Friday, September 2, 2022

Why Does My Hair Cling Together When Wet, But Not When Dry?

You know how your hair tends to be less frizzy and more "together" and agreeable when it is wet, and then when it dries, all that friendly togetherness vanishes!? 

It's not all friendly togetherness, there is... tension. (Oh, the drama)!

In elementary school or on wherever you get your science educational fun - maybe you floated thread or paper clips on the surface of a glass of water. Same thing.

Behold, a dry paintbrush, and the same brush when wetted. Nothing was added to the brush other than tap water.

Dry paintbrush, in all its fluffy
This happens (in part) because of surface tension between the water molecules in your hair. Water molecules tend to be attracted to each other, and can behave almost as a film (think of insects that move on the surface of water leaving little saucer-shaped "dents" in the water with their legs).
Another part is cohesion - the water is attracted to the surface of the hair and that attraction also creates something like a temporary film.

That tension and cohesion vanishes with the water, because it was an effect of the water.

There are a few things you can learn from this to help you understand how to manage hair as it dries!

1) Hair is usually more clingy when wet, the more water is attracted to it. Water is more strongly attracted to porous hair (heat-styled, highlighted, permed, relaxed, permanently dyed), but also to hair with some conditioner in it (or used on it). Clingy wet hair can be a good thing 
Wet paintbrush, this is the
same brush

because you can rely on the way that wet hair (and the temporary hydrogen bond-formation that occurs when wet hair dries) dries in the shape it was set while wet, to dry more clinging-together. If that's something you want. 

2) Hair is less attracted to water when it is low porosity, or when it has product residue (styling products, excess oils). 

3) Hair might be less likely to stick together if it is quite coarse (relatively large in diameter), dehydrated, tangly or damaged. That's a flexibility issue, and it's difficult for water alone to pull the hairs together.

Apply this:

- If your hair tends to frizz as it dries, that can be managed by:

- Reducing the other charge-interactions going on (use a rinse-out or leave-in conditioner or styling cream. This also reduces friction and static. I'm pretty sure you already knew that.

- Use a styling product that creates a longer-lasting film (gel, mousse) - I'm 99% certain you already knew that too. 😀 

- Reduce friction. Reducing friction can reduce volume - so if volume is your goal, then reduce friction only where you don't want frizz or extra fluffiness. Water is overcoming the tendency of friction in our hair to spread it out (create frizz), while wet - the water's actions can be stronger than friction's. Reducing friction with emollients (oils, shine serums, styling creams) can help your hairs stay together longer.

- Do something during styling that presses hairs together, with more or less tension depending on your hair's tolerance and your desired result. A comb, brush, or your fingers pressed together, for example. Just like you would squeeze the bristles of the paintbrush to form it neatly before drying.

- If your hair doesn't like to stick together when wet:

- A clarifying shampoo or a hard water shampoo might help if product residue or hard water residue is the problem.

- Using conditioner and working it into the bulk of your hair may help to improve flexibility. Think of how you have to work "wet" ingredients into dry ingredients when baking. It takes some physical effort. Hair is not entirely different, it is helpful to squeeze, squish, press, comb conditioner (and water) into hair for good mixing and coverage.

- A deep conditioning, oil treatment or protein treatment might be what your hair needs to feel its most flexible. I repeat - this is about flexibility! Hydration and flexibility go together. These address both, depending on your hair and your choice of treatment.

- Do something during styling that presses hairs together, with more or less tension depending on your hair's tolerance and your desired result. A comb, brush, or your fingers pressed together, for example. Just like you would squeeze the bristles of the paintbrush to form it neatly before drying.

- Some hair naturally doesn't cling together when wet. Coily hair (Type 4), textured hair (kinking hair) or very coarse, medullated hair can fall into this category. This isn't a by-product of product residue, it's a feature of the hair itself. A few paragraphs up friction was mentioned. 

- If your hair doesn't like to cling together when wet (and with conditioner in it), and that isn't a result of product residue or hard water, then you might need to introduce a little friction or "grip" to your hair. Ingredients like shea butter or cocoa butter, modified starches, plant gums (acacia, xanthan, guar), and clays are examples of ingredients that add some grip to hairs so they can cling better when wet. Look for those in a conditioner or pre-washing treatment.




  1. Hi WS,
    Is there any benefit to adding hair oils after a heat protectant that contains water-insoluble silicones? Do hair oils still penetrate the hair despite the silicones? If they don't penetrate, would I add hair oil before a heat protectant and styling? Sorry if that's a difficult question, but I've always been apprehensive about adding a hair oil into my routine if the heat protectant product "seals" my hair to the point that my hair receives no benefit from the oils.

    1. Hi letsrollol, There could be a benefit to oils over a silicone-containing heat protectant for reducing frizz, keeping hair smooth, flexible, reducing tangles or flyaways, and feeling soft. Oils can provide benefits to hair that don't involve penetrating into the hair shaft. A heat protectant isn't going to seal your hair off from the oils completely, not unless you soaked your hair in the stuff. While oils and silicones don't mix (without an emulsifier), it would be easy to imagine a heat-protectant with BOTH silicones and oils in it. So it's probably a lot more a matter of how your hair behaves using both - and how you feel about using an extra product. I would try it and see how it goes! Good luck! - W

  2. hello, i wanted to ask you some questions about hygral fatigue ect. So i have medium soft, 1a-1b, low porosity (or used to be atleast) outer hair, with what used to be dry, tangled, poofy, high porosity waves underneath.

    a year and a half ago, i started using water-based leave in conditioner everyday and it quickly turned extremely soft, frizzy/poofy, lost all its structure and didn't clump. i think i had hygral fatigue. then i tried out some protein for my hair which gave it some structure back. then i tried more protein since it was still not back to normal. but then it just started to become worse and even more soft. then i tried with some more moisture and some ceramides, but then it turned more silky and now static as well.
    i've tried everything, gelatine, all sizes of proteins, deep cleansing and chelating shampoos, oils. washing with distilled water (since i have hard water), baking soda for stripping the moisture, to see if my hair can get a little more dry and structured like it used to, and not so baby fine. but it just keeps getting more silky. i've been using mousse, sprays and gels for a year now to keep my hair from being so flyaway and silky. but even though i use tons of it, it's like my hair soaks it right up when it dries and turns into a poofy frizzy static mess, with almost no clumping again. though it does give it just enough texture for my hair not to fall out of a braid.
    what is weird is, that when my hair it wet, it feels more normal, stiff and clumps, but when its starting to dry, it just becomes extremely soft again. it's even static while its damp.
    ive gotten a short haircut, aiming to cut away the affected hair. i got it cut right under my ears with bangs. the bangs are clumping and has semi normal structure again, though they are still very very silky. but the rest of the hair is still the same for some reason. i feel like its starting to grow out the same way now, a soft poofy mess.
    even though my hair is extremely silky, it still breaks off a lot. im starting to find a lot of weird bent snapped hairs with zigzag patterns, i also find bumpy hairs and when i pull on them, they break. i'm so confused as to what my hair needs, or if this is just how my hair is now.
    i've been extremely frustrated for almost two years, as i feel like my hair doesn't react like normal hair should do. i feel like im the only one experiencing this, hairdressers don't understand my problem, and i don't know where else to seek help than here. so i wanted to see if you could help me makes sense of what's going on with my mysterious hair.
    best regards

  3. Hello m, If that were my hair, I would interpret the first "leave-in episode" as a product that was a little too softening - not leaving the desired feeling. I wouldn't make that a hair-health call (like hygral fatigue) so much as a bad-product-match for your hair and goals. Protein tends to add some support - but as you've found - it can also over-soften (or stiffen). That's part the protein you used, part the product the protein is in. From what you describe, it sounds like you might be over-conditioning. It's really easy to go overboard with conditioners when your hair is already easily overwhelmed. Imagine your laundry if you used too much fabric softener! Shirts and towels would be limp, soft and not behave normally. The other culprit other than "maybe too much" is maybe not the right products for you. You didn't say what sort of products you were using specifically - the devil can be in the ingredient-details. Sometimes hair can grow in more silky and slippery than it was before, especially if, in the past, your hair had more UV exposure, or you used to use heat tools, color or highlight your hair. Sometimes your hair will change in response to a medication, hormonal changes, a move to a different climate. Make a list - mental or otherwise - and see if any of those factors fit. Post back if nothing fits and let me know what products you used. I'm trying to check comments more often. Good luck!

  4. My hair (low porosity, sensitive to protein, does not like aloe or coconut oil) tends to set well (curls stick together when wet) and then the curls break apart after I move around once they're dry. Just as you describe above. I loved DevaCurl's Set It Free spray to solve this issue, but it is now discontinued. I used to spray it on wet hair after applying leave-in conditioner and gel, and I haven't found a similar replacement. Question: (1) do you think a variation of the flax seed curl cream would do the trick (possibly adding glycerin which my hair responds well to) adding some pressing together as you describe above to reduce friction? Could the flaxseed cream be made into a spray? And/Or (2) would it be a terrible idea to try to create my own simplified version of Set It Free, using some of the main ingredients (some combination of Distilled Water, Glycerin, Isopropyl Myristate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Oils, beeswax, ?add an emulsifier?)? It's hard for me to know what might have been holding the curls together from the product; what to take away from it or which of the many spray recipes you have mentioned in the blog might be just the thing. Any insight is appreciated!

    1. Hello Curly Girl DW! Devacurl Moisture Seal is the new version of "Set It Free," according to their website. I'll post the ingredients, they're not quite the same, but quite similar. I used "Set it Free" years ago, and it is a magical product. Moisture Seal 8 oz: AQUA/WATER/EAU , GLYCERIN , ISOPROPYL MYRISTATE , CETEARYL ALCOHOL , ACRYLATES/C12-22 ALKYL METHACRYLATE COPOLYMER , CETEARETH-20 , CETEARYL OLIVATE , ETHYLHEXYLGLYCERIN , OLEA EUROPAEA (OLIVE) FRUIT OIL , PENTYLENE GLYCOL , PROPYLENE GLYCOL DIBENZOATE , PVP , SORBITAN OLIVATE , TOCOPHEROL , PHENOXYETHANOL , PARFUM/FRAGRANCE , CITRAL , CITRONELLOL , HYDROXYCITRONELLAL , LIMONENE , LINALOOL
      [[I think to DIY this, you'd want to make a spray with water, some conditioner or curl cream (with glycerin and maybe some shea butter) and a little bit of hair gel.]] Flaxseed gel doesn't make a very good spray, and it's heavier than this product was. The basic effect of Set It Free was to add some emollients (Cetearyl alcohol, oils, Isopropyl Myristate), some moisture and humectant (water, Glycerin), a little extra "grip" (PVP, beeswax). So that's what you want in your spray. It adds a little hydration for flexibility, the emollients add more flexibility, but the PVP and beeswax created a little hold and friction so hair wouldn't become too soft or flyaway or limp. I hope that helps! -W

  5. Hi Wendy, I am so glad to see you back online!
    I am hoping it's ok to ask this question here - and I apologise in advance for the length of this - I have read through soooo many blogs, along with asking my local (I'm in Australia) curly hair product supplier (who has been so generous with sharing her time and wisdom) but we are a bit stumped on where to go next. I would be so happy to pay you for your time if that is an option!!
    I am a very white Australian 44 year old woman with extremely coarse hair. It is also quite coily in areas. It is generally low porosity, and seems very sensitive to coconut, aloe, protein….all the things that curly girls would use to help with their curls/coils! I get regular trims, I have never straightened it, I clarify often, I don’t have hard water, I deep condition with heat regularly, and I live a fairly clean healthy life style. I also use a how-heat hair dryer a couple of times a week. Yet my hair is the bane of my existence…(I am autistic, which I realise could play a massive part in this – especially from a sensory perspective).
    No matter what methods I use, what products I use or eliminate, I cannot for the life of me get my curls to clump. Because it is quite short I can’t just put it up when it’s not behaving, hence I find myself totally unable to leave the house some days when it sends me into a spin (I am also addressing this with my psych as I realise this behaviour isn’t healthy). I have bought scarves, hair bands – you name it, in continues attempts to put it up or do something to make it look nice and for me to feel confident.
    All I want is soft, manageable hair. I don’t mind about frizz – but I would just love to have softer hair with ends that stick together; this article above (with the paint brush) was a perfect example of what’s going on. Every product I use seems to make it flash dry. I used to get better results from creams than any other styling product (gels especially – and I have tried sooooo many) but even these days it don’t do any good.
    This has been going on for at least 6-12 months now, but to be honest I’ve struggled for years to find the right routine for my hair. I can do something one week that will work ok but as soon as I repeat it it just goes POOF/FRIZZ/STAB again. (I say STAB as my 4yo son won’t let me cuddle him as he is also autistic and can’t handle the feeling of my hair on his skin. This very much adds to my despair).
    Early last year we decided to lighten my hair in sections in order to change the porosity so that the conditioning products/techniques I was using could better penetrate. This changed my life – for a month. It was amazing. I could get 3 days out of a wash, and my hair was soft, flexible, manageable…I got my life back because I wasn’t wasting so much time every day trying to do something with it. Then the next time she over-bleached it, and it has been a disaster ever since (despite all my trims).
    Even when it is wet and slathered in conditioner, it feels coarse. It looks like I'm in protein overload, even when I am not.
    I just don’t know what to do next, and I was hoping you may be able to please suggest something that I may be missing??? It shouldn’t be normal to have hair that is THIS sensitive!!
    Thank you so much Wendy - if you are still reading :)

    1. Hi Amber! It's completely normal to have hair that is coarse and doesn't cling - some people might call that "wiry" or difficult to manage. Lots of wave and curl types and patterns do not like to cling together. It's not as common as "average hair" (whatever THAT is), but it's not uncommon either. Hair is gloriously variable. If your skin is sensitive (like eczema or rosacea), you may notice hair-flexibility more, and when you are an extra-sensitive person overall, you definitely notice it more. I did encounter hair like that doing hair analyses. It sounds like you may have low-porosity hair that probably has some kinking and may be Coarse (width). The fact that lightening it, initially made it easier to work with supports the "low porosity" notion. -- If you have hard water, that could reinforce the low-porosity/stiff behavior of your hair. In which case a chelating shampoo or rinse (search the blog for hard water posts) could help with softness and flexibility. -- Another thing that can help is the oil pre-wash treatments. They can soften hair, but the excess oil is washed out, so it's not staying in your hair, causing side effects. -- Honey rinses also can soften low porosity hair. Honey, 1-2 teaspoons (5-10 ml) or more in 230 ml warm water, can be left on hair for a few minutes before conditioning. Honey is a humectant that penetrates hair to hydrate it from within. If you don't like honey, you could use agave syrup, rice syrup, or sugar. -- Steam can also work wonders for softening hair. You can use steam on hair that has conditioner in it (steam from a facial steamer, or hair steamer - something safe for skin), or on hair with a styling cream in it. The steam is almost magical in its ability to get hair hydrated and pulled together, especially with a cream in it that has a clingy texture. -- Product texture: Choose conditioners or styling creams with a clingy texture. It helps hairs grip each other. -- Actually - do look for protein! Keratin protein, or Hydroxypropyltrimonium rice (or wheat) protein - actually any kind of Hydroxypropyltrimonium-modified or Cocoyl-modified protein are much less likely to cause problems. They are hybrid conditioner-proteins. You might find those in Hask Keratin Protein Smoothing Deep Conditioner, Redken Extreme Cat Rinse-off treatment. Hask Color Care Protection Deep Conditioner contains quinoa protein, which (to me) seems an agreeable protein for a variety of hair types (and no coconut oil). -- Simple techniques: Are you adding water to the conditioner in your hair and squeezing/scrunching it in so your hair gets really, really flexible while the conditioner is in it? That can make a world of difference. It's like mixing batter to make sure there are no dry bits of flour left behind. -- If you've been using products with oils or butters or styling products that leave some residue, have you used a clarifying shampoo to remove product residue? -- What about flexibility you'd add to dry hair? Like a hair oil or hair serum? Those add flexibility and helps hairs lie more closely to each other so it's less poofy. -- I think the highlighting was a good idea in terms of manageability. Increasing porosity does that, and some people love it. I'm sorry it was over-processed the second time, a root touch-up would probably be more appropriate rather than all-over lightening. Or, if that's what was done, give your hair a deep conditioning or oil pre-wash treatment before the last wash-day before highlighting to protect it - and warn the stylist your hair is *easily damaged* so they'll be extra-careful. You could also consider permanent color - which would increase porosity, but maybe not as aggressively as highlighting. -- Did I just throw everything I can think of at you!? Yes I did. :) Anything you haven't tried, or that seemed to click? Go for those first! Trust yourself and your observational skills. Good luck and best wishes! Wendy