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Does Your Hair Need a Steam Treatment?

To keep your hair shiny, bouncy, and hydrated, add steam treatments to the rotation.
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Crowning glory. Mane. Tresses. No matter how you choose to refer to your hair, it probably holds some importance in your life — even if you occasionally have an "it's just hair" outlook. If you want to reward it with the TLC it deserves, steam treatments are a step you don't want to overlook.

What is a steam treatment for hair?

Exactly what it sounds like — exposing your hair to steam. This raises the cuticles of your strands, the outermost layer of each hair which is composed of scale-like structures that can become raised or lie flat. This allows both moisture and any products you apply to penetrate the hair shaft more effectively, which can improve hair elasticity, shine, and softness, says L.A.-based celebrity hairstylist and Cantu ambassador Angela Stevens. Exposing your hair to steam for up to 20 minutes after shampooing, rinsing, and applying a conditioning treatment allows your hair to receive maximum benefits from the conditioning treatment and the water itself, says Stevens. Then, you'll rinse once more before proceeding to apply any leave-ins and style as desired. (Applying steam alone would allow moisture to enter, but the conditioning treatment will help lock that moisture in.)

People with low porosity hair stand to gain the most from steam treatments, says licensed cosmetologist and celebrity hairstylist Tiffany Mack. Refresher: Hair porosity is hair's ability to absorb and retain moisture. Low-porosity hair is more stubborn about letting moisture pass in and out, while moisture easily enters and escapes high-porosity hair. (Here's more on hair porosity including how to figure out what you have.) "Those who have low porosity hair benefit from [steam] because it helps open the hair shaft, which will help treatments penetrate best," says Mack. Treatments with lightweight moisturizers such as jojoba oil tend to work best for low-porosity hair. (Related: The Best Leave-In Conditioners — Plus, Why You Should Be Using One)

That said, high-porosity hair (and everything in between) can also benefit from steam treatments, according to Mack. She recommends applying a heavy duty moisturizer, such as shea butter or coconut oil after your steam treatment if you have high-porosity hair. The oil or shea butter will help really lock in moisture — which, reminder, easily escapes porous hair — in turn encouraging curl definition and decreasing frizziness, says Mack. (Curlier hair tends to be more porous, though that's not a hard and fast rule.)

Can I try steam therapy for hair at home?

Many salons offer steam treatment services (using an overhead steamer that looks like a souped-up version of the one below), but at-home steam treatments are just as effective, says Mack. You want to aim for about 20 minutes per session, as any longer can decrease the elasticity of your hair, she says. Low-porosity hair types should do a steam treatment every three weeks, while high porosity can opt to do it every two weeks, she says.

The easiest way to take advantage of the benefits of steam? Use your shower as a sort of DIY steam treatment. The steam coming off of a hot shower can help treatments penetrate better, especially if you put on a shower cap after applying the treatment. Of course, keeping your shower running for an extra 20 minutes is going to use up a lot of water, so keep that in mind before making this a regular activity. If you have access to a gym or spa with a steam room, voilà, you have an easy method for a steam treatment right there; just shower, washer your hair, and apply your conditioning treatment before heading in.

If you're ready to invest in a hair steamer for a more intensive treatment, overhead hair steamers are one option. At first glance, you might mistake one for an overhead dryer, but the steamers let out moist heat rather than dry heat. To use one, you just fill a basin with water, turn it on, and chill out under the hood while it works its magic, according to Mack. (Related: Salon-Worthy Hair Treatments You Can Do At Home In Minutes)

ZENY 2 in 1 Mini Ozone Facial Steamer and Hair Steamer
Credit: Amazon

If you lack the space for an overhead steamer, the sleeker option is a handheld steamer. All steps remain the same for this device, except you hold the steamer over individual sections of your hair. When using a handheld steamer, try to disperse the steam evenly amongst each section throughout your session. (Related: Try These DIY Hair Masks to Treat Dry, Brittle Strands)

Q-Redew Handheld Hair Steamer
Credit: Q-Redew

As with any treatment, you should observe how your hair reacts in terms of dryness, elasticity, and shine, to gauge how your steaming ritual is impacting your hair's health. Carving out the time for regular steam treatments may very well help it thrive.