What is Hair Porosity?

Simply put Hair Porosity is the ability for a hair strand to absorb and retain moisture. It is determined by how open or closed the hair cuticle is.

Or at least if you do a quick internet search on hair porosity that is what you will find.

Nothing will drive a curly girl mad faster than finding out they need to pay attention to yet another bit of hair science. Porosity is so confusing for so many and there is so much misinformation out there. The thing is if you understand what you need to use on your specific porosity, it means the difference between frizzy or greasy hair and beautiful healthy hair. Porosity is not just about curly hair it is about ALL hair…straight, wavy, curly, and coily. In this post, I am going to unpack the entire story on porosity, well at least everything I could find.

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What is the Hair Cuticle:

Let’s start with the hair cuticle, the hair cuticle is the outermost layer of the hair shaft, it looks a little bit like shingles on a roof or pinecone petals. Which Lorraine Massey uses pinecones to explain in Curly Girl: The Handbook [1]. And that is exactly what the hair cuticle looks like under magnification.

Just like the pinecone petals that tighten up to protect itself from weather and the environment so does a healthy cuticle. A smooth pinecone represents a protected, well-hydrated, healthy, undamaged cuticle. While a fluffy and rough pinecone represents a cuticle that might be dry, damaged and in need of moisture or repair.

Hair Porosity Defined:

Hair porosity all over the interwebs is defined as the ability of the strand to absorb and retain moisture. Usually porosity is referred to in three levels as low, medium/normal, and high porosity. But the definition of the grades of porosity that hair colorists use was actually developed by hair stylist Thia Spearing. Yes, originally it was grades of porosity from 1-5, somewhere along the way it shifted in the curly girl community to low, medium, and high.

Anyway, her refined definition found in the American Board of Certified Hair Colorists Study Portfolio is: “In hair coloring terms, when we speak of porosity, we are actually discussing the structural integrity of the hair.”[2] This is the condition a hair colorist will evaluate when you sit in their chair for chemical treatments; they are looking at whether or not your hair can withstand heavy processes like bleach or permanents.

Hair Porosity Grading System:

1-5 grading system as observed on both WET and DRY hair.

Grade 1:

  • Compact tight cuticle
  • Minimal to no chemical treatment, exposure to excessive sun, or mechanical styling tools
  • Most likely the person’s natural hair color
  • Elasticity is very good with very little resistance to combing when wet
  • The root and the tips are close to the exact same color

Grade 2:

  • Slightly raised cuticle
  • Mild chemical treatments, some environmental exposure
  • May be up to 3 stages lighter than natural hair color
  • Good elasticity

Grade 3:

  • Moderately raised cuticle
  • Moderate exposure to chemical treatments and/or regular use of heat implements
  • May be up to 5 stages lighter than natural hair color
  • Resistance to combing without conditioning treatment; fair elasticity.

Grade 4:

  • Excessively raised cuticle
  • Excessive exposure to chemical treatments and heated styling implements
  • Frizzy appearance when dry
  • May be up to 7 stages lighter than natural color
  • Poor elasticity and retangles when combed wet

Grade 5:

  • Loss of cuticle layer
  • Extreme exposure to chemical treatment to the point of breakage
  • Hair feels mushy or slimy when wet.
  • May be 8 or more stages lighter than natural hair color
  • No elasticity, breaks off when wet
  • The root and the tips are not the same color [2]

Using this Grading system:

  • Grades 1-2 are Low Porosity,
  • Grade 3 is Medium or Normal Porosity,
  • Grades 4-5 are High Porosity.

What changes hair porosity?

  • Length and age
  • Extended and regular exposure to sun
  • The pH of Hair Products
  • Permanents
  • Highlights and Bleaching
  • Hair dye
  • Relaxers
  • Flat irons, curling irons, blow dryers
  • Environmental exposure, dry climates and winter air
  • Blow outs (like Brazilian Blowout)

There are several things that can change porosity from low to high. Once the damage is done the cuticle can be protected from further damage or it can grow out and be trimmed off, but it cannot be reversed. The worst Grade 5 situation will usually result in a chemical haircut, where the hair is so damaged it is breaking off at the root.

Length and age:

The length and age of the hair affects porosity. The roots are usually going to be in the lower porosity grades because it is new fresh growth; the longer the hair is and the further it is from the scalp the higher the porosity can get at the tips. So if you are mid gray hair transition at about a year into your grow out, above the demarcation line will be Grade 1 or 2 and below the demarcation line can be anywhere from Grade 3 to 5 depending on what processes you were doing before you completely ditched the dye.

Image of Joli Campbell with info on hair porosity

How do you determine your hair porosity?


Let’s Start With the Float Test:

I didn’t know a thing about porosity until the last couple of years, and I was wrong about what I learned…I mistakenly believed the float test was accurate. While the concept is good, the method is fallible. The theory is that if you take a strand of hair and it floats, it is low porosity, if it sinks to the middle it is medium porosity and if it sinks all the way to the bottom, it is high porosity. This would be more accurate on clarified hair with absolutely nothing else on it. There are other issues as well, like water surface tension, natural oils from the scalp, hair texture, the age of the hair, hair dye or bleach, product buildup like silicones, etc.

In addition, if you are in the middle of growing out your dyed hair to your natural gray hair you have two or possibly three porosities.

The Strand Test:

Take a strand of hair from each section of your head (front, midline or crown, and nape) stretch the individual hair out and run your fingers from the tip up to the root.

  1. If it feels smooth and slick it is somewhere between Grade 1 & 3
  2. If it feels rough and dry (or breaks) it is somewhere between 4 & 5

For me this is a difficult test to perform because my hair is very fine in some places, so it is hard to feel an individual strand with my fingertips.

Fine Mist Spray Bottle

The Fine Mist Spray Test:

I modified what is usually referred to as the Spray Bottle test to use a Fine Mist Spray Bottle for the super fine mist. Take a Fine Mist Spray Bottle and spray a section of your hair. If your hair has beads of water sitting on the shaft or rolling off immediately, that is Grade 1-2 porosity hair. If your hair soaks up the water after about a second or two, that is Grade 3 porosity. If your hair soaks up the water immediately like a sponge, that is Grade 4-5 porosity.

This is how I finally figured out my porosity. I had heard forever that low porosity hair was hard to get wet and hard to dry. I always thought my hair was easy to get wet and hard to dry. My hair immediately gets wet in the shower, what I didn’t realize is because it is so fine a heavy and full blast of warm water was going to soak it quickly. But with the Fine Mist Spray Test I could see that fine layer of mist turns immediately to beads of water and slowly begins to drip off.

How does pH affect Porosity?

pH is a measurement scale of acidity (stomach acid) to alkalinity (drain cleaner). The natural pH of virgin hair is somewhere around 4.5-5.5 which is slightly acidic. Chemical processes will push it from acidic to a more alkaline state. Which means higher porosity hair Grade 4-5 is more alkaline and can be upwards to a pH of 8-10. So a high pH substance opens the hair cuticle and a low pH substance will help smooth and seal the cuticle.

This is why it is sometimes a great idea to try an entire line-up of products from one brand. Ideally, they have started with shampoo being slightly more alkaline, moving down to more acidic for conditioner; as you reach the leave-in conditioner stage, it should be a pH that matches the normal pH of hair. Fairy knots happen to be one of the first signs your products are not pH balanced for your hair. [3]

You can learn more about pH in my full post: The Ultimate Guide to pH Balance for Hair and Why it Matters

QuickSilverHair pH Chart

pH of Different Porosities

On low porosity hair, alkalinity from baking soda washes will help open the cuticle and allow moisture in. Acidic products like vitamin C will work to tighten the cuticle even more which will dry out low porosity hair. Natural oils and butters should be used sparingly as they can overly coat the shaft and create weighed down hair. But thinner lighter oils can be used to grab fly-aways and smooth the halo.

On high porosity hair, apple cider vinegar rinses will help seal the cuticle and lock in moisture. Protein treatments help fill in the gaps in the open cuticles and strengthen the hair. Natural oils and butters used regularly can help create a protective barrier from the elements helping the hair to retain moisture and seal the cuticle, but beware of over conditioning. [4]

You can use pH test strips to test your products or you can call the company and ask if they know the pH of the products.


So what is your porosity and what do you do with that information?

With the grading system in mind, if you are fully transitioned to silver and using little to no heat you would fall in the Grade 1 or 2 porosity zone, unless you have naturally high porosity, which I believe is very rare. Try the Fine Mist Spray test and see how the water reacts on your hair. Or you can take a quiz on NaturallyCurly.com that helps better define and understand your hair type including curl pattern.


Porosity Characteristics and Tips:


Low Porosity

  • Grade: 1-2
  • Hair Condition: Usually virgin hair with very little to no damage from heat or chemicals.
  • Water Absorption:
    • Can be difficult to get wet.
    • Water beads and drips off on hair shaft with the Fine Mist Spray test.
  • Hair pH: Slightly acidic at 4.5 to 5.5.
    • A little alkalinity like baking soda rinses can help open the cuticle before deep conditioning.
  • Hair Strength: Usually strong unless fine. Also known as resistant hair, because it is resistant to hair color, and conditioning.
  • Hair Cuts: You can go 4-6 months between haircuts with long hair, as long as your ends look healthy and smooth.
  • Shampoo: Sulfate-free shampoo is usually a must, you usually will find co-wash to cause instant build-up, especially on the scalp.
  • Clarify: Build up can be an issue so regularly clarify hair about once a week and use more water-soluble products.
  • Condition:
    • Warm water to open the cuticle before moisture, but not too hot on delicate silver hair.
    • Deep condition with heat, to drive in the hydration.
  • Detangle: Use a wide-tooth comb or fingers to gently detangle, with conditioner in your hair.
  • Leave-in:
    • Using a dab of your regular conditioner to create slip may be all you need.
    • Liquidier protein-free products like hair milk or spray leave-ins may work better for moisture.
  • Oils:
    • Thinner oils like grapeseed, jojoba, almond, argan, marula oil will help tame fly-aways and frizz.
    • Thicker oils will coat and sit on the hair ultimately causing greasy, weighed down hair with loss of curl pattern or flat lifeless hair.
  • Prefers Hydration over protein:
    • Can be protein sensitive; avoid protein most of the time, or use products with amino acids.
    • If experiencing a lot of breakage you may need the added strength of protein
  • Amounts of Products:
    • Easily weighed down, especially by proteins, heavier oils, waxes, poly-quats, and silicones.
    • Less is generally more.
  • Product Application: Damp application of leave-ins and gels net better results allowing loss of some moisture for dry time.
  • Gels/Hold: Medium to Hard hold gels will likely net the best results for longer lasting curls or hairstyles.
  • Dry Time: Hair takes 2 hours or more to air-dry.
  • Drying Techniques: Low-Medium heat diffuser can help lock the curl pattern in after plopping when the hair is longer and needs a little help drying.
  • Tangles Type: Prone to fairy knots, proper conditioning and pH will prevent these.
  • Frizz: Generally halo-like frizz in the shorter pieces. Light oils can tame them once dry.
  • Sheen: Shiny when dry.
  • Length of Days Holds Achieved Style: Curls tend to fall out by day two and refresh is usually from wet and condition on.

Medium Normal Porosity

  • Grade: 3
  • Hair Condition: May be slightly damaged from length, age, hair color, or heat tools but in great shape despite the treatments. Easy to maintain and style.
  • Water Absorption:
    • Plays well with water, gets wet when you want it too.
    • Water will absorb after a second or two with Fine Mist Spray test.
  • Hair pH: Slightly acidic at 4.5 to 5.5.
  • Hair Strength: Normal, tends to be resilient.
  • Hair Cuts: 6-8 weeks between cuts, keeping ends from splitting or drying out.
  • Shampoo: Low-poo or sulfate-free shampoo works well.
  • Clarify: Build up can be a slight issue so clarify about once every two weeks.
  • Condition: Warm wash will help open the cuticle and cool rinse will help smooth it.
  • Detangle: Tends to be resilient to combing and brushing. Just be gentle.
  • Leave-in: A thin curl cream may work great as your leave-in just make sure it mentions moisture or hydration on the label.
  • Oils: Lighter oils will help prevent frizz and control dry ends.
  • Prefers protein and hydration in balance: May need to avoid having protein in all products.
  • Amounts of Products:
    • Moderation is key. Not too little and not too much.
    • Prone to being weighed down if too many heavy products are used.
  • Product Application: It can go either way on applying products on soaking wet to damp hair. Depending on the product and your preference.
  • Gels/Hold: Medium hold may be all you need to keep a style.
  • Dry Time: Dries in a relatively normal time frame under two hours.
  • Drying Techniques: Plopping may be all you need to assist dry times.
  • Tangles Type: Also prone to fairy knots and hydration will solve this.
  • Frizz: Occasional frizz can be managed with a light oil and a little gel.
  • Sheen: Shiny and usually very healthy looking.
  • Length of Days Holds Achieved Style: Curls can usually last about 2-4 days, with just a spray bottle and a little more hold for a refresh.

High Porosity

  • Grade: 4-5
  • Hair Condition: Hair may be a naturally high porosity (I think this is very rare) mostly high porosity is highly damaged hair from chemical processes.
  • Water Absorption:
    • Hair tends to suck up moisture like a sponge.
    • Water will absorb immediately with Spray test.
  • Hair pH: Can be slightly alkaline around 8-10.
    • Apple cider vinegar rinses will help seal the cuticle and lock in moisture.
  • Hair Strength:
    • The hair tends to be fragile and susceptible to damage and breakage.
    • Once damaged it cannot be reversed, options are to protect, cut, or wait until the damaged hair grows out.
  • Hair Cuts: Schedule regular trims to keep your ends neat and free of split ends.
  • Shampoo:
    • Low-Poo and Co-Washes will help to keep your hair healthy.
    • pH balanced co-wash will cut frizz.
  • Clarify: Use gentle clarifying shampoo when needed but not too often.
  • Condition: Deep condition regularly. Follow conditioner with a cooler rinse to help seal the cuticle and prevent frizz.
  • Detangle: Combing can be done with a wide-tooth comb or fingers on wet hair with a pre-poo or good slip conditioner after washing.
  • Leave-in:
    • Can be a little butterier and thicker texture to help fill in the cuticle.
  • Oils:
    • Heavier oils and butters help smooth and close the cuticle.
    • Seal with butter and oils to protect the strand from losing moisture.
    • Try the LOC or LCO method (Leave-In, Oil, Cream or Leave-in, Cream, Oil) for locking in moisture and preserving curls.
  • Prefers Protein and Hydration:
    • Most of your products should have balanced protein and hydration.
    • Protein treatments help seal and fill in gaps in the cuticle.
  • Amounts of Products:
    • Tends to want a LOT of product to achieve curl pattern and hold.
    • Careful not to let it get mushy from overdoing it with conditioners.
  • Product Application: Product application on wet hair tends to net better-looking curls to lock in moisture.
  • Gels/Hold:
    • Particularly sensitive to heat and humidity.
    • You want a gel or cream that seals the cuticle and helps prevent the elements from causing frizz, or loss of curl definition.
  • Dry Time:
    • Tends to dry rapidly, losing moisture as fast as it soaked it up.
    • Watch for drying too fast your proteins and hydration may be out of balance.
  • Drying Techniques:
    • Plopping and Air-drying will help keep the hair healthier.
    • Heat tools can damage your hair rapidly.
  • Tangles Type: Tangles easily especially if dehydrated.
  • Frizz: Frizz can be a major issue throughout the length.
  • Sheen:
    • Looks and feels dry if not properly hydrated.
    • Looks dull and shine can be hard to achieve.
  • Length of Days Holds Achieved Style: Once your hair is hydrated, dry, and set, curls can stay with you for days.

Click On Your Porosity for A Printable PDF Characteristics and Tips Sheet

Products I Mentioned in This Post and Ones I Love

Click any image below to purchase on Amazon.com or QuickSilverHair

QuickSilverHair Squalane Kit

I designed the QuickSilverHair Oil specifically for Silver Hair and my own frizzy halo. I use just a pump and apply over my halo to tame the sprouts and the frizz.

Add it to the QuickSilverHair Clay and it helps you detoxify and clarify your hair leaving your silver hair softer and brighter.

The Perfect Haircare - Ultra-Fine Microfiber Hair Towel

Silk Pillowcase

I now have four of these Mulberry Silk Pillowcases, they are the softest silk and they have a zipper so your pillow stays in the case. I wash them and dry them with my normal sheets and they have held up completely fine for several years.

pH Test Strips

You can use pH test strips to test your own products.

Acure Curiously Clarifying Shampoo and Conditioner

For clarifying, Acure Curiously Clarifying Lemongrass Shampoo & Conditioner.  I really should own stock in Acure for as often as I recommend this product. I absolutely love this for clarifying. I use it about every 10 days and once a month with the QuickSilverHair Clay.


SEEN Styling Cremes

UV protection from SEENProvides UV and Heat Protection, and proven frizz control.

Loma Firm Hold Gel

Loma Firm Hold GelI can’t find a gel that beats Loma Firm Hold. It works for almost everyone.

Babassu Oil And Mint Deep Conditioner

Babassu Oil And Mint Deep Conditioner  is an amazing lightweight but powerful hydrating mask that works great fro low porosity hair.

Bass Multi-tooth Comb

My favorite wide-tooth comb is great for travel too. I like the fine-tooth side for getting fairy-knots out. I have one in my shower, one on my vanity, and one in my travel bag. It’s that perfect.

Denman Brush

If you like a wet brush you might like trying the Denman brush.

I want to give a huge shout-out to Manes By Mel, because of her video Porosity Test Mistakes People Make + How to Test Your Porosity Properly I was able to find the info I needed for letting you know what porosity really is.

I hope this post helped clear up some confusion and gave you the information you need to make choices in your hair care that help you achieve your most beautiful and healthy hair. Straight, Wavy, Curly, Coily…Have a Great Hair Day.

Image of Joli Campbell author photoI hope you found this post educational and helpful.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.

As always it is about so much more than the hair.

signature: Shine On, Joli Campbell





Next Suggested Post

The Ultimate Guide to pH Balance for Hair and Why it Matters

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  1. Massey, Lorraine, and Michele Bender. Curly Girl: the Handbook. Workman, 2011.
  2. “American Board of Certified Haircolorists Study Portfolio .”https://issuu.com/certification/docs/american_board_of_certified_haircolorists/5, Chapter 4 The Study of the Porosity of Hair.
  3. Walton, Charlene. “Why Your Moisturizer Doesn’t Work.” NaturallyCurly.com, 14 May 2015, naturallycurly.com/curlreading/home/chemist-obia-explains-the-importance-of-ph-balance.
  4. “3 Reasons You Can Blame Your Worst Hair Day On Porosity.” CarolsDaughter.com, 17 Nov 2016, https://www.carolsdaughter.com/blog/hair/natural-hairstyles/3-Reasons-You-Can-Blame-Your-Worst-Hair-Day-On-Porosity.html.

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