How Hair Detangler Works and Recipes to Make It

Hair detangler makes hair easier to comb by modifying the surface of the strands of hair.
Hair detangler makes hair easier to comb by modifying the surface of the strands of hair.

Hans Neleman / 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), a polymer that adds gloss to hair by binding to its surface.
  • Acidifier, a ​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 binds to the negatively charged keratin, becoming the new smoother surface of the hair.
  • 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.