untangling severe hair snarls
September 12, 2016 9:47 AM   Subscribe

What is the best method and/or product to untangle severe hair snarls in long hair?

Due to the serious illness and hospitalization of a family member, I had no time/energy to brush out and untangle my long hair after shampooing as I usually do. Over a number of weeks, intractable snarls built up. Over the counter snarl removers help very little. I'm hoping not to have to resort to cutting off a lot of my hair but am at a loss as to how to remove those snarls. Does anyone know of a good method and/or product that would help? (PS--Family member is doing much better now.) Any advice is much appreciated!
posted by ragtimepiano to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, sorry about your family member... but to your hair;

Have you tried using coconut oil? Massage it in to all of your hair but the scalp, let it sit for maybe 10 minutes or so, and then use a VERY large tooth comb to work your way through the knots? I have long, fine hair, and I find that it helps to break the hair apart into "sections" and work through them that way. You might have to rip/break your hair to get it into sections, but that might be better than cutting it all off to boot.

Good luck.
posted by erattacorrige at 9:51 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Get a hair pick (a wide tooth comb) and buy Aussie detangler or light hair oil (I use a vanilla scented oil from Walmart). Put on a good movie, hold the hair as close to your scalp as possible and comb from the bottom of the snarl upward. This could take awhile.

I have to keep may hair blunt cut at certain longer lengths, because the half curly half straight nature of my hair leads to vicious snarls at the nape of my neck and layered cuts make it worse. I Comb my hair dry before washing, and let it dry naturally. If I remember to, I braid it before bed.

All that said, my hair snarls easily and a large, wide tooth brush and comb make it easiest to care for. Brush and comb from the bottom up. Until my curly-haired aunt taught me this, I kept my hair short because I didn't know how to deal with it.
posted by annathea at 9:54 AM on September 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

After shampooing, apply conditioner (maybe a larger-than-normal amount) and then use a Wet Brush to comb through. Try brushing out the bottom and then working your way up. There are some alternatives to the Wet Brush (Tangle Teezer, etc) but I've only tried this and it's cheap/widely available.
posted by acidic at 9:56 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, do it with conditioner in and work from the bottom up. But don't use regular old conditioner. Try the stuff that comes with hair dye or see if you can get some "hair mayonnaise." You want thick heavy duty stuff.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:58 AM on September 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

If the snarls are small and you have a lot of hair, I find it's fastest to just cut strategically. Other than that, Fairy Tales Leave-In Detangler or It's a 10 detangler, wet hair, and a wide toothed comb.

- Mom of two long-haired boys
posted by cocoagirl at 10:00 AM on September 12, 2016

I have heard very, very good things about those new detangling brushes, from both little kids with tangly hair and a hair stylist friend.
posted by phunniemee at 10:01 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, I was also going to suggest a detangling brush. My kid develops some serious tangles regularly and combs are just too rough for her. I also get those alligator (?) clips so I can work in sections.
posted by stowaway at 10:06 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Get some help, start at the ends and be patient. You don't have to use oil, or anything. It will just take time. I once was a sitter in a patient room. The woman had waist length straight black hair. Due to poor nursing services where she had stayed, they had allowed her hair to become an intractable knot. However I was going to spend the day with her, and it took the day to do it. Nursing where she transferred was just going to cut it off. Culturally that was not appropriate for her. So get a friend or family and take some time. Do it in hours over time. The closer you get to the scalp area, the quicker it goes.
posted by Oyéah at 10:07 AM on September 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

I've had the same happen to me several times for various reasons. I have super super thick hair and when it's not thinned out, it's like dog hair. Like...matted underneath in back dog hair. I just patiently pick at each knot until individually until I get all of the hair separated. Usually while watching tv. It takes well over an hour if it's really matted but it's somehow very therapeutic. Just start at the bottom of a tangle and keep gently pulling it apart with your fingers while also freeing individual strands of hair. For really bad knots, take manicure scissors and do a tiny snip part way into them to loosen some hair so you have a starting point. No detangler or snarl remover has ever worked on me. If you try some of the sprays mentioned above and have no luck, try my way ;)

On preview - what Oyéah said.
posted by the webmistress at 10:09 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I spent two hours in the car yesterday with the windows open and sunroof down enjoying the amazing weather with my hair whipping all around. It was glorious, and then I got up this morning and my hair was a rats nest.

I washed the hair as best I could, then drowned it in conditioner and just let it sit for about 20 minutes. Then I stood under the shower, took a wide toothed comb and then tackled it in small sections (if possible, one knot seemed to involve half the hair on my scalp, so that took a while) starting from the bottom. I reapplied the conditioner liberally as it washed out, which seemed to be the key to making progress. I did lose a small chunk to a snarl, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:09 AM on September 12, 2016

It's a 10 detangler, applied liberally on damp hair, then start at the top of the tangle and gently work downwards.

Or, liberally apply conditioner in the shower, let sit for at least a minute or two, then use a detangling brush to brush your hair out as you put your head back under the water.

IME, doing both sequentially makes a huge, huge difference.

PS: Sending good thoughts to your family. This sounds like an unbelievably stressful time.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:11 AM on September 12, 2016

Presumably you're conditioning after you shampoo? Don't completely rinse out the conditioner. If you're using a combo product, get additional conditioner (find one that smells nice!) and use it after rinsing the other stuff out very thoroughly. It will feel a little weird when your hair is wet but it will dry and feel fine if a bit smoother than you might be used to. Either do this in the morning and wait until the evening, or at night and sleep on it. Then:

Get a spray bottle and a wide tooth comb and put on a really engrossing audiobook or something and get comfy. Fill your spray bottle with a mixture of water and a blob of your conditioner, mix it up. Start at the very bottom. When you encounter resistance, spritz your hair with the conditioner-water. Give it a bit to sink in and then gently work your comb through, working out the bottom of any knots first. When you get tired of working on one area, move to another and come back to it after the conditioner has had time to soak. Be patient and persistent.

You might find that sleeping in a silk scarf or cap will really help your hair stay untangled in the future.
posted by Mizu at 10:16 AM on September 12, 2016

I'm not sure what you mean by "over the counter snarl remover".

However, the daily detangling brush that I use is the Denman Tangle Tamer, which comes in an Ultra version. It's neon pink if that helps, the one I use is fairly narrow, the Ultra version is a larger paddle brush.

If I didn't use this brush but instead used an ordinary tailcomb or wide-toothed comb to detangle my hair after washing, it would take me over five minutes of chopping and hacking to get the tangles out of my hair. With this brush, it takes me less than a minute. I don't know how well it would do in an extreme situation like yours, but for daily detangling it makes a huge difference to me.

The conditioner I use also makes a big difference. I have very thin, fine, flyaway hair, so YMMV, but the very best conditioner available is the Inecto coconut oil Hair Treatment. Note that this is intended as a special treatment at regular intervals, but I get the best results when I use it daily like so:

1. Get in shower, wet hair, take an excessively huge handful of conditioner (YMMV, I live in a very hard water area where conditioner sales are the highest in the country) and glop it onto the ends of my hair.
2. Do all my other shower things: shave legs, wash body, sing Abba songs, stab Janet Leigh to death etc.
3. Shampoo hair, applying only to the roots and letting it run down the length of my hair during the rinse
4. Take another big handful of conditioner and glop it onto my hair
5. Spend a few moments putting products away
6. Rinse conditioner out of hair
7. Get out of shower, dry self, wrap hair in towel
8. Use Tangle Tamer
9. All done!

Perhaps this might be scalable to your situation, even if you have to spend a bit more time?
posted by tel3path at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Before you condition the hell out of your hair, try a vinegar rinse. It weirdly detangled my hair right away and then the copious use of cheap conditioner as a kind of mask sealed the deal.

Nthing a Tangle Tamer or whatever generic equivalent.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I had a similar problem I found that Aussie 3-Minute Miracle made a huge difference before attempting to detangle. I left it on for around 5 minutes, then worked the hair with my fingers before rinsing out.
posted by Mchelly at 10:37 AM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have had plenty of success with lots of conditioner. Start with bug tooth comb and work through. I've heard about doing it underwater (mom attack while kid keeps hair under water while lying in tub) but not tried it yet.

Tangle teezers brushes with no handles (like curry combs) seems to make no difference to me; you're just changing your angle of attack.
posted by tilde at 10:41 AM on September 12, 2016

I just found what is called a "shower comb" at the local Dollar Tree yesterday, with teeth than are even wider than a hair pick. Price: $1. Might help, along with the detangling products mentioned above.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:54 AM on September 12, 2016

Nthing the "bottom up" strategy. Also, make sure you've got a firm grip on the bit of hair you're working on with your non-working hand at the mid-length, otherwise it ends up pulling on the scalp (and hurting). 2nd using a wide-toothed comb & just any heavy-duty conditioner.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:55 AM on September 12, 2016

The conditioner that comes with hair dye is the best for this, I've found. Much better than detangle sprays - those don't really work. Wash hair with gentle shampoo, squeeze out as much water as possible (this is key, if you don't then the stuff has nowhere to grab onto.) Apply the stuff liberally, wait, then gently, in sections, with whatever implement you prefer - I like the offset tooth combs like this - work on all the knots. Hold the hair above the knot close to your head so you won't feel the tugs so much. Stream something on your device to watch as you're working so you don't get impatient. It will take a while. Once you're done, you can rinse.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:02 AM on September 12, 2016

All good advice above. I wanted to say, something like this Bed Head Gloss Spray has helped me detangle my superfine hair when it was long. You might find something like this helpful for maintenance after you get the big job done, but I've used it on pretty terrible tangles before.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:10 AM on September 12, 2016

Apply a product (you may find you have better luck with detangling products/conditioners marketed to black folks - look in the "Ethnic" (ugh) hair products section, I am a fan of Shea Moisture and Taliah Waajid though I haven't used either of their detangling products), straight coconut or argan oil would probably work/help too.

Give the product time to work, preferably under (moist) heat. You want to give it at least 10-20 minutes before you start working. In a perfect world, you'd have one of these ridiculous looking things. In the real world, put a shower cap over your conditioning hair, soak a towel in hot-as-you-can-stand water, wrap the towel around your head, and put another shower cap on top. Change out the towel ever 5-10 mins as it cools.

You could also slather on the detangler at night, and let it work under a shower cap as you sleep and start work in the morning.

Then, sit down with a wide-toothed comb and start working. If you wanted to get really fancy, you could section off your hair and leave the hair that you're not currently working on under the heating "cap." Go slow, try to keep a grip on the hair above the "snarl" so you're not pulling on the non-snarled part too hard (to help with breakage).
posted by sparklemotion at 11:17 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tangle Teezer is a lifesaver. Best used in the shower with a generous amount of your normal conditioner.

a person who brushed out unintentional dreadlocks.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 11:25 AM on September 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

+1 to products marketed towards "ethnic" or "natural" hair. I have used a Taliah Waajid "Great Detangler" with some success (it's very heavy so you may want to wash and condition normally afterwards).

You can do this! It just takes huge amounts of patience. Put on a TV show you like and slather your hair in some kind of detangling mayonnaise.

My technique is to do a first pass with my fingers, then a second pass with a wide-tooth comb, then a third pass with a narrower comb.
posted by mskyle at 11:49 AM on September 12, 2016

A fuckton of curly dry hair conditioner and your fingers.
posted by brujita at 11:55 AM on September 12, 2016

Oh oh oh let me! I have the most tangly fine long hair, and my tiny cousin's long thick hair tangles so badly she had a snarl the size of a BASEBALL at the back of her head. All our tangles are eradicated with this method:

You're going to need very slippery conditioner. What you're looking for is a product where the first two ingredients are either Stearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, or Cetearyl Alcohol. I know the word "alcohol" sounds bad for hair, but those three ingredients are not drying alcohols- they are Fatty Alcohols, and they are wonderfully creamy and slippery, just fantastic for moisturizing and lubricating hair- they are not drying at all.

Here are the best kinds (I have been testing exhaustively for years, trust me on this) and luckily all are under $6 at Walmart. All three of these products are great:

1. Pink Herbal Essence Smooth Collection Conditioner for Dry Hair.
2. Blue Herbal Essence Hello Hydration Conditioner For Dry Hair (note that you do not want the 2-in-1 shampoo+conditioner that comes in a similar bottle- you only want Conditioner)
3. Purple Aussie Moist Conditioner for Dry Hair, or Aussie Moist 3-Minute Miracle (if you use the 3-Minute Miracle, get 2 bottles as they're smaller).

Pick up a sturdy, smooth wide toothed plastic comb with a strong handle while you're shopping. Usually these run about $4 each- I like this style. Make sure it is strong enough that it's not bendy.

Ok now back to the method. I recommend NOT doing this in the shower, as it will take about 30-60 minutes depending on how long your hair is, and you don't want the conditioner to be washing out of your hair as you do it.

Wet your hair with lukewarm water (do not shampoo it, that will increase the tangles).

Gently squeeze out most of the water with your hands (don't rough it up with a towel, just gently squeeze. You want your hair to be well-wet, but it doesn't need to be dripping all over you. Put a towel over your shoulders to keep you warm and dry.

Apply an alarming amount of conditioner, concentrating on the most tangled areas. Go big on the conditioner. This is an emergency rescue, so expect to use literally HALF of the bottle, maybe even the whole bottle if your hair is longer than your armpits. Don't be stingy, it was only $6, and it will save you from tons of damage. It seems nuts. I promise it will work. :)

Slop on the conditioner until all the tangles are creamy and white. Gently poke conditioner into the tangles using your fingers.

WAIT TEN MINUTES. I know, you don't want to wait. But wait. 10 minutes, really. It's worth it. Every couple of minutes, gently poke the conditioner further into the tangles using your fingers.
While you're waiting what's happening is that the fatty alcohols are gently helping your hair cuticle to smooth itself and lubricating each strand. That way the tangles will almost fall out in the next step.

After 10 minutes take the comb. Pick up a little chunk of hair about 1-2 inches thick, and hold it near the end so only an inch or two of the ends stick out below your hand. Gently comb out only that bottom inch of the hair.

When that last inch of that chunk is smooth and silky, move your grip up by an inch or so, and start combing an inch above that so the bottom two inches are smooth.

Then move your hand up by an inch, and comb out the bottom three inches. Keep going like that, small increments starting from the bottom, until that chunk of hair is untangled. Clip it out of the way if you want. This person is doing the right comb-out technique, although she's using a brush instead of a comb (timecode 1:56 to the end).

If you find a really bad knot, put on some more conditioner and poke it through, and use fingers instead of comb, to gently loosen the knot from the bottom, then from the middle, and work it out gently that way before using the comb to finish.

Just go over the whole head, gently, always clearing the knots out from the bottom first to minimize stretching and pulling of the hair. If you have a terrible little knot, put on more conditioner and leave it alone, then come back to it last. If you still can't get it all out, you can delicately snip it off but you shouldn't need to do this more than a few times.

Once your whole head is done, get into the shower and give it a cool rinse. Don't shampoo it yet, and don't rinse it to squeaky-cleanness- leave in some conditioner to help re-moisturize it. When you get out of the shower, gently squeeze out the water (again don't wring it or rough it up), and sleek through a little more conditioner or leave-in treatment to help repair the damage, then let it air-dry.

Your hair will be soft and silky after this method, and you shouldn't have to cut off much at all. I used this technique on an ill friend who had not combed out her very tangle-prone hair in over a month, and she didn't have to cut off a single piece!

Good luck, and I'm glad your family member is doing better!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:18 PM on September 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Unfortunately I don't know the name of this awesome tool, but it could be worth calling around to find out. I was in a similar situation a few decades ago when I went to a beauty college for a haircut. The teacher there -- happy to show off a weird situation to the students -- had a device that was like two parallel thick-toothed combs stuck to a curling iron. It plugged in, and the combs vibrated along each other. It zoomed through my hair and detangled it immediately.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:19 PM on September 12, 2016

Oooh! The thing was a professional version of this: Gillette Purr.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:21 PM on September 12, 2016

* Continued from above, I forgot to say:

1. Watch something pleasant on TV while you do this. It takes a long time and you'll get bored and start ripping at your hair if you're not distracted by watching something nice.

2. Also make sure to wear a warm shirt or robe and a towel on your neck while you comb- being cold and damp isn't fun.

3. When it's time to rinse out all the conditioner, be careful in the shower as this stuff is a bit more slippery on the shower floor than you might be used to. And wash your back and neck thoroughly, as the conditioner will be all over them.

4. When you let your hair air-dry while it still has conditioner in it, it will probably dry a bit crisp as if gelled. And it will probably be a bit heavy and lanky. But this is good for it, so give it an extra day full of air-dried conditioner, since it's probably going to be thirsty and rough from being tangled for a while. After a day, wash, condition, and comb out as usual, and it should be back to normal!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Show Sheen is the SHIT. Think your hair is tangled? Try a coarse, kinky, 4-foot-long horse tail. Or a mane in elfknots. I used to use Show Sheen on my long tangly hair too.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:54 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

TANGLE TEEZER. Feels like you're brushing your hair with an oversized Barbie brush but my goodness it WORKS.
posted by nerdfish at 2:21 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Been there. NO product ever helped me, and most things made it worse. My hair gets stretchy and clingy when wet, which lead to way more breakage. The only thing that worked was sitting down and removing the tangles with my fingers. Start at the bottom of the biggest knot and see if you can pull out some small section of hair (not the whole length of that section, even, just the bottom of it). Repeat, until you've broken the big knot down into smaller knots, then work on the biggest of those, etc., until your hair is brushable.

I also like to save time by brushing my hair in the car at stop lights. And ALWAYS brushing it before it gets wet, since it breaks more if I try to detangle it after it's wet.
posted by anaelith at 5:10 AM on September 14, 2016

Shocked, SHOCKED that the way that works by far the best for me has not been mentioned. Wet hair well. Apply a good conditioner -- I've only ever tried this with Devacare One Condition. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the tangles. Run fingers through as much as possible but stop before you have to pull hard. Flip hair upside down. Add conditioner if needed. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, run fingers through a little more, but still no forcing it. Repeat the cycle. You won't have to yank or tear at all -- it's pretty amazing. Especially after a lifetime of yanking and tearing my thick, curly, frizzy, tangly hair before I came across this method online somewhere. I hope it works as well for you!
posted by daisyace at 3:32 PM on September 14, 2016

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