Ingredients to Help Natural Hair Thrive

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 13, 2022
4 min read

If your natural hair starts to look dull, brittle, or simply lackluster, it might be time to switch products. Just because natural hair is considered to be free from chemicals and worn in its natural state doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require some TLC.

Finding the right ingredients is crucial to reviving it. To restore it to a healthier and more vibrant state, proper care and products are key.

“In many cases protein is helpful with strengthening natural hair and preventing it from breaking so easily,” says Angela Stevens, an Emmy-awarding winning hairstylist and Cantu Beauty ambassador in West Hollywood, CA. “Also, hydration in the form of water and oil are also helpful in preventing natural hair from drying out and splitting. It is also important to incorporate treatments within your natural hair process.”

One good choice is a hot oil treatment. This is the process of coating strands with heated oil to reap benefits such as hydration promotion, increased elasticity, and damage prevention. “Hot oil is a great option because it opens the cuticle and allows oil to penetrate deeper into the hair shaft,” Stevens says. “Hot oil treatments are especially good for coarse hair and low porosity hair.”

The benefits of this easy, at-home process are plentiful. “They help to enhance moisturization,” says Uchenna Okereke, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston. “Oils are best applied to wet or damp hair to lock in moisture, boost shine, and reduce dryness over time.”

Tempted to try it on dry hair? Don’t. “It just sits on the hair, the same way oil sits on your skin if it’s dry,” Okereke says.

Stumped on which oils to use? Okereke recommends using shea butter, jojoba, and coconut oil for ultra-hydration. If you’re not up for a hot oil treatment, look for products with glycerin listed as an ingredient. “A leave-in conditioner and deep conditioner containing glycerin are good options,” Okereke says. “Glycerin is a humectant and thus will draw water to the hair, improving hydration.”

It’s no surprise that dryness can lead to breakage and damage. To revitalize strands, look for products formulated with natural ingredients.

“Some ingredients that stimulate growth are herbs like saw palmetto, horsetail, and vitamin B3,” Stevens says. “Oils like coconut oil, vitamin E oil, pumpkin seed oil, peppermint oil, rosemary, tea tree, and thyme oil are additional options.”

While natural ingredients abound, some synthetic ones can be just as beneficial for people who have hair loss due to damage.

“I often recommend minoxidil, which is an FDA-approved ingredient for hair loss, because it prolongs the growth phase of the hair cycle,” Okereke says. “It is effective and often patients are pleasantly surprised by the results. I typically have minoxidil mixed with other ingredients that are more amenable to textured hair, versus the over-the-counter foam or solution, which can be drying for kinky, curly, or coily hair.”

While some synthetic ingredients can work wonders, others should be avoided or used sparingly.

“Products that strip the hair down and remove all-natural oil can be useful for cleansing," Stevens says. She recommends using them "only when there is a need for a deep clean" and not on a regular basis.

 Also, products that are drying to the hair like holding sprays and hard gels are not advisable for long-term use," Stevens says. "Ingredients like isopropyl alcohol, formaldehyde, benzene, heavy fragrances, and added colors are not advisable due to the chemicals and negative long-term effects on the hair and skin.” 

Ingredients called sulfates may need a closer look if you’re trying to revive natural hair. “These are drying to the hair,” Okereke says. “However, sulfates can be applied directly on the scalp to cleanse or treat dandruff. Scalp health is very important to overall hair wellness.”

Are you into low-cost, do-it-yourself (DIY) ways to care for your natural hair? If so, you’re in luck.

“There are so many great ingredients you can find in your cabinet and refrigerator that are good for natural hair,” Stevens says. “Egg is a great natural protein to add to your conditioner or mask. Avocado and honey have amazing compounds that help give the hair moisture and shine. Additionally, apple cider vinegar is a natural cleanser, so it will help remove buildup and irritation while helping give the hair shine.”

While these kitchen staples aren’t going to change your hair permanently, they may have a short-term effect – much like a skin mask you’d whip up at home for your face.

No matter which ingredients you try, stick to what works.

“The key is to cleanse and hydrate regularly and create a system that your hair responds well to over time,” Stevens says. “Figure out what products and a regimen your hair likes and stay close to that. Everything doesn’t work well for everyone so it’s truly up to you to discover the best way your hair likes to be treated. Learning your hair type and texture play a big part in knowing how to take care of your hair.”

Ultimately, natural hair is one way to express yourself and should be embraced and treated accordingly. Stevens adds, “Our relationship with our hair should be a beautiful journey of our self-expression and love for self.”