Is salt water good or bad for curly hair?

Reader question:

Hi Cindy, I’m taking a beach vacation next month and I’ve got a head full of lively curls… I’m curious about the effects of salt water on my hair. I embrace my natural texture and often hear mixed advice about the ocean’s impact. Could you shed some light on how salt water truly affects curly hair, and offer any tips for those of us who can’t resist a swim but want to keep our curls healthy and bouncy?

Noelle Wallace
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Hi Noelle,

Salt water has both positive and negative effects on curly hair. In moderation, salt water is good for curly hair because it defines curls and adds volume. However, frequent exposure to salt water can cause dryness and damage to the hair cuticles due to salt buildup. Therefore, it’s essential to use salt water sparingly and properly care for your hair to prevent adverse effects.

For example, spending long hours at the beach can strip your hair of its natural oils, leading to breakage and frizz. Additionally, the molecules in salt water break down the keratin protein in curly hair, making it more porous and prone to moisture loss (source).

When used in moderation, salt water can enhance the appearance and texture of curly hair by defining curls and adding volume. To protect your curls, it is important to limit your exposure to salt water to less than 12 hours and take precautions against the damaging effects of UV rays, sun, and wind.

If you have type 3 to type 4 curly hair, then salt water will make your hair dryer. This is because curly hair has extra protein (source). Because of this, it makes the hair protein more vulnerable to be broken down even more, which lets more moisture to escape the hair.

Tips for Protecting Your Curly Hair from Salt Water Damage

Your curly hair will need as much protection as it can get. Follow these tips before you head into salt water!

  • Apply a leave-in conditioner or hair oil before going into the ocean. This will help to protect your hair from the sun, wind, and salt and keep it moisturized. I recommend TRESemme’s Flawless Curls Refresh leave-in conditioner because it has ingredients like coconut and avocado, which helps protect and add moisture to your hair. If you prefer something more natural, you can rub a quarter size amount of coconut oil that adds a layer of protection. Be sure your hair is slightly damp first. I recommend Not Your Ordinary Coconut Oil Jar for pre-salt water protection.
  • If you can’t apply any product, then at least wet your hair with fresh water before you jump in. This will help to keep your hair hydrated and prevent it from absorbing too much salt and drying out.

What About Sea Salt Spray?

Sea salt spray is a product that contains salt and water. Just like ocean water, it’s safe to have in your hair in moderation. Overuse can dry out your curly locks, though. However, it can enhance and define your curls like nothing else. The salt content in the spray provides a natural-looking hold, allowing your curls to hold their shape without weighing them down. And let’s not forget about the nourishing benefits of mineral-rich sea salt – it can help strengthen and promote hair growth. For a perfectly tousled, “I woke up like this” look, spritz some sea salt spray into your damp hair, scrunch, and let dry. I recommend Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe Texturizing Sea Salt Spray.

Tips for Treating Your Curly Hair Due to Salt Water Damage

If your hair has been exposed to salt water for longer than 12 hours, then follow these steps:

  • Immediately rinse out your hair with water.
  • Shampoo your hair with a moisture restoring shampoo designed specifically for curly hair, such as MIZANI True Textures Moisture Replenish Shampoo.
  • After you wash your hair, keep it damp and apply a quarter size amount of coconut oil that’s virgin, unrefined, and cold-pressed and leave it in for 30 minutes then rinse it out. I recommend Pure Unrefined Coconut Oil by Alaffia because it’s also fermented, which helps restore hydrating fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
  • An alternative to coconut oil is castor oil, which is rich in fatty acids and vitamin E (source). I recommend Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore Masque because it also includes Shea butter which helps hydrate and moisturize your hair.

Does salt water make hair curly?

Salt water does not make your hair curly, but it can enhance the natural texture of wavy or curly hair, making the curls more pronounced. When hair is exposed to salt water, salt ions interact with the cuticle layer and form microscopic fibers between cells. This process encourages existing curls and waves to become more defined. For straight hair, salt water will not create curls. It only accentuates the existing patterns in hair that is already wavy or curly.