moisturizing agent, has scalp healing benefits, and does not cause any heaviness. 

Proteins – Hydrophilic peptide fragments have a hydrating impact on hair, helping with moisture retention. However, using them in moderation is important; higher concentrations may lead to frizzy hair and protein overload.

Petrolatum and White Oil – Though both are excellent moisturizing agents, both are petroleum-derived and hence are not recommended for curly hair.

Silicones – Hi-Tech materials with diverse applications for hair care; however, they are strongly lipophilic, cause buildup, and may cause limp curls. Not always recommended.


Hair moisture content plays a vital role in determining your hair’s quality, styling, and manageability. Maintaining a consistent hydration and moisturization regimen is crucial for individuals with natural curls which tends to be drier and frizzier.

Combining humectants and emollients is the best way to create a formulation that effectively addresses hydration and moisturization. These ingredients either increase moisture levels in your hair or prevent water loss from the fibers.

I hope this information has provided you with a deeper understanding of the science behind hydration and moisturization and insight into the most effective ingredients for curly hair.


  1. Wolfram, L. J., Human hair: A unique physicochemical composite. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2003, 48 (6, Supplement 1), S106-S114. ↩︎
  2. Syed, A. N.; Ayoub, H., Correlating porosity and tensile strength of chemically modified hair. Cosmetics and toiletries 2002, 117 (11), 57-64. ↩︎
  3. Hessefort, Y. Z.; Holland, B. T.; Cloud, R. W., True porosity measurement of hair: a new way to study hair damage mechanisms. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2008, 59 (4), 303. ↩︎
  4. Stam, P. B.; Kratz, R. F.; White JR, H. J., The swelling of human hair in water and water vapor. Text. Res. J. 1952, 22 (7), 448-465. ↩︎
  5. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999. ↩︎


I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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