Consider leave-in conditioner a hair styling product straddling two categories: moisturizing and styling. It may not completely replace the conditioner in your shower if you have tangled-prone hair, but some hair types (undamaged) or lengths (short) can skip the wet step altogether and condition once they’re out of the tub.
What does leave-in conditioner do?
Leave-in conditioners have benefits for any hair type, especially if damaged for any reason or normally dry (read curls). In general, leave-ins soften hair with natural oils and nutrients, offer a little hold to help curls coalesce, and add a little weight to keep flyaways and frizz from floating skyward. If you’re like most leave-in users, frizz is the catchword that brought you here.
Leave-in conditioners are the best way to recondition hair following chemical treatments such as waving, straightening, and coloring, and following the physical trauma of drying, brushing, and styling for all hair types. Leave-ins can also protect hair from pollution, environmental damage, and the sun’s UV rays.
Here’s some food for thought: Why is it that we put conditioner in our hair and immediately rinse it out? You don’t do that after applying a moisturizer to your body, do you? It can be argued that the benefits of hair conditioner, in general, are better delivered all day and not in a 5-minute dash.
How does leave-in conditioner work?
Our hair is composed of three major layers – the innermost medulla, the cortex where color resides, and the cuticle, which is made up of overlapping shingles that look something like fish scales and work in a similar fashion by ideally laying flat, and smooth. The cuticle layer is held together by forces called hydrogen bonding.
The more hydrogen that is present, the more secure the bond. Acids have lots of hydrogen, so the scales make a tighter seal when hair is acidic. Conditioners are usually acidic (pH < 7) to counteract the hydrogen ions that are removed by shampoo. They make hair easier to handle after washing and appear shinier because the cuticle is smoother – the same reason that some people reach for acidic lemon, vinegar or mayonnaise as DIY conditioners. Some shampoos also have ingredients that leave your hair dry and brittle which is why we recommend a sulfate free shampoo. Leave-in conditioner is a great way to combat those nasty effects to keep your hair healthy and full.
Another force at work is charged ions: the negative charge of hair is attracted to the positively charged conditioner, which results in conditioner being deposited on specific areas of damaged hair that are even more negatively charged.
Common Conditioning Ingredients
Typically, conditioners are formulated with various types of conditioning agents that work to improve your hair’s texture. Water is invariably the first ingredient, followed by:
Cationic surfactants and polymers
These two groups of compounds adhere to the hair surface and coat it in microscopic lubricating “fur” that makes hair strands glide past each other without snagging on ragged cuticle scales to make detangling easy. Cationic ingredients also help reduce the build-up of static electricity between the hair strands. Examples include Cetrimonium chloride and Dicetyldimonium chloride.
These agents include vegetable-derived fatty alcohols (not all alcohols are drying) and waxes, that serve to replenish the lipids lost to washing.
Oils coat hair strands in slippery protection that seals in moisture from your natural hair and makes for easier and less damaging styling. A few oils such as olive and coconut can penetrate through the cuticle into the core and improve elasticity and softness. Oils significantly improve textured hair; however, the downside of oils is their potential to make hair feel greasy or heavy.
Humectants such as panthenol and glycerol attract water to the hair and keep it there. If your hair type is susceptible to frizziness in humidity, a conditioner with these ingredients high on the list might make it worse, and silicones may be your answer.
These coat hair in a thin, glossy, lubricating film that functions as a water barrier that may help protect the hair from heat styling damage. They can, however, weigh down fine hair, cause build-up at the roots, and stretch natural waves and curls, but many people love the effect, primarily the shine that is left afterwards. Dimethicone, Dimethiconol, Amodimethicone, and Cyclomethicone are all silicones.
Proteins are often added to regular conditioners with the claim that they “repair.” While they do form a protective coating over damaged hair, and some might penetrate the cuticle – slightly – and seal split ends, any repair is temporary and washes out with the next shampooing. Examples include hydrolyzed keratin and silk proteins, and the word on the curl grapevine is that they can build up over time to compromise follicles and dull shine.
In addition, you’ll find emulsifiers to keep the oil and water components mixed, pH balancers, fragrance, and preservatives.
How to use leave-in conditioner
Our favorite hairstyling tip when using a leave-in conditioner is this: work with your hair, not against it! This class of product is best at enhancing your natural hair texture rather than significantly changing it.
Air-drying is generally preferable to blow-drying to avoid heat damage, and leave-in conditioners make the natural results much more predictable, not to mention avoiding thousands of watts aimed at your head that can sap moisture and lead to breakage. Especially for those with thin or already damaged hair, air-drying has many benefits such as reduced split ends and healthy hair overall.
There’s nothing complex about applying leave-in conditioner; all you need are your fingers. If this is a new product for you – and especially if your hair is fine – we recommend starting with small amounts and adding more as you go to observe the effects and avoid getting greasy right out of the gate. You may be tempted to add more product to give an extra moisture boost, but by starting with small amounts at a time, you will be able to gauge the appropriate amount for your specific hair type!
Apply directly after you shower to damp – not sopping wet – hair so that you seal the water in and keep it hydrated longer. Use this opportunity to section curls and twist them into ringlets and “set” them how you like. Then you can simply sweep on more as you need to tame flyaways, redefine curl, or refresh hold.
“In my experience, leave-ins are better absorbed by hair when it’s wet,” says hairdresser, Jason Devastation. “Think about a sponge: A damp one will pick up moisture; a dry one just moves it around. So, if you put a cream on damp hair, you get more internal benefit: on dry hair only the surface will be affected – and the finish will be more matte.”
Want to learn a trick for how to add volume to fine hair? Apply from the ends up, avoiding the scalp area so you maintain volume and avoid greasiness.
Air-dry and you’re all set. However, leave-in conditioners also make it that much easier to apply secondary hair products and form a good foundation for gels, mousses, when you want firmer hold.
Our recommendation for a leave-in conditioner that offers something for everybody is a product called Hair Balm made by Hairstory. “Hair Balm serves different functions for different people,” says Devastation. “If your hair is really bleached and compromised, Balm gives moisture and stability so it’s not as fragile or brittle. If your hair is curly, Balm both moisturizes and controls but doesn’t overwhelm; you get that natural spring and body while protecting it.” Add a daily dose of vegetable proteins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory flower extracts, and you have a leave-in you’ll never leave out of your haircare toolkit.