What Makes A Conditioner, A Conditioner? (Plus Many Tips!)

What Makes A Conditioner A Conditioner?

    A reader sent in this very valid question, important not only for beauty DIYers but also people lost on the maze of hair care products unhelpfully labeled "potion", "elixir" "formula" or "complex." In this post I will try to explain what a conditioner does and what it contains, as well as its relation to similar products such as hair masques, serums and leave-ins.

 What is a conditioner?

   "A substance, esp a cosmetic, applied to something to improve its condition". Improving the condition of the hair means moisturising it, filling in the gaps between the scales, and coating it with a protective layer; as well as other aesthetic improvements such as adding shine, softness or volume.
    You should remember that conditioners don't "feed" or "nourish" the hair -- hair is dead. It is not like a plant that is fed and nourished by the root, rather it is like spaghetti being pushed out of the spaghetti machine. Conditioning the hair can be compared to conditioning leather -- the leader is dead but conditioning it helps to protect it from the ravages of the environment and make it look good.

     Conditioners are meant to be applied on wet hair, left in for a while and (usually) washed out. This means that they get deeper into the hair that other products. They are meant to be used after every wash. More than any other hair product, conditioners help to keep the hair in a good condition. Shampoos clean the hair, styling product make it look pretty (often with a cost of the health of the hair). Conditioning is the main thing that

What is the difference between a conditioner and...

... a leave-in?
Leave-ins are a lighter kind of conditioner that doesn't have to be washed out.

... a hair masque or treatment?
These are richer conditioners, and are meant to be left on the hair longer (15 mins to overnight). They are usually used more rarely than regular conditioners, because they are so rich.

... a hair serum?
Most serums are basically leave-ins or conditioners with a fancy name, and sometimes fancy ingredients as to match it.

... a conditioning shampoo?
Conditioning shampoos have more conditioning ingredients than regular shampoos. In my opinion these are usually a gimmick -- instead of producing sulfate-free shampoos, conditioning ingredients are added to offset the harshness of the sulfates. The shampoo stays on the hair for too short to condition it, and should not be left on the hair for a longer time (again, because of the sulfates). It is better to buy a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo and use it only on the top of the head, and a proper conditioner on the lengths. (If you are curious why sulfates are used in shampoos: they make a lot of foam, give that squeaky clean feeling and are very cheap).

What does a conditioner contain and how does it work?

  Conditioners contain humectants (moistuising ingredients) like panthenol, glyceryn, hialuranon, urea, sodium lactate, aloe vera etc. These help the hair to retain more moisture.

    The also contain occlusives which coat the hair and prevent the moisture from escaping. They also keep the hair smoother and shinier. Good occlusives are plant-based oils and butters, crappy ones are mineral oil and petroleum. Silicones are also often used, and they should be used with caution. Fatty alcohols and glycerin are also used, they are not my favourites but they work for many people.

 Lets not forget proteins. These are the building blocks of hair. Depending on your hair type (esp porosity) your hair may or may not like protein, or may love it only once in a while. For this reason I recommend starting with a protein-free or low-protein conditioner for everyday use, and having a protein heavy conditioner or masque and trying out whether and how often your hair likes it. Proteins come under ingredients names: see here. Of course you can also make your own using beer, avocado, yoghurt, egg whites or even protein supplements.

    Then there are ingredients that add shin and gloss, often silicones.

   Then there might be other active ingredients of all kinds -- plant extracts and minerals, vitamins, and much more. There are also pH regulators and anti-static agents and detanglers. Conditioners also contain cationic surfactant, they help the ingredients of the conditioner cling to the hair.

   The rest of the conditioner is made up of filler ingredients, consistency givers, conservants, perfume, colours and so on.

    Do remember that often one ingredient can take on several of this roles. For example jojoba oil is a great occulsive, gives shine and detangle.

When choosing a conditioner:

  • Skip the description, go straight to the ingredient list. The ingredient list will not lie.
  • Salon brands or more expensive products are not necessarily better. Again, look at the ingredients to see what the product is really worth.
  • A simple ingredient list is good. This usually means less filler ingredients and unnecessary stuff; and the conditioner will be less likely to irritate or cause an allergy. Short ingredients lists means more active ingredients that work for your hair and less ingredients that work for the product (pH regulators, conservants, thickeners and special effects ingredients).
  • If you see silicones, mineral oil / petroleum among the top three ingredients, drop the product, it's crap.
  • The first three or four ingredients is what the product contains most of.
  • Don't fall under the spell of fancy names like "hair therapy", "nurturing creme" and "moisturising treatment": if it's mean to be used after shampooing and washed off after a couple minutes
  • Do look up the reviews on Makeupalley as well as the ingredient toxicity on SkinDeep. The Livestrong website also breaks down the ingredients of many popular conditioners.

   How would you define a conditioner? Did I miss something? Also: which is your favourite conditioner?

Check these out: