Moisture, Butters, and Oils: An Overview

How often have you heard a person with natural hair say: “I use an oil or a butter to seal moisture into my hair.” After the fact, have you ever walked away slightly confused? Afterall, what is the difference between an oil or a butter? And how exactly do you seal moisture into your hair? Here is a great article from Rory, the creator of Chocolatehairvanillacare, that answers those questions.

It is often said that oils are not the same thing as moisturizers. This is true. But there is some confusion when people talk about how they’re moisturizing with things like coconut oil; because it’s an oil, how can that be? What is a moisturizer and what is an oil? What’s the difference between the two? And where do things like shea butter fall in these categories?

The very short answer is, a moisturizer is something that adds water to the hair, and an oil is something that seals the water in. By itself, coconut oil cannot add water to the hair. So technically it is not a moisturizer. However, if you add coconut oil to wet hairyou are in effect both moisturizing and sealing (preventing the water from escaping) the hair.

Some saturated oils such as coconut oil, shea butter, and cocoa butter are more often referred to as “butters” rather than oils. This is for several reasons, but the most obvious one is because they are solid at room temperature. The less obvious reason, and the one most pertinent to hair care, is the fact that these oils absorb more readily into the strands of hair than other, unsaturated oils (i.e., oils that are liquid at room temperature such as olive oiland castor oil.

The butters do a great job sealing in moisture that is already in the hair. But because they absorb over time into the hair strands, the barrier on the outside of the strand becomes less effective, leaving it vulnerable, both to water loss and to frizz.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there are synthetic oils (such as mineral oil and petroleum products) that are fabulous sealing the hair, since they do not get absorbed at all. They certainly protect against frizz, but once that seal is created there is no way to get moisture into the hair strand without washing the product out and starting over again.

The lure of creating a moisture barrier and controlling frizz is what drew many people to mineral oil (i.e., baby oil). But it doesn’t do anything to help add moisture if the strands are dry and brittle, nor does it help to strengthen them.

Helpful Definitions...

  • Moisture: water (if aloe is included, that’s just a bonus)
  • Moisturizer: butter product (e.g., coconut oil, shea butter, cocoa butter) that absorbs into hair, and helps strengthen it by attracting proteins
  • Sealant: oil (e.g., olive oil, almond oil, argan oil, sunflower oil) that is not absorbed into hair, but provides external protection from water loss and against frizz

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