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Hygral Fatigue: the Cause, Effect, and Correction

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Verna Meachum

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Disclaimer: Hygral fatigue and Over conditioning and the products usage patterns that tend to encourage it vary from person to person. There are no official standards here, what works for one may not work for another.

What is Hygral Fatigue?

Hygral fatigue, is there such a thing? Yes! It’s actually a term used in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, but more about that later. Also, someone sent me a blog by the nerdy curly girl which I found to be extremely helpful and I’m sharing some of her insights with you.

Hygral fatigue occurs when the hair swells from repeated and excessive swelling and deswelling of the hair cuticle when it takes on water. It is often associated with porosity issues. The process of hair expansion in wet conditions and contraction under dry conditions is both stressful and damaging to the hair fiber over time.

Porous hair is more susceptible to damage and tends to take in more water during the washing process than other hair types. This causes the hair fibers to swell considerably when wet. Our hair fibers must then shrink back to their normal sizes during the drying process, but the cuticle can fray, split or crack as this happens. And damage may be especially pronounced when the hair cuticle rapidly contracts from a state of intense swelling (as in porous hair). The natural process of the cuticles lifting and laying flat cannot be avoided, but there are ways to minimize possible damage.

Hygral Fatigue earned its definition from the term “hygral expansion.” The definition of hygral expansion is:

“Hygral expansion measurements of woven wool fabrics are influenced by the way in which wet fabric, after relaxation in water, is dried. If the wet fabric is dried directly in an oven, the hygral expansion values are relatively low, but if the fabric is allowed to dry under ambient conditions before oven drying, the values are relatively high (and closer to the “true” values). An interlaboratory trial conducted using thirteen commercial worsted fabrics includes a statistical analysis of different methods for determining the magnitude of hygral expansion. The fabric drying conditions have an important bearing on the magnitude of the dry dimension, and this in turn influences the hygral expansion value obtained.” (Hygral Expansion of Woven Wool Fabrics)

During my transitioning days, my hair experienced ‘Hygral Fatigue’ twice (so I thought, when in all actuality, my first experience was hygral fatigue and the second time was over conditioning- these terms are not synonymous). I had no idea what was happening nor did I know how to correct it.

I now understand how my hair experienced both conditions. The key difference between hygral fatigue and over conditioned is— if you are not exposing your hair to extensive amounts of water your hair is simply over conditioned.

Here’s a further breakdown according to the nerdy curl girl:

  1. Is hygral fatigue an interchangeable term for over-conditioning? No.

  2. If you are over conditioned are you also experiencing hygral fatigue? No.

  3. Is your hair also over-conditioned while it’s hygral fatigued? Yes! (Hence the confusion!)

The nerdy curly explains that, “People who are experiencing both may present with similar symptoms: the cause and reasonings are extremely different.”

My Experiences

First experience— my hair was severely dry during transition, so my attempt to correct it was to completely rewet and apply a protein free leave in conditioner on a daily basis without giving it time to completely dry before wetting again (I did this for a few consecutive weeks). I also strictly co washed EVERYDAY with a non protein product. This led to hygral fatigue, which caused my hair to be in a very weak/fragile state, and overly moisturized. My hair was lifeless and without structure. It literally felt like my hair would disintegrate. Very scary.

I learned this from the nerdy curly girl:

“…perpetually moisturizing with water (a main moisturizing agent) and conditioning agent while your hair is a fragile state. It’s often why you may notice hair breakage — especially in the nape area which is generally the area most likely to break due to friction. The excessive hydration has left your hair unable to soak in nutrients, weakened, and in need of being balanced.”

Signs of Hygral Fatigue:

  • hair will have a gummy feeling when wet

  • may have low elasticity (it has difficulty stretching when wet and/or does not spring back after pulling)

  • excessive frizzing, hair is not retaining moisture and feels porous

  • limp

  • curls do not curl

  • no weight

  • over conditioned

  • in severe cases- breakage

Second experience- When my hair was over conditioned I religiously used the same products without giving much thought as to how the product was intended to work for my hair from a protein or moisture standpoint. I used to deep condition overnight and solely used moisturizing products that were void of protein.

I also learned this from the nerdy curly girl:

“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.”

Again, if you are not exposing your hair to extensive amounts of water, your hair is simply over conditioned.

Signs of over conditioned hair:

  • feeling of being mushy

  • limpness

  • fluffiness without weight

  • possible excess frizzing

Over time, over conditioned hair can become porous and start to develop its own dryness as a result. Wuttt??? You mean too much moisture will cause your hair to be dry? Yup, it may not happen to everyone, but trust me I’ve been there!

Hair that is over conditioned becomes weak and no additional conditioning will cure it.

Things to Consider

Sometimes we overdo it with our hair because we buy products based on what the product says it will do on the front label all the while not paying attention to the ingredients list. Many of us select products based on what we see come through our social media feed or we see our favorite curl crush sporting a new product expecting to achieve their results, etc.

If you aren’t evaluating your products from the vantage point of protein versus moisture, you’re not maximizing your hair product’s potential. If your hair has one set of needs but you choose hair care products based on what someone else’s hair needs are, your hair won’t respond well, even if it is superb quality.

If you are always on the side of thinking that your hair needs moisture with each and every product, you will eventually have gone too far over into over conditioning. It should not be the only basis of your hair regime. And it’s not a difficult trap to fall in either.

Hair that is getting infused with moisture on a regular basis tends to feel really soft and nice at first, but a strong protein infrastructure is needed to support that softness and improve the hair’s porosity and increase the likelihood that moisture gets in and stays in.

Correcting Hygral Fatigue

Beating Hygral fatigue is all about maintaining the innate protein structure of the hair shaft. If the protein structure is intact, the hair fiber will resist excessive expansion when wet. Ensuring a proper protein structure through timely protein conditioning treatment is essential.

Researchers discovered that using polar oils such as coconut oil as a pre-poo treatment can protect the fiber against hygral fatigue. (Journal of Cosmetic Science). When a straight chained polar oil is used on the hair as a pre-poo treatment, a small portion of the oil is absorbed into the hair fiber when the fiber naturally swells. Polar oils protects the hair binding to the hair’s inner proteins, which in turn reduces the protein’s chemical ability to bind to water molecules. Swelling in reaction to water is kept to a minimum in the hair fiber, which experiences considerably less trauma as it contracts to dry. Coconut oil is a low molecular weight oil that effectively seals the hair and has a strong affinity for hair proteins not found in other oils. Coconut oil benefits in two ways; it inhibits the penetration of water from the surrounding air and environment and is able to bind to the natural protein structure of the hair. This helps the hair to retain its natural moisture content and reinforces the hair fiber, making it stronger. Coconut oil’s ability to prevent protein loss and reduce hair porosity makes it especially valuable to those who chemically treat their hair or regularly heat straighten or permanently color their hair. 

The interesting part about oil is that it has recently been shown to have a role in acting as an adhesive, patching these cracks and cavities allowing the cuticle to maintain its mechanical integrity. (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg 85-95, 2009)

Oil is hydrophobic (hydro meaning water and phobic meaning fear which means oil and water do not mix). It therefore seems strange that oil can help towards the goal of maintaining moisture but surprisingly, some oils do!

Here are a few benefits, all in relation to coconut oil:

1. Preventing hair from swelling when wetted and therefore protection from hygral fatigue (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg169-184, 2001)

2. Preventing protein loss (cuticle chipping/abrasion due to washing and wet combing) – (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg175 -192, 2003) 

*To date, research has shown that only polar oils with straight or minimally branded chemical chains are able to migrate deeply within the hair fiber. (Journal of Cosmetic Science 54 (2003):175-192. Secondary Ion Mass “Spectrometic Investigation of Penetration of Coconut and Mineral Oils into Human Hair Fibers: Relevance to Hair Damage”, Journal of Cosmetic Science 53 (2001): 169:84.)

Hair Strand Test (Wet Assessment)

Here’s where you will benefit from performing the Hair Strand Test (Wet Assessment), which is a proven strategy for determining causes of BREAKAGE. Understanding the information your wet hair provides will help you keep your hair appropriately balanced between moisture and protein. Each shampoo and conditioning session is an opportunity for hair evaluation and problem correction. It will help you maintain your hair’s health and condition. Don’t just pay attention to one strand of your hair, evaluate several sections.

Take a strand of your hair, wet it with water, then gently stretch it.

  • If it returns to it’s original length without breaking, you have properly balanced moisture/protein levels.

  • If it stretches more than it should and breaks, you probably need protein. If it doesn’t stretch much, you probably need moisture.

Pay close attention when your hair is wet:

  • Is it spongy?

  • Hard?

  • Stretchy?

  • Fragile?

  • Does it dry very quickly in the air?

  • Does it take time to feel fully wet?

Take the time to note any shed or broken hair strands that come about your cleansing session. Consider the amount of hair fallen and the means by which the hair was lost. For example:

  • Were you shampooing too harshly?

  • Was your hair tangling terribly?

  • Were you combing or finger detangling too aggressively?

These wet assessment tests are very important for identifying and treating hair dryness and breakage issues. Once you develop a baseline for how your hair should feel, you will be able to properly catch and diagnose any deviations from its normal feel.

*If you cannot wet assess your hair due to it styled in braids or in a way that does not allow you to easily determine your protein or moisture needs, you will need to alternate the protein and moisture on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule as preventative maintenance. Breakage or problems from over conditioning with moisture are easier to correct than problems from over conditioning with protein.

Over Conditioned Hair

Hair that is frequently conditioned will EVENTUALLY require protein supplementation to the hair fiber.

Examples of protein deficiency:

  • environmental damage (overexposure to the sun)

  • the overuse of heat styling tools

  • hair coloring

  • chemicals

  • mechanical stress

  • swimming (chlorine)

Also, these things can destroy the hair’s natural protein structure: the overuse of rich, deep conditioning treatments in your regimen that is not sufficiently balanced with protein rebuilding products can cause protein deficiency.

Hair in this state is often; super elastic, overly soft, stretchy and may not hold curls or styles well.

How to Correct Hygral Fatigue

Whenever your hair is over conditioned it’s always important to clarify to strip excess moisture and give your hair a reboot.

Disclaimer: these regimens are totally flexible! You can gauge the products you currently own by analyzing the ingredients list to determine where they would fit into your own 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 Kinky Curly Come Clean or Suave Essentials Daily Clarifying Shampoo.

  3. Apply your shampoo. Gently massage you scalp with the pads of your fingers. Rinse thoroughly.

  4. Apply a protein rich deep conditioner anywhere from 10-20 mins. with or without heat. see suggestions below.

  5. Rinse with cool water. Then apply your protein leave in conditioner, if desired.

Important: At this point you should be able to determine using the hair strand test (wet assessment) whether or not your next steps needs to include a product with more moisture or more protein.

Low protein breakage is typically corrected with one deep conditioning treatment.

For zero to minimal breakage— the best protein products are light conditioners/deep conditioners, leave in conditioners and protein-based treatments. Ex. Deva Curl Deep Sea Repair, Mielle Mint Organics Deep Conditioner, Green Rawkyn, add Green Beauty Real Protein Treatment to a conditioner or deep conditioner.

For moderate breakage— you may need to use a moderate protein based conditioner/deep conditioner once or twice a week. For some, one treatment will restore the hair’s balance because protein deficiency breakage is generally easier to correct than low moisture breakage. Ex. Aphogee 2 minute reconstructor, The Curl Junkie Repair Me.

If your breakage is on the border of moderate heading into severe, a mild reconstructive treatment may be the right one for you. Ex. Aphogee 2 minute reconstructor, Redken Extreme CAT Anti-Damage Protein Reconstructing Rinse-Off Treatment.

For severe breakage— a heavier protein reconstructor is needed. To support the deepest penetration of protein, first wash your hair with a clarifying shampoo or sulfate shampoo to lift debris and product from the hair. After rinsing, apply a protein rich conditioning product or treatment that corresponds to the level of protein deficiency. Ex. Aphogee two step protein treatment, followed by a moisturizing conditioner.

*Heat is optional, it will add more intensity by slightly improving bonding of protein to the hair and increase the area that proteins can bond with.

Note: Since protein deficiency breakage is relatively easy to correct, using protein-based products from beginning to end of this regimen may flip your balance in the opposite direction. You may find that your balance is restored at the shampoo or protein conditioner stage.

Please monitor your hair as you go through this regimen. As you feel your hair begin to strengthen, you may switch over to moisturizing products.


Will washing your hair everyday give you Hygral Fatigue?

If your hair is susceptible to it, and it depends on how many cuticle layers your hair has, the type of products you use.

How do you know when it’s ok to go back to your regular regimen when recovering from Hygral Fatigue?

There is no specific length of time for your hair to fully recover. It all depends on the severity of each person’s hair. Also, don’t be discouraged if you find that you need repeat a regimen a few times before the balance comes back. That’s normal. And don’t be surprised if sections of your hair recovers faster than the rest of your hair.

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 Hair Strand Test.

Other Sources: Hair and Hair Care.

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