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Understanding Humectants and Anti Humectants in Hair Care

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Learn the difference between humectant vs anti humectant in hair care

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Have you ever struggled with your hair turning into a frizzy mess despite trying every styling product available? The solution, especially in humid conditions, may lie in understanding and using the right type of product for your hair—specifically, choosing between humectants and anti-humectants. But what are these, and how do they differ?

Humectants are ingredients that absorb and retain moisture, helping to draw water molecules to your hair.1 Common examples include glycerin. On the flip side, anti-humectants work to repel moisture, preventing hair from absorbing excess water from the environment. Natural oils and butters, like shea butter, are typical anti-humectants. These two classes of ingredients serve distinct purposes: humectants are used to hydrate and moisturize the hair, whereas anti-humectants help to seal the hair shaft, preventing frizz and keeping the hair styled in humid conditions.

Deciding when to use humectants or anti-humectants is key for maintaining the optimal health and appearance of your hair, especially for those with curly hair types that are more prone to moisture-related frizz.

For an expert perspective on this topic, I’ve enlisted the help of a seasoned hair scientist and cosmetic formulator, holding a PhD in Chemistry, to offer his insights. Let’s get into it.

Understanding Humectants and Anti-Humectants in Hair Care

The battle between humectants and anti-humectants is central to maintaining the perfect balance of moisture for your hair. But what exactly are these compounds, and how do they work? Let’s dive into the science behind them and their roles in hair care.

Humectants are chemical compounds designed to attract, absorb, and retain moisture from the environment. They are known for their hygroscopic properties, meaning their effectiveness can vary depending on their chemical structure and the surrounding weather conditions.2 Glycerin is a classic example of a humectant widely used in hair care products.

On the other side of the spectrum, anti-humectants do the exact opposite. They serve as a barrier to moisture, preventing the hair from absorbing water from the air. This property makes them ideal as lubricants and occlusive agents, sealing the hair shaft and keeping moisture in or out, depending on the desired outcome. Natural oils and butters, like shea butter, are typical examples of anti-humectants.

For those navigating the complex world of curly hair care, understanding when and how to use products containing these ingredients is essential. Humectants are beneficial in dry environments, where attracting moisture to the hair can combat dryness and brittleness. Conversely, in high humidity, anti-humectants can prevent the hair from becoming overly swollen with moisture from the air, which can lead to frizz and loss of definition.

The choice between using a humectant or an anti-humectant depends largely on your environment and your hair’s needs. Incorporating products with these ingredients correctly into your hair care regimen can lead to healthier, more manageable curls.


In the table below, humectants are further classified into two groups; small molecules and large molecules highlighting their molecular size and ability to penetrate.

HumectantMolecule Size
Glycerin   Small molecule
Propylene GlycolSmall molecule
Sorbitol    Small molecule
Sodium PCA  Small molecule
D-Panthenol Small molecule
Sugar based molecules e.g. glucose, lactoseSmall molecule
Acetamide MEASmall molecule
Sodium LactateSmall molecule
Polyethylene glycol – 200Large polymeric molecule
Hyaluronic acid and its salt Large molecule
Proteins, peptidesLarge molecule
Amino acidsSmall molecule
Aloe Vera derived compoundsLarge Molecule


  • Plant sourced butter, e.g. shea butter, mango butter, cocoa butter etc.
  • Plant oils, e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil etc.
  • Natural waxes e.g. beeswax
  • Lanoline and lanolin derivatives
  • Synthetic esters, e.g. C12-C15 alkyl benzoate, isopropyl myristate, etc.
  • Silicones, e.g. dimethicone, cyclomethicone, amodimethicone, etc.
  • Petroleum sourced e.g. petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil

Maintaining Balanced Moisture for Healthy Hair

Achieving and maintaining the right balance of moisture is crucial for healthy, naturally beautiful hair. Water stands as the most essential element for hair health,3 playing a vital role in preventing hair from becoming dry, damaged, porous, and prone to breakage. These issues can arise from everyday grooming practices and exposure to harsh chemical treatments. To combat these effects, hair care formulations often include humectants or other moisturizing agents that help regulate the hair’s moisture levels.4

However, it’s important to remember that too much of anything can be detrimental. Just as hair with too little moisture becomes dry and brittle, hair with excessive moisture can also suffer damage. Striking the right balance is key to ensuring hair remains healthy and resilient.

Curly Hair and the Importance of Managing Water Content

Curly hair, with its unique structural features, requires careful management of its water content. Both insufficient and excessive moisture can lead to challenges in styling and maintaining the definition of curls. Overuse of humectants, for instance, can draw excessive water into the hair shaft, leading to significant swelling. In extreme cases, this internal pressure can even cause lateral cracks along the hair length, compromising the hair’s integrity.

To counteract these issues, anti-humectants play a crucial role. Operating in direct opposition to humectants, anti-humectants prevent water from binding to the hair’s protein sites by creating a delicate, water-resistant film on the hair shaft. This action effectively blocks excessive water pressure, helping to control the hair’s moisture content and preserve the natural physicochemical properties of curly hair.

Frizz Management with Anti-Humectants

Frizz is a common concern for those with curly hair, characterized by misaligned strands that disrupt the uniformity of the curl pattern, leading to a messy and unorganized look. High humidity, wet weather conditions, and frequent washing contribute significantly to frizz by causing hair strands to absorb excess moisture, which disrupts their alignment.

Addressing frizz involves minimizing the hair’s exposure to excessive moisture and humidity. Anti-humectants play a crucial role in this process by creating a barrier that prevents water from penetrating the hair shaft, thus keeping the strands aligned and reducing frizz. Natural oils and butters are particularly effective anti-humectants, offering a straightforward solution for managing frizz in curly hair.

Managing Humectants and Anti-Humectants in Extreme Humidity

Navigating through varying levels of humidity requires a tailored approach to hair care, especially when dealing with extreme conditions. Let’s explore strategies for high, moderate, and low humidity scenarios.

High Humidity (>80%)

In conditions where the air is saturated with moisture, hair can absorb excess water from the environment, leading to increased weight, swelling, and the dreaded frizz. In such cases, the use of anti-humectants or moisture blockers is crucial. These products form a barrier that prevents excess moisture absorption, helping to keep frizz at bay.

Moderate Humidity (55-65%)

At moderate humidity levels, hair typically finds a natural balance. To maintain this equilibrium, a combination of humectants and anti-humectants (or natural oils, butters, and proteins) is necessary. A balanced formulation ensures that hair retains optimal moisture without the adverse effects of over-absorption or dehydration. Regular cleansing and the application of moisturizing conditioners are also key to maintaining hair health.

Low Humidity (<40%)

Dry air conditions result in low humidity, where the lack of water molecules in the environment can lead to hair desorption, causing dryness, brittleness, and loss of texture. In such scenarios, the goal is to minimize water loss from the hair. Applying anti-humectants can effectively seal moisture within the hair shaft, preserving its natural softness and smoothness.

By understanding and adjusting your hair care regimen to the specific humidity conditions, you can ensure your curls remain healthy and well-maintained.

Key Takeaway and Steps

Humectants and anti-humectants play pivotal roles in hair care, especially for curly hair, by managing moisture in differing humidity conditions. Here’s a summary of key strategies and tips for maintaining balanced and healthy curls:

  • Opposites in Action: Humectants attract and absorb water, whereas anti-humectants prevent water absorption.
  • Weather Watch: The external environment, particularly humidity levels, dictates whether to use humectants or anti-humectants for optimal hair care.
  • Routine Maintenance: Cleanliness is crucial. Ensure your curls are regularly washed to remove build-up.
  • Balanced Formulations: Opt for hair conditioners that include both humectants (like glycerin or propylene glycol) and anti-humectants (such as natural oils or butters) to maintain moisture equilibrium.
  • Adapt to the Climate: Stay vigilant about the weather and adjust your hair care practices accordingly. Excessive use of either humectants or anti-humectants can disrupt the moisture balance, leading to dryness or frizz.
  • Moderation is Key: Strive for a healthy balance in your hair care regimen to avoid the pitfalls of overuse, ensuring your curls stay hydrated, defined, and vibrant.

By following these guidelines and tailoring your hair care approach to the specific needs of your curls based on the surrounding humidity, you can enjoy well-moisturized, and frizz-free curls.


1. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999.
2. Christoph, R.; Schmidt, B.; Steinberner, U.; Dilla, W.; Karinen, R., Glycerol. In Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, John Wiley & Sons: 2003.
3. Marsh, J. M.; Gray, J.; Tosti, A., Healthy Hair. Springer International Publishing: 2015.
4. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 1986.


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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