Is sea water good or bad for your hair?

Swimming in the ocean provides a number of benefits to your physical and mental wellbeing. But for your hair, the activity can be a double-edged sword, because the effect of sea water highly depends on your hair type and current condition of your strands. Cosmetic manufacturers sell us beachy waves in a bottled form during wintertime, but with summer holidays upon us – we can get the real deal out on the actual beach. The impact of salt in sea water is not black & white though. There are some benefits from the exposure to sea water, but in order to protect from its negative effects: namely dryness and brittleness, there are a few precautions you can take.

woman on a beach touching her hair, sea water effect on hair

How the beachy waves get created

Sea water, aside from the actual water, contains chloride, sodium, magnesium, sulphate, calcium and other elements. Your hair is comprised of keratinous protein with crosslinks that hold that protein making the shape which is effectively – your hair. The crosslinks are three-dimensional binds formed by covalent bonds between adjacent amino acids (proteins). In turn, salt – or sodium chloride and magnesium sulphate (both elements present in the seawater) create extra crosslinks within your hair strand, which curls and curves it, thus putting the “waves” in your beach waves.

Effect of sea water on hair bonds

Now that we’ve got the mechanics of your beauty waves out of the way, let’s see if it is actually good for your strands.

Con: Dehydration of hair

The salt in general, including sea water, is hygroscopic: i.e. it attracts more water to your hair and forms salt crystals. Those salt crystals may give your hair extra body, but this process also wicks away the moisture from the inside of your hair strand – making it dry and brittle. This process also reduces the crosslinks between cysteine bonds in your strands making it more fragile.

Con: Extreme dryness for chemically treated hair

If you are using dye or bleach, or if your hair structure has been chemically altered – the sea water can worsen your hair condition. Chemical treatment already stripped your hair from the nutrients and artificially changed the crosslinks within your hair strands. The hygroscopic properties of salt water takes away moisture as described above – even from healthy hair, but it gets even worse for chemically altered strands, making it extra brittle.

Pro: Extra body and fullness of hair

On the plus side, salt water crystals add the “body” to your hair. This can be a good thing, if you want to increase your hair volume. Beware, as this extra salt also makes them dry and lifts up the hair cuticle, which makes it susceptible to further moisture loss.

Pro: Nutrients absorbed by your scalp

Sea water contains nutrients that your body needs. For example, magnesium has been known to strengthen your nervous system and has a calming effect on your body. Magnesium is also absorbed well through your skin, making an ocean dip not only enjoyable but also – healthy for your nerves. Less stress has been linked to better hair growth, so the calming effect of magnesium is a big plus for your hair.

Pro: Exfoliation and blood flow stimulant

The salt water crystals can serve as an excellent exfoliator for your scalp which can help remove product build up from your scalp and hair roots. It can also stimulate blood flow to scalp if you massage your scalp with the salt scrub. So massaging your scalp after the hair dries up – is a good idea, as there are numerous benefits in stimulating blood flow in scalp.

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Pro: Antifungal properties

Salt can help against the dandruff originated from a fungus, as salt water has anti-fungal properties. Those anti-fungal properties occur by fungi having to spend more energy in achieving osmosis (or osmoregulation) with salt water vs fresh water, instead of spending that energy on its own growth.

Pro: Natural shampoo and grease remover

If you have a greasy scalp, then sea water can help you to strip heavy oils and extra sebum, acting as a dry shampoo. It absorbs excess oils present on your tresses close to its root and may help you wash your hair less frequently as a result. Mind that frequent hair washing can be very damaging to your hair, read more on this here.

Verdict

The answer is therefore, two fold. To prevent your hair from drying as a result of exposure to the sea and ocean water – consider using natural hair oil or biodegradable and ecologically-friendly leave-in conditioner prior to walking onto the beach. This will coat your hair strands and prevent salt from wicking away the moisture. To help you choose the best natural oil to minimise damage from salt water and maximise nourishment for your hair texture, your age and your living environment, take a quick quiz:

Natural oils, as well as biodegradable and environmentally-friendly products ensure that our sealife and oceans stay protected from obscure chemicals, but they are also a lot less likely to negatively react with the salt water. Good for nature AND good for you.

What can you do?

As a post-beach DIY treatment you can massage your scalp with your fingers to use small salt crystals as natural exfoliator to your scalp, following up with a homemade honey and buttermilk mask, or a egg + avocado + olive oil mask.

Sources:

Sodium Chloride Inhibits the Growth and Infective Capacity of the Amphibian Chytrid Fungus and Increases Host Survival Rates (1)

Composition of Sea Water (2)

Thirst, The Scientific American (3)

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11 thoughts on “Is sea water good or bad for your hair?”

  1. Do not leave a conditioner in your hair prior to going into the ocean!!!!

    This is a terrible idea as you have no idea what the chemicals in the products people choose to use will react with and possibly cause damage to coral and microscopic sea life. You really should re write this and suggest people to only condition after the beach.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your reply Susan! Very, very good point. It is important to use environmentally-friendly and biodegradable products in your hair care on- or off-beach. It’s not only good for nature but also – better for your hair. It doesn’t really matter where people condition really – since even after returning from the beach – water from your shower eventually ends up in the ocean. So – environmentally-friendly, nature-based products is the only way to go!

      Reply
  2. Perfect timing for this post! Appreciating the time and effort you put into your website and in-depth information you offer. You’ve really covered up almost all the possible info that every female should follow. Worth sharing! Please do continue sharing updates! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Not that we know of. Coconut oil and almond oils are good for soothing the scalp – but don’t have known effects for stimulating hair growth. However both are good when treating your hair lenghts.

      Reply
  3. I have AMAZING beach curls (like…amazing! with very little effort and just a little leave in conditioner after a swim, my hair curls perfectly!). I have never been able to recreate the beach curls without the beach. Is there any way to do this? Can I make some sort of “imitaiton seawater”? In all my days as a curly girl, none of my prouducts have come anywhere near as good as plain ole’ saltwater and cheap leave-in. I want to figure out a way to imitate my beach hair without the ocean and maybe even make it my normal routine. Any sugesstions?

    Reply
    • Hey Tobantha! I totally hear you! I love my beach hair (I have 2A type) that just looks so cool after an ocean swim. But the best I was able to come up with is Sea Salt spray (just make sure it has magnesium in it, which can be imitated by adding some Epsom salts to it (rich in magnesium) – and continuously scrunching it. It does cause dryness however and potential hair breakage afterwards, if using it too often. (Swimming in the sea results in the tiny sand and other organic debris particles attaching themselves onto your hair strands, which also add to thickness and “grit” to your hair which helps holding up the curls). Have you tried a homemade saltwater spray before?

      Reply
  4. I just did a strait therApay by shcwarzkopf, just like a keratin treAment and my hair has become so flat and lost all its volumes, i have been washing it with yogurt and sea salt, my ends became dry but the front and my roots are still so flat and dull, therefore i was wondering if going to the beach will remove all the products from my hair because i so desperately want my natural hair back

    Reply
    • hi Hasna – thanks for your question. Sorry to hear you & your hair are going through this! Using Strait Therapy breaks internal bonds, which are then re-formed and sealed in the same manner as a perm – to secure the permanent straightening. Sadly, only waiting for your hair to grow out will help bringing back your hair health. Lots of patience, scalp massages, balanced nutrition – all these would help – but none of them is a silver bullet against hair that’s been chemically damaged… take a look around our website for resources to help you regrow your hair in the meantime. Sorry we couldn’t bring you better news! X

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