In a recent article, we talked about humectants – the ingredients in our hair products that attract water and help bring in moisture. While humectants are important for helping keep dryness at bay, there is another ingredient that is just as important. I’m talking about emollients. So, what are emollients in hair care?
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What are emollients?
Emollients are oily or buttery substances that can do a number of things for your hair.
The three main functions of emollients are locking moisture in, protecting hair from the elements, and providing lubrication that adds slip to hair.
Emollients can be found in a variety of products, but they are most often in products that are made to protect or moisturize your hair, and in detanglers.
They can sometimes even work as anti-humectants – the products used to keep your hair from getting more moisture.
Clearly, knowing your emollients and how each one works is important if you are going to use them.
How do they work anyways?
Emollients are oily and typically hydrophobic.
Hydrophobic means they do not like water.
Think of trying to mix oil and water, or if you love food like me, oil and vinegar.
They typically don’t like to mix.
In the same way, emollients won’t want to mix with water.
Because of this, emollients are good at being occlusives.
Occlusives block moisture from getting in or out.
Since emollients are oily, they tend to coat your hair without being absorbed, making a kind of shield to keep in water (or out).
Because they are already coating your hair like a shield, emollients are in the perfect position to protect your hair from other things.
Heat, UV, and many other dangers to your hair can be held at bay depending on which emollient you use.
Finally, oil is slippery.
You know this, I know this, Italian chefs know this.
Most emollients that you can put in your hair will give it more slip and will act as a detangler.
How do I use emollients?
Since emollients have so many uses depending on which emollient you use, it’s important to keep in mind your goal for using an emollient in the first place.
After that, we will talk a little bit about which emollients do what.
If you’re looking to moisturize, then you will want to use emollients with a humectant.
Remember emollients by themselves DO NOT hydrate your hair. In fact, most hate water.
It’s important to use a humectant – a product designed to draw in water – first.
The right time to use an emollient for moisturizing your hair is after the humectant pulls in water.
Then the emollient will act as a shield to trap in that moisture.
This will work best in dry weather when there isn’t enough moisture in the air to supply the humectant.
Most ladies with natural hair use the LOC (liquid, oil, cream) method to moisturize their hair.
They incorporate both humectants and emollients to lock in as much moisture as possible.
To avoid moisture
Too much moisture is a bad thing too.
The main complaint on a hot, humid day is frizzy hair.
This is caused by moisture in the air.
Just as emollients can trap moisture in, they can keep moisture out.
The important point here would be avoiding a product that has emollients AND humectants.
To eliminate frizz
This goal will be affected by which product you choose to use.
The important thing here is to avoid drying out or frizzing out your hair if you’re only looking to protect or detangle it.
Emollients can and will still block moisture, so it’s important to pick the right emollient for you.
There are various anti-humidity hair products that are specially designed to keep frizz at bay.
Many of them contain emollients in the list of ingredients.
Why hair thickness matters
Yes, I know, you’re ready to hear about all emollients and what each one does.
But there is one last thing to think about when picking an emollient, and that’s hair thickness.
Hair can be fine, medium, or course (or some products will call it thick).
This isn’t about how much hair you have, it’s about how thick the individual strands of hair are.
If you have thicker hair, you’ll want a heavier emollient.
This will effectively coat all your hair without leaving blank spots.
If you have thinner or medium hair, consider a lighter emollient.
These emollients will still work without making your hair feel greasy or weighed down.
Types of emollients
Alright, here we are. Here are some of the bigger emollient types to look out for.
Natural vegetable oils and butters
These are the most popular emollients.
Not only are they effective for moisturizing, but they also nurture your hair.
They give your hair substances that nourish and sustain it, like vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids.
They also provide excellent protection.
If you have thick hair and want natural vegetable oils in it, look for avocado oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter, or olive oil.
On the other hand, if your hair is thin to medium, try to find emollients like mango butter, argan oil, sweet almond oil, sunflower oil, or soybean oil.
Lately, a lot of people have been comparing avocado oil to coconut oil.
I did my own comparison and gave my verdict on which one is superior.
I recently wrote a piece about light oils used in hair care. Check it out for more information.
These emollients are good at creating a protective film on the hair, and they work especially well with damaged or over-processed hair.
The common silicones are dimethicone, amodimethicone, and cyclomethicone.
They are also very good for heat protection, so add these to your hair before a blow out or straightening session.
Silicones are contained in most heat protectants in the market.
Look out for silicones that are too heavy, they can be hard to remove without special shampoo.
Wax is a little harder to get in your hair but it can be totally worth it.
It’s a lot thicker than plant butters, but it’s good at conditioning, softening, and protecting your hair.
It can come from plants or animals.
Beeswax is a very popular wax emollient; it’s used in a number of products and can give your hair a beautiful sheen.
Jojoba oil (that’s just what it’s called, it’s actually a liquid wax) is great for thick hair, and it’s very good at creating a balance between too oily and too dry.
These aren’t the same alcohols that are in your martini.
They are ‘long-chain,’ which for our hair means they are good at moisturizing our hair, they tend to bind with water molecules.
These are one of the few emollients that attract water rather than repel it and can act like humectants too.
Some popular fatty alcohols include glycerol, cetyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol.
There are many more emollients in the world, but these are just a few you should look out for.
Butters, oils, silicones, alcohols, and wax can all do the job, depending on what you’re looking for.
Whether you have been trying to retain moisture or avoid excess environmental moisture, emollients can come in handy to help you in both situations.
With this knowledge, you will be better prepared to keep your hair drier, oilier, less tangled, more protected, or hopefully some combination of the above with emollients.