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Everything You Need to Know About Hair Steaming

Illustration: Jordan Moss; Photos: Retailers

Over the past decade, hair steaming achieved a cult-following, beloved by naturals wanting maximum hydration and ultra-defined, soft-to-the-touch curls. Deep-conditioning steaming treatments used to be reserved for trips to the salon, but with the broad use of at-home devices, steaming has become a wash day staple. Steaming lifts the hair cuticle, making it easier for products to penetrate and deliver benefits. Steam refreshes curls beyond wash day and gives naturals a boost of moisture between styling sessions. All of this is beneficial to low porosity hair, in particular, because it’s naturally less absorbent, leaving products sitting on top of the hair rather than sinking in. A steamer can help low-porosity hair get more benefits from products and treatments.

Hairstylist Ebony Clark-Bomani recommends applying conditioner onto wet hair right after shampooing. Then steam hair for about 20 minutes, a just-right amount of time to soak the product up. “You’ll notice a huge difference in how well your hair retains moisture when you incorporate a steam treatment into your routine,” she says. If you’re using a hooded steamer, you can just sit underneath it and wait it out. You’ll want to make sure you get all of your hair inside of the steamer, so if you have longer hair, Clark-Bomani recommends pinning it up. If you’re using a handheld steamer, comb it through in sections. Be meticulous so all of your hair gets the benefit of steam. But keep your steamer moving — holding it in one spot will overheat your hair.

For refreshing and styling, steaming will make hair damp — but not wet — and more pliable for styling. Hairstylist Christin Brown recommends handheld steamers because they’re more targeted. “If you want to get your curls to perk back up, I recommend using it on day two or three,” says Brown. But don’t use a steamer to refresh or restyle every day; it will dry out your hair and scalp because of the consistent exposure to the heat. Apply light moisturizing products after steaming to lock in moisture.

Hair steamers aren’t for everyone, says Jamila Powell, founder of Maggie Rose Salon and hair care brand Naturally Drenched. If your hair is porous (accepts moisture readily), you don’t need regular steam. “We use it on very low porosity hair in the salon, when we’ve struggled with getting the product to really penetrate the hair, but otherwise we don’t really use it,” she says. This is because the steamer assists in what your hair already does when you use shampoo and conditioner. Shampoo is formulated to open up the hair shaft to allow for cleansing and conditioner helps to smooth it back down. Steamers are meant to help products really get into the hair, but for people with normal porosity, that’s already happening on its own. If you have normal porosity and want to steam your hair, Powell recommends doing it sparingly — up to once or twice a month.

When we asked stylists which steamers they recommend, particularly for at-home use, almost everyone recommended the Q-Redew steamer, which was previously recommended by stylists as one of the best products for low-porosity hair. The Q-Redew is easy to use and moderately priced as far as at-home steamers go, and it can be used for both deep conditioning and restyling. It’s also beloved by natural hair influencers — a quick search on YouTube yields thousands of evangelizing videos. This steamer has a small spout for water (it holds about three ounces) and can be used for a few minutes before needing to be refilled. The Q-Redew’s teeth can also be used to work product in and detangle, so your hair gets a thorough, targeted steam.

Ebony-Bomani is partial to hooded steamers that stand on their own because they’re easy to move around and don’t lock you into one place. She’s a fan of this one from Vapore, which she says is height adjustable and has a timer. The steam intensity is also adjustable, so you can really customize your steam treatment. It’s the most expensive steamer mentioned on the list, but if you plan to steam regularly, or long-term, Ebony-Bomani says it’s worth it.

For a more economical option, Ebony-Bomani recommends this one, which she says is pretty much the same, but costs less. Like the Vapore, it has temperature and timer control and is fully adjustable, but it doesn’t have the adjustable steam intensity.

I should also mention that you can receive the benefits of steaming without using a steamer at all, especially if you’re using it for deep conditioning. Powell says using a shower cap and a warm towel or a deep conditioning cap like this one will do the trick — just pop it in the microwave and then place it on your head. This one from Hot Head is filled with flaxseed and comes in a range of sizes and shades.

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Everything You Need to Know About Hair Steaming