Why is steam good for natural and low porosity hair?
At DHA, we're big fans of moist heat, aka steam. because of the way it can bring hydration to the most resistant, impenetrable low porosity hair.
The 'steam' your hair actually comes into contact with when using a steamer is really water vapour, droplets of H2O that have gotten hot and light enough to float in the air, but not quite hot enough to be steam.
These droplets work so well at hydrating low porosity hair because when they're in this vaporous state, water molecules have way more energy than in their regular liquid form. They move faster and more freely, which makes it quicker and easier for these droplets (aka moisture) to penetrate your hair strand.
Another big reason why hair steamers hydrate better than normal, liquid water is because the surface tension is reduced to almost zero. You know how when water is still, whether in a glass or a calm lake, the surface looks really flat, almost like it has a skin over it? This is because of surface tension, or the way the molecules at the surface of a liquid naturally cling together.
Water's surface tension makes it harder for it to penetrate your hair since its own surface is holding it back. Add that to the resistance of low porosity hair to absorb pretty much anything and you'll see why it takes so long for your hair to get wet - if it gets wet at all.
For the water droplets released by the steamer, surface tension is effectively gone. This is what frees them to float onto and drift into your hair, making their way into the few gaps your low porosity hair permits - and finally getting it hydrated.
All this added moisture is what makes deep conditioning low porosity hair with steam so effective.
What is better a hair steamer, a heat cap or a dryer?
Using just heat, e.g., a heat cap, does make your conditioner more fluid and so more able to give good coverage. But since heat caps don't emit water vapour, they don't deliver the level of hydration you'll get with a steamer.
Using heat from a hood dryer can also help 'activate' your conditioning treatment, but it won't add moisture. Plus, if your hair is not properly sealed with plastic or you stay under the dry heat too long, it can even dry out your hair.
Why deep penetrating moisture is so important to low porosity hair
Natural hair needs moisture because our strands' internal structure actually uses water for strength. Water also increases hair's plasticity; it makes it more flexible, which in turn makes it more manageable, easier to style and able to resist breakage.
Straight low porosity hair tends to take care of its moisture needs on auto pilot, especially when it comes to virgin hair. The different structure of curly hair makes holding onto moisture more complicated, so the hair's natural moisture needs to be topped up.
When porosity is extremely low, which happens naturally on many tight curly hair types, especially "4C", your hair can become so dry it breaks off. This happens because the natural moisture stores within the strand are not enough, and it's so hard to get moisture to penetrate with typical haircare methods and products.
Using steam is one way to overcome that barrier and allow these hair types - which are prone to breaking off before they hit their terminal length - to grow long. Add to that the fact that when your hair's moisture level is correct, it also feels a lot softer and smoother to the touch, and just more fun to play in.
How steaming helps increase your hair's moisture level faster
If you're trying to correct your moisture protein balance or get your hair moisture trained, a steamer, with its higher energy water molecules, is a much faster way to hydrate your hair.
A weekly steam will mean your hair (provided it is not extremely damaged) gets to its ideal moisture level within 1-2 months, as opposed to several months if you try to achieve this by weekly treatments with a typical deep conditioner and no steam.
How much does a good hair steamer cost?
Good steamers aren't cheap. A decent steamer will cost you in the region of £150, and the price can get a lot higher the more premium the model you're looking at.
How to get the benefits of steaming WITHOUT a hair steamer
If a steamer is sounding like exactly what your hair needs, but the cost is prohibitive right now, don't worry. It turns out you can get almost all the benefits of steaming if you just switch to a conditioner that penetrates better, and change the way you apply your conditioners.
OK there's no question: adding steam to this improved conditioning method would take your moisture levels up to stratospheric. But if you're looking for a moisture increase that's equivalent to the level that steam + any decent treatment will bring, then upgrading to a stronger treatment + this method will do the trick and then some, with no steamer needed.
The trick is threefold: first, it's about finding the right conditioning treatment for your low porosity hair, then learning how to apply it to low porosity hair so it absorbs, and thirdly making sure the timing is correct. Getting all these three things right will give you dramatic results. Here's how you do it:
Step 1: Pick the right treatment
If you want moisture at a steam type level, you need to use a conditioning treatment, not a regular conditioner. You can use rinse out conditioner as an additional product, but you'll need to use a hair mask, too. Treatments or hair masks are designed to be more intensive, which is what you need to get anywhere near the effects of steaming.
And don't just throw on any conditioning treatment and hope for the best. Go for a superconditioner if you want to replicate the work a steamer does and then some. Superconditioners are extremely concentrated, high performance conditioning treatments. Because they contain many times the typical level of conditioning ingredients, they feel a lot richer and can hydrate your hair way faster and on a deeper level than even good quality conventional deep conditioners.
How to identify the best treatments for steaming hair
You'll know these superconditioners by their thickness, and their higher concentrations of the ingredients that count. These are the ingredients that hydrate your hair, strengthen it and smooth it, by penetrating or adsorbing onto to your hair.
Ironically, the ingredients that do this hard work generally aren't the botanical extracts and natural oils most brands boast about on their labels.
Instead, look for actual conditioning agents high up on the list: cetrimonium chloride, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, to name a few. Silicones have gotten a lot of negativity in the media, but having one or two somewhere in the middle of the ingredients list is usually good news for your hair, too.
Also avoid very oily or buttery conditioning treatments when steaming low porosity hair. If there's too much oil or butter in the treatment, these ingredients can act as barriers, especially on low porosity hair which has limited room on the surface or inside the strand.
Finally, the treatment you choose should be very slippery to the touch. This characteristic, known as detangling slip, means the product has good movement along the strands. Not only does this help with combing more easily, it's also a sign of good coverage, which is essential for proper conditioning on low porosity hair.
For treatments that tick all these boxes, atrActiva Multivitamin, La Aplanadora Treatment and Halka Baba de Caracol are some good options. We list quite a few more here.
Step 2: Apply your conditioning treatment the right way
Once you've picked your treatment, it's all about the application. We'll be blunt: you need to be generous. Don't bother trying to get away with using just a teaspoon or a quarter size on low porosity hair, especially if your hair is very dry. Give your hair what it needs.
The goal is to take your hair right to the point where it's seaweedy with conditioner. That feel signals that your hair has started to absorb the treatment. We have a step-by-step guide on how to get products to penetrate into low porosity hair that explains exactly how to do it.
Then, take some plastic wrap and cover your head. Make sure all the hair is in, including the edges, and wrap it around your head a few times.
Step 3: Get the timing right
Leave your treatment on at least 20 to 30 minutes to allow it to truly take to your hair, then rinse it all the way out with warm water. If you've never ever steamed your hair, chances are you've never experienced your hair like this before. If you have steamed, then you know what to expect: intensely silky, soft, flexible hair unlike anything your regular rinse out conditioner, hot oil or deep conditioner can do alone on low porosity hair.
With a superconditioner and this intensive application method, you can consistently achieve steamer-fresh hair on low porosity hair without needing a steamer.
This method is so good to your hair, in terms of softness, smoothness, shine, manageability, growth and potential for definition, it's worth doing this every week to keep your hair in this pristine condition that is unlike anything you knew it could achieve.
This method will work especially well if you have 'hard hair' aka super low porosity hair that no conditioner, treatment or method ever seems to work on. To get the results, you need to follow every step to the T. If you have any questions on getting the steps right, just let us know in the comments section below.
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