Choosing a conditioner is probably the most important thing to do when caring for your hair. It is the conditioner that will restore the hairs moisture and help maintain the hairs moisture and protein balance (click here for more info on moisture and protein balance). It is also the conditioner that helps with detangling the hair by providing the slip it needs to carefully separate curls and tangles without breaking the hair.
There are many different conditioners out there
There are “regular” conditioners with high water content that can work well as “washing conditioners” if you need to wash the hair often due to training for example. Then there are the heavier “cream rinse conditioners” that are longer lasting conditioners. And lastly there are deep conditioners or protein treatments that need to “sit” on the hair for a longer time (somewhere around 20min usually) and work best with heat (like a shower cap or a hooded dryer).
Besides the wash out conditioners listed above, there are leave in conditioners that are not meant to be washed out and are helpful for detangling and moisturizing the hair.
Ingredients commonly found in conditioners and what they do for the hair
The outer most layer of the hair strand is called the cuticle. It consists of several overlapping sheaths, like scales on a fish or tiles on a roof. These are supposed to lie down flat in a smooth, shiny layer. This will not only make the hair look healthy and shiny but also reduce friction between the hair strands and better keep moisture in the hair.
Conditioners are often acidic in PH since Acids make the hair cuticles lay flat and thus making it smooth and shiny. Citric Acid is one of the most common ingredients used for this purpose.
To get that lasting effect from a conditioner, it often contains cationic substance ingredients that are positively charged so that they easily attach to the damaged and negatively charged strands of hair.
The two most common types of this kind of ingredients are:
Ingredients you see ending with –chloride, or the word” Quaternium” followed by a number, are so called Cationic surfactants. These ingredients leave very little residue on the hair and are therefore more often found in moisturizing shampoos than conditioners. What they do is that they “coat” the hair to give it slip, thus reducing friction and making detangling easier.
Examples of this type of ingredients are: Celluloses and polyquarternium followed by a number.
Cationic polymers also help thicken the product and add thickness to the hair. They provide slip and give sheen and smoothness to the hair by coating the cuticle. This type of ingredient will have a more lasting effect than the cationic surfactants.
Now, as far as I have understood some of these are good and some are not so good for your hair. The ones that are not so good can cause buildup on the hair that can cause some problems further down the road (for more info on buildup click here).The ones that are good (that I have found) are polyquarternium-7 and polyquarternium-10. These ingredients will provide the slip you need, give the hair smoothness and sheen without causing buildup. Polyquarternium- 16 and polyquarternium -57 are also okay and shouldn´t cause buildup.
Silicones are used in conditioners to smooth the hair strands and reduce friction by adding a lot of slip as well as add shine to the hair. This is very good for increasing the hairs manageability and overall appearance, as well as protecting it from heat damage!
But be aware! It can cause some serious problems with buildup that leads to the hair drying out and breaking easily. Water solubility is the key to knowing when and how to use silicones. If you don´t use a sulfate based shampoo regularly you should avoid silicones that are not highly water soluble. Something that is important to keep in mind is that some water soluble silicones will still need a gentle sulfate free shampoo to remove. Simply using conditioner to wash the hair might not be enough to remove these “water soluble” silicones. So even if they are water soluble, they might lead to build up on the hair over time.
You will recognize silicones in the ingredients list by their common word endings such as: -cone,
-conol, -col and –xane.
Examples of water soulable silicones:
Lauryl Methicone Copolyol
Hydrolyzed wheat protein (Hydroxypropyl Polysiloxane)
Any Silicone with PEG as a prefix
Examples of “slightly water soluble silicones”:
Peg- modified dimethicone
Examples of Non-water soluble silicones:
Oils coat the hair strands and creates a seal to help the hair retain moisture as well as providing slip and shine.
There are many different oils out there you have to try and see what works for your hair since some oils can make the hair feel greasy and heavy for some, while not do much for another.
Something to watch out for though is mineral oil and petrolatum.
These synthetic oils work very similar to silicones, meaning that they create a strong seal around the hair strands, giving the hair great slip and shine as well as softness. But just like silicones they will cause build up on the hair and are not water soluble. They create a strong barrier on the hair that prevents any further moisture to penetrate the hair shaft, leading to dryness and eventually breakage if you don´t wash it out with strong sulfate based shampoos.
My personal favorite among oils is Coconut oil. It has some amazing qualities.
Coconut oil can penetrate the hair, which can improve the hair’s elasticity and make it feel softer as well as reinforce the hair fiber, making it stronger by preventing protein loss! It is also useful for preventing and removing head lice!!! I love this oil! The only downside is that it can leave some white “gunk” in the hair if we use it during wintertime since it gets solid in colder temperatures…
Oils that are derived from plants, flowers, seeds and fruits are the best oils for hair care since they create a temporary seal and even in some cases penetrate the hair which lets you moisturize your hair without having to wash them out with harsh shampoos first like you have to do if you use mineral oils or petrolatum.
Examples of synthetic oils:
Examples of natural oils:
And many more…
Humectants attract moisture from the air into the hair and help to keep it there. Some people don´t like humectants since they can encourage fizziness in humid weather (a good sealant may help minimize this effect). Humectants are excellent for dry hair that needs lots of moisture!
There is a lot more to be said about humectants but I will keep it short here.
Examples of humectants are:
Proteins in hair care products are there to strengthen the hair or to improve its elasticity. But the effect is not permanent. The proteins in the product will temporarily bind to the hair, creating a protective coating over the damaged cuticle layer. How long the effect lasts is Depending on the product and the condition of the hair.
Ingredients that have the word hydrolyzed in front of them are the strongest binding proteins since they have been broken down to low-molecular-weight amino acids that bond better to the hair fibers.
Examples of protein ingredients are:
Amino acids (many different ones)
There are different types of alcohols in hair care products. Some are bad and can cause the hair to become dry and frizzy while others are used for conditioning purposes.
Fatty alcohols such as:
Lauryl alcohol, Cetyl alcohol, Myristyl alcohol, Stearyl alcohol, Cetearyl alcohol and Behenyl alcohol.
Are used for conditioning purposes.
Alcohols that are drying to the hair and skin are:
Ethyl alcohol (also called Ethanol, Alcohol Denat or SD Alcohol)
Isopropyl alcohol (also called isopropanol)
Perservatives are added to products to prevent product damage caused by microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria. One of the most common preservatives are Parabens. There has been a lot of talk about them and the possible health risks they may pose. This has led many peolple to avoid them and search for products containing other kinds of preservatives or even products without them all together. But the fact still stands that all preservatives are not bad for you and they are actually quite important.
Examples of preservatives are:
Parabens (many different ones)
I hope this information was helpful in your search for a conditioner that will work well for your hair.
Remember that what works for some might not work for you and the other way around. Just because someone says that a particular ingredient is bad or doesn´t work well for their hair doesn´t mean that it is not going to be good for you.
Knowledge about ingredients and how they work will empower you and help you find the products you need as well as give you a better understanding of why a certain product works or not for your hair.
Something else to keep in mind is also that your hair needs will change over time and with the different seasons.