September 29, 2023
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Leo possesses more than 17 years of valuable experience as a researcher and lecturer within the fields of Biology and Genetics. Holding a PhD in Biology from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina...
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Leonela Carabajal Paladino
This article was originally published in 2018, but due to a technical issue with WordPress, it had to be republished.
Hygral fatigue is a term that might sound foreign to many, but for those in the curly hair community, it’s a phenomenon all too familiar.
Drawing from my friend who is a hair scientist with a background in cosmetic chemistry, hygral fatigue refers to the repetitive swelling and contracting of hair fibers due to water absorption and evaporation, leading to weakened hair structure over time.
Personally, I’ve grappled with the harrowing effects of hygral fatigue not once, but twice. My once vibrant curls turned gummy, lifeless, and felt as though they were on the brink of disintegration. The experience was distressing, to say the least.
With diligent research, I not only managed to completely recover my hair’s vitality but also extended my knowledge and solutions to others in the curly hair community, guiding them away from the clutches of hygral fatigue and over-conditioned hair.
Materials vary in their ability to adsorb moisture. For instance, table salt left in damp conditions can become wet and solidify.
This capacity to draw water from the air is termed “Hygroscopy,” and materials with this property are “Hygroscopic,” with “Hygro” meaning water.1
Fiber scientists have delved deep into how fibers, like wool, interact with water. Wool, a natural protein fiber, shares many chemical and physical properties with hair.
Drawing from wool research, the hair industry adopted the term “hygral fatigue” to describe the same water absorption process in human hair.4
Hair science owes much to wool research, often borrowing concepts and terms. “Hygral fatigue” is one such term, frequently cited in literature to discuss how hair’s properties change upon water absorption.4,5
“Hair that takes up a lot of water and then loses it again can undergo what is known as ‘hygral fatigue’. The hair actually becomes weaker due to the swelling and de-swelling (Analogy – how many times can you stretch a rubber band until it breaks?). Damage can be sustained to the cuticle and cortex which becomes an even greater problem during combing or manipulation.”The Natural Haven
High porosity hair is particularly vulnerable to hygral fatigue. It absorbs more water during washing, causing the hair fibers to swell significantly.6 As these fibers dry, they must return to their original size.
However, the cuticle—the hair’s outer layer—can fray, split, or crack during this process.7 The damage is especially evident when the cuticle contracts quickly after significant swelling, as seen in porous hair strands.
Here are the common symptoms of hygral fatigue:
Hygral fatigue is a phenomenon that arises due to the repetitive swelling and contracting of hair fibers as they absorb and lose water.4
High-porosity hair is more likely to experience hygral fatigue than low-porosity hair because of its lifted cuticles, it has a greater tendency to absorb water.6 The build-up of water inside the hair shaft can cause a lot of stress, making our hair even more fragile.
In contrast, low porosity hair, with its tightly bound cuticles, is less prone to absorbing excessive amounts of water, thus reducing the risk of hygral fatigue.
Here are the causes of hygral fatigue:
While the natural lifting and settling of cuticles is inevitable,6 there are methods to reduce potential harm. We will get into that later.
I came across a highly informative blog by the Nerdy Curly Girl, which I’d like to share some insights from. Regrettably, her website is no longer available.
“Over conditioning is a synonym and interchangeable term for over moisturized hair. It can occur by using too many protein free products, warmer weather, and is more likely to happen to finer haired girls. When your hair is over conditioned – you have an imbalance of excess moisture and deficient protein. It is NOT caused by using too much water and is NOT hygral fatigue.”
The Nerdy Curl Girl emphasizes that while both conditions might display similar symptoms, their causes and underlying reasons differ profoundly.
Again, if you are not exposing your hair to extensive amounts of water, your hair is simply over-conditioned.
Hair that is frequently conditioned will eventually require protein supplementation to the hair fiber.
Examples of protein deficiency:
Over-relying on intense conditioning treatments without adequately balancing them with protein-rebuilding products can compromise the hair’s proper protein structure, leading to protein deficiency.
Recognizing the signs of over-conditioned hair is the first step towards restoring a balanced moisture and protein level, essential for maintaining healthy and resilient hair. Here are the common signs:11
Surprisingly, hair that’s over-conditioned can become porous and eventually dry out. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Excessive moisture (moisture overload) leading to dry hair? While it might not affect everyone, I’ve personally experienced it!
Over-conditioned hair not only becomes weak but reaches a point where further conditioning won’t remedy the situation.
During my hair transition phase, I faced extreme dryness. To address this, I would rewet my hair daily and apply a protein-free leave-in conditioner.
However, I didn’t allow my hair to fully dry before rewetting it the next day, a routine I continued for several weeks.
The point that I’m trying to get across is that the constant rewetting of my hair with water before allowing it to completely dry is what led to the hygral fatigue.
While dealing with over-conditioned hair, I consistently used the same products and slept in deep conditioning treatments without considering their intended effects on my hair, especially in terms of protein and moisture balance.
This oversight inadvertently led to a frustrating cycle of excessive conditioning, further exacerbating my hair’s over-softened state introducing too conditioning agents, leading to too much moisture.
During my transition journey, I believed I faced ‘hygral fatigue’ twice. In reality, my first encounter was with hygral fatigue, while the second was over-conditioning—two distinct conditions.
Initially, I was clueless about these occurrences and their remedies. Now, I can discern the difference between the two. If you’re not subjecting your hair to excessive water, it’s likely over-conditioned, not hygral fatigued.
Clarifications from the Nerdy Curl Girl:
The Nerdy Curl Girl emphasizes that while both conditions might display similar symptoms, their causes and underlying reasons differ profoundly.
Overcoming hygral fatigue revolves around preserving the natural protein structure of the hair shaft.
When this structure remains intact, the hair fiber can resist excessive swelling when exposed to moisture. Regular protein conditioning treatments are crucial to ensure this structure remains robust.4
Research from the Journal of Cosmetic Science12 highlights the protective benefits of polar oils, like coconut oil, against hygral fatigue.
When using as a pre-poo treatment, these oils can significantly reduce the hair’s susceptibility to the damaging effects of repeated swelling and drying, which is a good thing.
When straight-chained polar oils are applied, a fraction of the oil is absorbed into the hair fiber during its natural swelling process.
These oils bind to the hair’s inner proteins, reducing their ability to latch onto water molecules.
This minimizes the hair fiber’s swelling in response to water, leading to less trauma during the drying phase.8
For individuals who chemically treat, heat straighten, or color their hair, coconut oil’s ability to prevent protein loss and reduce hair porosity is invaluable.
Interestingly, oil, which is inherently hydrophobic (meaning it repels water), has been shown to assist in moisture retention.
Contrary to common belief, certain oils can indeed contribute to maintaining hair moisture.
Current research indicates that only polar oils with straight or minimally branched chemical chains can penetrate deeply into the hair fiber.16
When your hair is over-conditioned, it’s crucial to use a clarifying treatment to remove excess conditioning agents and refresh your hair.17
Disclaimer: These suggested routines are adaptable! By examining the ingredients of your current products, you can determine how they best fit into your personalized regimen.
1. Pre-poo oil treatment with coconut oil for a few hrs. to overnight (depending on your hair).
If your hair does not like coconut oil, try another penetrating oil like grapeseed or sunflower.
2. Choose a sulfate-free shampoo or a shampoo with sulfate. I recommend the Kinky Curly Come Clean or Suave Essentials Daily Clarifying Shampoo.
3. Apply your shampoo. Gently massage your scalp with the pads of your fingers. Rinse thoroughly.
4. Apply a protein-rich deep conditioner (see product suggestions under, “After the Wet Strand Test: Understanding Hair Breakage and Product Recommendations“) and leave it on anywhere from 10-20 mins. with or without heat. See suggestions below.
5. Rinse with cool water. Then apply your protein leave in the conditioner, if desired.
Note: By now, using the Wet Hair Strand Test (also known as the Wet Stretch Test), you should be able to decide whether your hair requires a product with more moisture or more protein. Refer to the video below for guidance.
It’s easy to get swayed by product labels promising transformative results without scrutinizing the ingredient list.
Many of us are influenced by trending products on social media or endorsements by our favorite hair influencers, hoping to replicate their results.
However, it’s essential to choose products based on your hair’s specific needs, not someone else’s.
Simply put, even a high-quality product won’t work effectively if it’s not suited to your hair type.
Balancing protein and moisture is key. If you’re constantly leaning towards moisturizing products without considering protein, you risk over-conditioning.
While continuous moisture can make hair feel soft initially, it’s the protein that provides the necessary structure to maintain that softness, enhance hair porosity, and ensure moisture retention.18
Don’t fall into the trap of a one-dimensional hair regimen; both moisture and protein are crucial.
The Wet Hair Strand Test is a valuable tool to pinpoint the causes of hair breakage.
By analyzing the behavior of your wet hair, you can strike the right balance between moisture and protein, essential for optimal hair health.
Every time you shampoo and condition, it’s an opportunity to assess and address any hair issues.
Instead of focusing on just one strand, examine multiple sections to get a comprehensive view.
1. Take a strand of your hair and wet it.
2. Gently stretch the wet strand.
– If it returns to its original length without snapping, your hair has a balanced moisture and protein level.
– If it over-stretches and then breaks, your hair likely needs protein.19
– If it barely stretches, it’s indicative of a need for moisture.20
Here is a YouTube tutorial video by Organic Colour Systems showing you how to do the Wet Hair Strand Test:
– Does your wet hair feel spongy? Hard? Overly stretchy? Fragile?
– Does your hair dry rapidly or take a while to become thoroughly wet?
During your hair cleansing routine, be vigilant about any shedding or broken strands. Reflect on the amount and the way the hair was lost.
– Were you too rough while shampooing?
– Did your hair tangle excessively?
– Were you overly aggressive while combing or finger detangling?
These wet assessments are crucial for spotting and addressing hair dryness and breakage.
Once you’re familiar with your hair’s typical wet behavior, you’ll be better equipped to notice and understand any changes.
Tip: If your current hairstyle (like braids) prevents you from performing the wet test, consider alternating between protein and moisture treatments every week or every other week as a preventive measure.
Harnessing the power of protein treatments can be a game-changer, especially after conducting the Wet Hair Strand Test to assess hair breakage and determine the most suitable product recommendations.
The photo below showcases my hair after undergoing my second protein treatment using Aphogee Two-Step Protein Treatment.
When contrasted with the initial photo above, there’s a noticeable improvement: the curls are more defined, there’s reduced frizz, enhanced bounce and shine, and an evident boost in overall hair health.
Once you’ve identified the root cause of your hair breakage, it’s beneficial to classify its severity. This aids in choosing the right products and treatments.
Hair breakage can be categorized into three primary levels:
By pinpointing your breakage level, you can select products that effectively address the issue without overcompensating and causing further imbalance.
Each level has specific product recommendations tailored for optimal correction.
For hair with little to no breakage, light conditioners, deep conditioners, leave-in conditioners, and protein-based treatments are ideal.
For moderately damaged hair, consider using a protein-based conditioner or deep conditioner once or twice a week.
In some cases, a single treatment can restore hair balance, as protein deficiency-induced breakage is typically easier to address than moisture-related breakage.
If your hair damage is leaning toward severe, a mild reconstructive treatment might be more suitable.
For hair with significant damage, a potent protein reconstructor is required.
Start by cleansing your hair with a clarifying or sulfate shampoo to remove residue. Then, apply a protein-rich conditioner or treatment tailored to the protein deficiency level.
Product suggestions: Aphogee Two Step Protein Treatment, followed by a moisturizing conditioner.
*Using heat can enhance the protein treatment’s effectiveness by promoting better protein bonding to the hair.
Note: Since addressing protein deficiency breakage is relatively straightforward, relying solely on protein-based products might tip your hair’s balance.
It’s possible to restore balance even before the regimen’s end. Monitor your hair’s condition throughout the regimen. If you notice your hair has strengthened, consider transitioning to moisturizing products.
It’s essential to be proactive, recognizing and responding to the signals your hair provides. As you strive to achieve the right moisture-protein balance, stay attuned to your hair’s condition.
It’s possible that your hair might self-correct before you finish all the recommended steps for a particular breakage level.
In some cases, you might need to repeat a regimen for a couple of weeks before restoring balance.
Consistently observing and understanding your hair’s responses is key. This awareness helps determine whether to continue with a particular regimen or adjust your approach.
Mastering the art of “reading” your hair is a skill developed over time.
No, washing your hair every day does not necessarily give you hygral fatigue. Everyone should wash their hair according to their own needs.
Everyone’s hair health is unique and thus recovery time varies. If you find yourself needing to repeat the regimen multiple times before your hair is back in balance, don’t be discouraged – that’s completely normal!
Additionally, it’s not uncommon for some sections of your hair to recover faster than the rest; this too should come as no surprise.
Key: it is VITAL to pay attention to the cues your hair gives you by evaluating your hair as you go through each part of the corrective regimen because your hair can self-correct at any step. This will also help you know when to stay the course and when to redirect your efforts. Use the Wet Hair Strand Test.
Yes, hair can recover from hygral fatigue. You can achieve healthy hair again. The recovery process involves restoring the hair’s natural balance between moisture and protein.
With consistent care and the right products, hair can regain its strength and health after experiencing hygral fatigue.
No, air drying itself does not cause hygral fatigue. Hygral fatigue results from the repeated swelling and contracting of hair fibers due to frequent wetting and drying.
While air drying is a method of drying, it’s the process of frequently wetting the hair and allowing it to swell with water, then drying and contracting, which can lead to hygral fatigue over time.
In fact, air drying is often recommended as a gentler alternative to heat drying, which can cause additional damage and stress to the hair if not done properly.22
However, if hair is frequently wetted and then air dried, the repeated cycle can contribute to hygral fatigue.
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