Hair porosity: the most important characteristic to learn about your natural hair

The key to keeping your kinks and coils moisturised beyond wash day? Learn your hair porosity type and the products and techniques that best cater to it.

Each head of natural hair is its own intricate maze of lovingly intertwined kinks, curls or coils, but one common experience many of us share is the struggle to hold onto moisture beyond washday.

The excitement of first going natural and embracing your hair exactly as it grows out of your scalp is liberating. What’s not to love about determining your curl pattern, hoarding every product that promises to define it, and then dedicating whole days to nourishing it?!

You may also like

How to tell if there’s too much protein in your hair

But, in the rush to perfect high puffs and twist outs, the seemingly tedious fundamentals of natural hair care can get easily neglected. Before long, every washday feels like an exhaustive pursuit for elusive hydration. And it’s at this point that we start agreeing with the unfounded reputation natural hair has for being dry and unmanageable.

According to several natural hair experts though, hair’s inability to hold onto any moisture past washday has nothing to do with your hair type, and everything to do with how you care for it. The key to long-lasting moisture? Catering to your hair’s porosity.

You may also like

Carra review: “This new hair advice service has completely changed the way I treat my natural hair”

What is hair porosity?

As award-winning textured hair specialist and director of education at Bad Apple Hair, Michelle Thompson explains: “Porosity refers to how well your hair is able to absorb and hold moisture. It is decided by the flexible outer layer of each hair called the cuticle – which determines how easily moisture and oils pass in and out of your hair.”

The reason porosity should be one of the first things you learn about your kinks and curls is because it can save you from the exhaustive routines that have come to wrongly exemplify natural hair care.

“Knowing your porosity is one of the most important things to know about your hair because it’ll enable you to create an efficient and effective routine using products that actually suit the structure of your hair,” says celebrity hairstylist and Shea Moisture UK Ambassador, Stefan Bertin.

Porosity is believed to be genetic, but it can be changed by the application of heat or chemical treatments, because they tend to manipulate the hair cuticles.

You may also like

The best afro hair salons in the UK

How does porosity affect the way hair behaves?

Most experts consider hair porosity to be the sole factor that determines how your hair behaves. So, while it might seem like just the study of how water and oils penetrate individual hair strands, Stefan says, it’s the characteristic that affects “how well your hair holds a style, how strong it is, how easy it is to moisturise, how shiny it is, how susceptible to frizz it is, how long it takes to dry,” and more.

You can have multiple porosities on one head of hair, but as there are only three main types – high, medium and low, it’s not too hard to get the hang of taking care of each. 

You may also like

How to tell if there’s too much protein in your hair

How to work out your hair porosity type

Although the internet is brimming with fun tips and tricks that claim to aid in determining hair porosity, the science behind them is inconclusive at best.

Michelle Thompson suggests a professional technique, where you “get a strand of hair, hold it vertically and rub fingers down from tip to root.” – to feel for fraying or weak cuticles.

But, unless you know what a hair cuticle actually feels like, it’s best to heed the advice of Stefan Bertin, who simply says “you’ll just have to observe your hair’s characteristics.”

Read on for our expert breakdown of how to spot each porosity type and cater to it.

You may also like

Best at-home treatments for every hair type, texture and concern

The lo-po breakdown

How to identify low-porosity hair

You’ll know your hair is low porosity if it’s constantly repelling water. Thompson says this hair type is “hard to keep wet, because water tends to bead up and roll right off the strand. Product applied to the hair will sit on top, not penetrating it.” The reason being, “the tightly-packed cuticles are closed, so moisture does not enter easily.”

How to make your wash day work for you 

Just because your hair is adamant about keeping its cuticles shut, doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to coerce your strands into retaining more moisture and product.

Bertin says, “washing with water that is quite warm will encourage the cuticle to open and allow absorption of the conditioner that will follow.” And it doesn’t stop there, “try covering your hair with a plastic cap while it has a conditioner or deep conditioner on, to trap the heat in and help your cuticle open even further.”

If you’re still struggling with your hydration efforts, “dilute your conditioner”. Bertin says, “A lot of the time a conditioner will be too thick to work its way into low porosity hair. But if it’s mixed with water, it becomes thinner and it can work its way through the gaps in the cuticle.”

The ingredients to look out for

As this porosity type is usually parched, Bertin says “The products you will want to gravitate towards will have ingredients like honey or glycerin in them.” Thompson explains why humectants are key for low porosity hair, saying, “these ingredients work particularly well as they impart moisture, balance out the ph level of the hair and help seal the cuticle – preserving elasticity, strength and health of natural hair.”

Best products for low-porosity hair

You may also like

How to protect your hair while you’re sleeping, explained by an expert

The hi-po breakdown

How to identify high-porosity hair

In the expert opinion of Kash Bishop, Afro stylist at Neville Hair and Beauty, hair that “tangles easily, is prone to frizziness, absorbs products well but still feels brittle and dry after,” is a textbook case of high porosity. These hair strands are extremely porous, so have a hard time holding onto the moisture they’re so good at soaking up.

How to make your wash day work for you

High porosity hair needs to be handled with care. According to Bishop, “because the cuticles raise and stick to each other high porosity hair tangles easily, so take extra care when handling your wet curls and kinks to prevent breakage.” To strengthen the hair, the stylist suggests using regular “protein treatments to fill in the gaps in the hair’s cuticle.”

According to Naeemah LaFond, Global Artistic Director of Amika and famed hairstylist, “the most important step in the washday process for high porosity hair is what you do after the wash to seal in the moisture.” This hair type “can lose moisture just as easily as it absorbs it, therefore cream-based products help lock in the moisture of your deep conditioner, and further seal and smooth the cuticle.”

Bertin adds, “use cooler water to wash hair so as not to encourage the cuticle opening any further, and always finish with a very cold rinse at the end which will help to close down that cuticle.”

The ingredients to look out for

LaFond says, “products that provide lots of moisture and have emollient ingredients in them are key for high porosity hair.” The science being that, moisturising ingredients hydrate the hair, while oils aid the sparse, loose cuticles in sealing said moisture in.

Best products for high-porosity hair

You may also like

Afro hair styling: “A celebration of my natural hair after years of hiding it away”

The med-po breakdown

How to identify medium-porosity hair

Unlike high and low porosity hair types, medium porosity hair doesn’t have any standout characteristics. You’ll know you have this hair type if your hair is generally “healthy with normal shine levels,” according to Bertin.

How to make your wash day work for you

Medium porosity hair doesn’t need much special treatment, because it’s the best of both worlds. In order to keep this hair type flourishing, Bertin believes “it’s important to alternate between moisturising shampoos and conditioners, and protein ones in order to maintain a good balance of moisture and strength.”

While this porosity type may be easy going when it comes to products, detangling tools can make or break it. Bertin cautions, “throw those poorly made brushes and combs away. They’re probably stopping you from fulfilling your hair health and length dreams. You don’t have to break the bank, but at least look for combs that don’t have seams down the middle – those seams are wrecking your ends.”

The ingredients to look out for

So, what do you use on hair that pretty much takes care of itself? Products with nourishing ingredients that don’t drastically change the hair’s structure. The focus should be on ensuring you “incorporate hydrating and deep conditioners into your weekly regime, and don’t be afraid of oils – your cuticles can handle it”, says Bertin.

Best products for medium-porosity hair

You may also like

Best styling products for afro hair: 4 women share the products they’re currently loving

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Main image: Getty