Detangling: Wet or Dry?

By Jc of The Natural Haven

Getting rid of shed hair, knots and tangles is the main purpose of detangling.  For natural hair, the detangling process can be difficult depending on the length of your hair, how dry it is and how it shrinks when wet. It is however possible to detangle hair wet or dry and for many, the detangling process that you use evolves with time and greater understanding of your hair’s behaviour.

Here is a guide on whether to choose wet or dry detangling

1. The Case for Wet Detangling

What it is:  Hair is coated in conditioner and then combed (finger, comb and/or brush) or hair is soaking wet in the shower and combed while conditioner is being rinsed out

Advantages: The main reason why people choose wet detangling is because it is easier and hair does not tend to break when the comb is repeatedly run through it. Hair conditioner is known to reduce damage to hair during the combing process. This is thought to happen because conditioner softens hair, corrects the charge from shampoo /aligns the cuticle correctly and reduces friction between the hair and combing tool.

Disadvantages: Water uptake does swell the hair fibre and as a result combing can lead to minor chipping of the cuticle. The uptake of water in natural hair will lead to shrinking which will require control. Hair is also slightly weaker when wet and therefore will break at a lower force.

How to balance out the disadvantages: Although raking a comb through hair soaked in conditioner can be relatively easy, avoid using too much force to counter for the reduced strength of the hair fibre. With wet combing hair tends to break closer to the root leading to long segment breaks. Therefore, check the hair that comes out during the detangling process and see if it really is mostly shed hair (i.e with a bulb) and not broken hair. For those with longer hair, sectioning hair into 8 or more twists/braids will help control the volume of hair and help reduce shrinkage.

Who should consider this method: New naturals, naturals with short hair, anyone who would like to reduce detangling time (busy schedule or not particularly patient)

2. The Case for Dry Detangling

What it is:  Hair is largely dry (70% or more) during dry detangling. Hair may be misted with water/water oil mix or with a little bit of conditioner but is not wet or soaked in conditioner. Hair can also be fully dry and coated with oil for slip

Advantages: Natural hair has a tendency to shrink when wet and dry detangling helps to minimise or eliminate this. The associated problems with shrinkage i.e complex tangling and knots are therefore reduced. Additionally, hair is stronger when dry and therefore can withstand greater force in principle.

Disadvantages:  Unlike wet combing, repeated combing strokes with dry detangling DOES lead to more damage. Natural hair when combed dry with a brush or comb also tends to break prematurely as a result of loops and knots formed. The main form of breakage seen as a result of dry detangling is small segment breaks (1 inch or less in length). Many naturals who have problems retaining hair growth will often avoid dry detangling for this reason.

How to balance out the disadvantages: Dry detangling can be very successful if hair is not 100% dry. Adding a little mist of water allows hair to have some elasticity but as hair is not soaking wet, it still has some strength. Using a small amount of conditioner gives the added advantage of softening the hair. Using oil gives added slip and reduced friction. Many people who dry detangle also exclusively finger comb during this process and therefore eliminate the premature breakage due to using a comb or brush.

Who should consider this method: Dry detangling requires a lot of skill to be successful. You will need to fully understand how your hair responds to water (how it shrinks, how elastic it is) and choose ideal lubrication (conditioner, oil, water or a mix of your choosing).  Therefore this method is recommended for anyone who is patient, not easily frustrated and willing to do due diligence to get a successful result.

Ladies, do you detangle your hair wet or dry? Why does your method work for you?


Int J Cosmet Sci, pg 76, 2008
J Cosmet Sci, pg 477-84, 2007
J Soc Cosmet Chem, pg 347-371, 1993.
J Soc Cosmet Chem, pg 39-52, 1995

Book reference: Chemical and Physical Behaviour of Hair by Clarence Robbins

The Natural Haven

The Natural Haven

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40 thoughts on “Detangling: Wet or Dry?

  1. I finger detangle after i’ve saturated my dry hair with conditioner. This makes my hair so soft and smooth. Wet detangling does not work well for me.

  2. I have found that I must detangle before getting my hair wet or it will all fall out. So I use a leave-in or oil when it dry and a combo of fingers and my wide-tooth comb.

    That way when I wash and comb through while it is wet, there’s a lot less breakage. But I like the break down in the post makes me understand the choices better.

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  5. Hey very cool web site!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I’ll bookmark your web site and take the feeds also?I’m happy to find numerous useful information here in the post, we need develop more techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

  6. I have to detangle my hair in the shower because water itself makes my super long hair tangle. But often if I want to extend my hair without washing it I have to comb it with a spray most of water/aloe/conditioner and I usually put gel or something on top. I just need something, anything to accompany the water. Another problem is that if I don’t do this my hair tends to look flat and stringy. The reason I think is that my roots do not curl, and I don’t care what you do, they refuse to hold a curl or wave because my hair is so long that the weight of it just stretches the roots down. There are many ppl who retain curl at the root but my hair texture is well…mine. So I have to do me, my daughter also has straight hair with spiral curls on the ends so I have to comb it with a mist of water and products daily. Otherwise the top looks tangled and the rest is stringy.

  7. I just started dry detangling and let me tell you, I am much happier with this. My daughter and I are 4B ladies and we love it! However, we tend to lose hair when wet detangling due to our natural tendency to knot. I dry finger detangled my daughter and I and the response we go was amazing! I did a coconut prepoo (14+ hours) and detangled from that point so the hair was good and oily. I was able to look at the knots, take my time and approach the tangles as if they can be untangled. Which you can not do when you detangle with a comb. You can not be sure of the separation when the hair is wet cause it tends to shrink again. Afterward I washed, deep conditioned, leave in, sealed and styled. The hair was so much easier to work with. The curl pattern was more evident and the experience was better for me and my daughter. I am officially a dry with oil (coconut or black castor) finger detangler.

    • I agree 1000%! I just started detangling when dry as well and my hair responds well to it. I don’t detangle when it’s fully dry, I spray water to make it damp and apply a slippery conditioner and it’s great! I tried detangling when wet sooo many times before and I could actually hear my hair snapping :( so I needed something new and it’s been fabulous!

  8. Okay my position on this as a very long wavy/curly hair natural, I certainly detangle my hair when wet with conditioner, but if I want to wear my hair down, it has to be combed in a dryer state for adequate fullness, tangle reduction, and to reduce a frizzy, stringy like appearance. I can do this with water or anything but I get the best results with coconut oil. Check out my channel, you can see how I comb my hair dry. I’m not sure why my images always post sideways or upside down.

    • I am in total agreement that is the best video ever!!!! I love when Electric Mayhem rocks out and then Miss Piggy at the end nohnitg really matters but moi. They remind me of my kids the most because they both love to dance and are egocentric (but then again thats probably all kids).

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