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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

How Hair Detangler Works

By February 6, 2013

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Hair detangler works by modifying the surface of hair. (Jennifer Boggs, Getty Images)If you have long hair, chances are you've experienced the pain and frustration of trying to comb out snarls. Hair detangler is like a magical elixir, able to smooth away your cares with the spritz of a pump or wave of your hand. How does it work? It's an example of chemistry in action.

Hair Detangler Basics

Although there are many possible ingredients in hair detangler, they all work by altering the surface of your hair. Hair detangler is a type of hair conditioner that smooths your hair by coating it with an oil or polymer and/or by acidifying it so that the hair's surface tightens up, smoothing the scales on the hair's outer surface or cuticle and imparting a positive electrical charge to prevent the static that can worsen tangles.

Common Chemicals in Hair Detanglers

If you check the ingredients list of a hair detangler, you'll likely see one or more of these ingredients:
  • Silicone (e.g., dimethicone or cyclomethicone) - polymer that adds gloss to hair by binding to its surface.

  • Acidifier - chemical that lowers the pH of the detangler, strengthening the hydrogen bonds between keratin molecules in hair, smoothing and tightening each strand.

  • Hydrolyzed Protein - helps to repair damaged keratin, smoothing the broken edges so strands of hair don't catch on each other as much.

  • Cationic Surfactants - Bind to the negatively-charged keratin, becoming the new smoother surface of the hair.

  • Oil - Oils fill in the pores of dry or damaged hair, making it softer, more pliable, and less likely to tangle.

Homemade Hair Detangler

If you don't have detangler on hand, you can mix up some yourself. There are several options:
  • Dilute regular hair conditioner. Spritz a mixture of 2 tablespoons conditioner in 16 ounces of water onto damp hair.

  • Fill a spray bottle with the following herbal hair detangler mixture:

    8 ounces distilled water
    1 teaspoon aloe vera gel
    10-15 drops grapefruit seed extract
    1-2 drops glycerin
    1-2 drops essential oil (e.g., lavender, jojoba, chamomile)

  • Rinse hair with rainwater (usually acidic) or make your own acidifying rinse by adding 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar to an empty 20-ounce water bottle. Fill the remainder of the bottle with water and use the mixture to rinse clean hair.

  • Rub tangled dry hair with a dryer sheet prior to combing it out.
Make Your Own Shampoo | How Haircolor Works


December 16, 2010 at 12:24 pm
(1) CourtneyMalone says:

I have very long, straight, fairly thick hair. It’s naturally light brown, but I’ve been highlighting it heavily for years, and the ends have recently become extremely dry and difficult to manage. The underneath part that lies against the back of my neck is especially difficult and, after combing, retangles itself within minutes.

I was beginning to think I’d have to cut the bottom 6 or 7 inches off and start over, but my colorist (who, by the way, works in a salon that doesn’t carry Shielo, so I figure she’s being objective) recommended the Shielo Hydrate line (both Shampoo and Conditioner). I figured it was worth a shot, even though the combined cost of the retail sized shampoo and conditioner is about $47.

My hair definitely appears MUCH smoother, even when air-dried. (However, I’ve noticed that continued use is necessary, because when I use anything else my hair doesn’t look nearly as good.) I leave the Shielo Hydrate conditioner in for 5 minutes as the label directs; thoroughly combing it through in the meantime seems to give the best results. With both the Shielo Hydrate shampoo and the conditioner, a little product goes a long way (in contrast to cheaper drugstore products).

January 23, 2012 at 9:59 pm
(2) Oooh says:

This article is great. Thank you for the recipes to make at home.

October 11, 2012 at 9:37 pm
(3) anna Scouten says:

cowboy magic works awesom for me i had the same problem

December 19, 2012 at 7:42 am
(4) FrizzAnne says:

Will this detangle unrelaxed Type 4 hair that is extremely tightly coiled, fragile and super dry in comparison to the above foto?

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