Are you over-hydrating your hair? Here's the difference between over-conditioning vs 'hygral fatigue'
In the age of dewy skin and soft tresses, it’s easy to get lost in the world of beauty. A face cream here laden with generous proportions of hyaluronic acid, a hair oil here infused with pure, organic argan oil, and a bit of clever marketing (buzzwords, people!) and we’re like putty in the hands of beauty brands. Moisturising products are all around us, and it’s difficult to see the downside to it. Like, can you really overdo it on the hydration?
Actually, yes. As the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing, and even though we all love a bit of moisture, it may just be making matters worse. Here, we cover when and how hydrating your hair can go awry, as well as haircare solutions to prevent and fix it:
The science behind overhydration
There are a few ways you can over hydrate your hair. The first is through over-conditioning, and the second is through hygral fatigue.
Conditioning is a necessity: It smooths out fraying in the hair shaft, detangles and prevents breakage. However, with over-conditioning, you’re going a little too hard on the hydrating product front. It’s definitely related to product buildup, where products are unable to absorb into the hair shaft, so they end up coating it and causing your locks go from glossy to greasy real quick.
The products coating your hair prevent anything else from penetrating it (except moisture), leaving your hair greasy and flat—often with a sticky residue, overly soft and unable to hold style.
What is hygral fatigue?
Hygral fatigue is a slightly different (but still related) story. Limp, lifeless locks aren’t the result of products weighing the hair down, but more of a symptom of excessive water retention within the hair shaft.
Think of it this way: When your hair is wet, water is held within the hair strand’s cuticle. To be able to hold all of this water, the cuticle swells up, which leaves the hair heavy and weakened. Then, as the hair dries, the cuticle slowly loses the water and shrinks back down to its natural state.
Sometimes, you will find that the cuticle splits or frays as it shrinks, especially if it has been left wet and weakened for a considerable time (hence why you shouldn’t air dry your tresses). The longer you leave your hair wet, the more susceptible it is to developing an imbalance—specifically, the protein in your hair becomes deficient and the moisture goes into overdrive. The discrepancy in protein and moisture levels leaves your hair cuticle permanently weakened as it loses structure.
In addition to the imbalance, the sheer weight of the water in your hair, plus the process of swelling and shrinking puts an incredible amount of stress on your hair fibres over time, which is what eventually leads to hygral fatigue.
Porous hair is particularly prone to hygral fatigue because the splits and breaks in the cuticle make it easier for water to get in, and for water to get out. Therefore, the swelling and shrinking process happens a lot quicker. Either way, eventually your hair is left limp and unable to retain moisture.
It’s important to note here that hygral fatigue is not the same thing as over conditioning—although they lead to very similar outcomes, their underlying causes are very different.
Over-conditioning can happen in the presence or absence of water, while hygral fatigue is dependent on excess water saturation in the hair to occur. That said, it’s not uncommon to experience them simultaneously: over-conditioning can easily lead to hygral fatigue if left unchecked.
What causes over-conditioning?
Your shampoo is too rich
You’re not doing yourself any favours by layering shampoos rich in oils and emollients over the top of your already moisture-treated hair. Leave the conditioning to your conditioner, pre-shampoo treatments and hair masks—shampoo time should be reserved for cleansing.
You’re using the wrong conditioners
The key is to invest in a conditioner that’s actually right for your hair type. If you’ve got fine, straight and thin hair, skip the super rich formulas infused with heavy butters and oils as they’re bound you leave your hair limp and greasy.
Instead, opt for lighter, silicone-free formulations. Silicone-free is the key here: Silicon conditioners make your hair appear (and feel) soft and hydrated because the molecules fill in the porosity. The result? Your hair feels great, but the hydrophobic silicone seals the cuticle off from moisture and other nutritious products, eventually leaving your hair dry and brittle.
If your hair is textured and is on the drier or thicker side, richer formulas are fine because your locks absolutely needs the moisture. Just don’t go overboard with the application because these is such a thing as using too much product. Speaking of which...
You’re too heavy-handed with the application.
Yup, you may have the perfect conditioner for your hair type, but if you’re applying it by the gallons and hoping for the best, product buildup is going to be a major dilemma. A little goes a long way—so, slathering it on mindlessly is just a waste of product.
You’re conditioning too close to the root
Now, this doesn’t just apply to your daily conditioner—you should be avoiding the root when using anything like serums, hair masks or oils, so you don't end up with the dreaded greasy roots.
You’re overdoing it with the hair masks
This is highly dependent on your hair type, but the general rule is the coarser and more textured your hair is, the more often you should mask it. That said, if you have fine, untextured or thin hair, you’ll want to keep the masking to a minimum to avoid over-conditioning.
You aren't rinsing properly
Make sure you’re rinsing your products out thoroughly, because leaving residue in your hair opens you up to product buildup. If you’re struggling to do this, you could try reverse washing, where you condition before you shampoo. It sounds counterintuitive, but many swear by this technique (especially for those with fine or curly hair textures), claiming that it restores the bounce in their hair.
How can you fix over-conditioning?
Worry not—your over-conditioned tresses can be fixed! Start by purging the conditioning products for a little while. While you’re at it, use clarifying shampoo to help get rid of any product buildup that has accumulated. If neither seems to be helping, give a protein treatment a whirl—it’ll restore some much needed structure to your hair.
(Note: Definitely consult your stylist about the latter. They’ll know best)
How to prevent hygral fatigue?
Treat your hair with coconut, argan or avocado oil before washing
Using an oil that is able to penetrate your hair before washing will ensure that your hair doesn’t take up too much water when wet, thus preventing your hair cuticle from weakening.
Don’t air dry your hair
We’ve been through this before, but just to recap: If you’re air drying your hair, you’re leaving your hair cuticles swollen with water for longer than if you were to just dry it on the lowest dryer setting. The longer you leave it wet, the more pressure builds up within your hair strands, leading to cuticle damage.
Don’t leave your hair sopping wet
If you have extremely damaged hair that doesn’t respond well to heat styling, make sure you’re taking the majority of the moisture out of your hair first. This will take away the extra weight causing your hair to stretch. Squeeze out excess water with a microfibre towel or a pure cotton t-shirt to prevent further damage to your hair.
Lay off the deep conditioning for a while
Leaving your hair wet, even if it’s with a conditioning treatment in, for an extended time will lead to damage. So, if you tend to leave your treatments in longer than the recommended time, or they’re a daily habit for you, chances are all you have to do is lay off of them to avoid hygral fatigue.
Alternatively, invest in treatments that replenish both moisture and protein in order to avoid hygral fatigue.
Are you guilty of over-hydrating? Find out what else you may be doing wrong with your hair.