Conditioner 101

Conditioners are the holy grail for black hair because black hair needs moisture more than any other hair. You see, because of our curly hair texture, moisture does not readily travel to the ends of the hair like other hair types. Additionally, when we wash our hair with harsh shampoos we strip it of moisture and make a bad situation worse. Of course there are ways to get around this, you can pre-shampoo (pre-poo) with conditioner thus mitigate some of the harsh effects of shampoo or you can deep condition your hair after every shampoo session.

Regardless of what you do, conditioner needs to be an integral part of your hair care. Conditioner adds to the natural supply of oil that the hair produces and it gives the hair flexibility, keeps it shiny and bouncy and adds strength to the strands. The key ingredients in conditioners include lubricants like panthenol, dimethicone, fatty acids, acidifier which balances the hair’s and helps to tighten  the scaly  surface of the hair. Conditioners also include antistatic agents and detanglers which smooth hair  cuticles, and oils which add gloss,  especially essential fatty acids to mimic the scalp’s natural sebum.

Three Types of Conditioners

There are three types of conditioners on the market and they target different hair conditions. These are moisturizing, protein which adds volume and detangling or smoothing conditioners.

Moisturizing Conditioners

Moisturizing conditioners add moisture to the hair by replacing the oils that are removed in the shampooing process. These conditioners contain what are called humectants. Humectants are compounds that trap moisture into the hair shaft. There are some conditioners which add oils like jojoba and coconut oil that mimics the scalp’s natural oils and restore moisture to hair strands. These conditioners usually contain ingredients like panthenol, methicones, silicones, essential oils and botanicals like shea butter and avocado. The hair types that benefit the most from moisturizing conditioners are dry, curly, coarse or frizzy hair.

Protein Conditioners

Protein conditioners usually coat the hair shaft with a layer of protein that gives the hair body and gives the appearance of thicker hair. They are often labeled as voluminizers or re constructors. This conditioner works by filling in the gaps of the outer cuticle of damaged hair giving hair the illusion of being smoother and shinier. Have you ever wondered why your hair looks so good after going to the hair dresser and then a few days after it reverts into a hellish mess? Well the protein conditioner is like a temporary repair man. Unfortunately, though they are touted to strengthen and reconstruct hair, the effect is only temporary. The hair types that can benefit the most from these conditioners are fine and limp hair that is damaged.

De-tangling Conditioners

The secret to de-tangling conditioners is that they have a low pH of 2.5 to 3.5; this enables it to close the cuticle layer of hair and allows the individual strands of hair to remain separate from each other. They reduce static and allows the hair to be more manageable. This type of conditioner contains silicone which also coats the hair and gives it a fuller appearance.The hair types that work especially well with this conditioner are natural tightly curly hair and fine hair. All hair types can benefit from a de-tangler now and again especially after hair is tangled after shampooing.

Difference between Leave In and Rinse Out Conditioners

The difference between leave in and rinse out conditioners is similar to the difference between fats and oils. Leave in conditioners are thinner and heavily diluted than the usual conditioners, it has different surfactants which add only a little material to the hair, they are based on unsaturated chains which make them lighter and thinner. This has to be the case because it is left on the hair for a significant period of time and is not usually washed out for a few days. On the other hand, rinse out conditioners are thicker, they form thicker layers on the surface of the hair and they coat the hair shaft with a thick layer adding more material to the hair. Additionally, the thicker conditioners which we call deep conditioners have penetrative benefits, this penetration is usually activated by heat when it is applied to hair for a longer time, it generally repairs very dry or damaged hair.

My conclusion based on research is that leave in conditioners are much thinner forms of rinse out conditioners. Rinse out conditioners are thicker but they coat the hair surface and deep conditioners are penetrative, the properties enter the hair strand when triggered by heat and does wonders for the hair shaft.


Toedt John et al, Chemical composition of everyday products, Greenwood Press, 2005


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