How To Use Conditioner: 7 Expert-Approved Tips For Leave-Ins, Masks & More
Sometimes we overlook the basics in beauty, from face washes to shampoos. We become so accustomed to our little daily rituals that we've been practicing (basically) our entire lives that we forget these products actually have a lot of variables and different ways to use them.
Conditioners certainly fall into this category. You may think the answer to "How to use conditioner" is fairly obvious (uh, don't you just put it in after your shampoo? I can practically hear the eye roll!), but in practice, using this item comes with a lot of alternative practices. And it's worth experimenting with new ways to use it to see what works best for your hair type.
Here, some of the best ways to use conditioner from experts:
OK, we'd be remiss not to include the most common usage, if a bit obvious. But here's the thing: After shampooing (especially if you are using a more traditional foaming shampoo), you need a moisturizer to help seal down the cuticle and add back nutrients to the strand. "Conditioner's role is to increase the moisture content of the hair and improve its elasticity, smooth the cuticle, and soften the hair fiber," writes hair consultant and trichologist Sarah Roberts, author of You and Your Hair: The Ultimate Healthy Hair Masterclass for Afro Textured Hair.
Think of it like washing your face: You need to top that fresh skin with a hydrator to keep water in the skin, as well as enhance skin barrier function. And while your hair isn't a direct comparison to your skin (your strands aren't made of living cells like your skin is, thus it doesn't have true regenerative properties), it does hold true that your hair needs moisture to look and feel its best. Without it, hair becomes brittle and breaks easier.
If you're using conditioner this way, do make sure that you've wrung out the excess water from your hair before applying it so the nutrients in the product can penetrate the shaft easier.
Swap in a co-wash.
"Co-washing—or, conditioner washing—allows the gentler cleansing without the drying detergents that can harm the scalp and hair. Also, co-washing protects the integrity and strength of the hair while maintaining its natural oils," hairstylist Miko Branch, founder of natural hair care brand Miss Jessie's, previously told us in our guide to co-washing.
With co-washing, you'll want to occasionally skip the shampoo and sub in a co-washing conditioner (it's formulated to gently cleanse the scalp while hydrating the ends). As for how often you do this, it's up to you. "I highly recommend that clients become in tune with their hair. If the hair begins to feel oily, or oversaturated—alternate frequently with a sulfate-free shampoo," Danielle Malary, owner of Lumiere Vive Salon, told us. "The routine should be specific to the client's hair and needs."
Don't rinse it out all the way.
If you have dry, curly hair, experiment with leaving some of the conditioner residue on the strands. Essentially, as you are rinsing the hair, leave a coating that feels soft and silky, not squeaky clean. It's a delicate balance and may take some trial and error till you know what's the perfect amount of leftover for your hair. (Some people will find this is not right for them as it can weigh hair down.)
One method for rinsing out conditioner while leaving a bit in is by pooling the water in your palms as you rinse the product out. As you are doing this, you continuously scrunch the conditioner-water cocktail back into the strands. This helps you have more control over the amount of product left and in what areas. To learn more about this rinse-out method, check out our how-to here.
Try a deep conditioner or masks.
"These can be broken down into two categories: those meant to provide proteins, and those primarily for moisture. As you may know, healthy hair is a balance between moisture and protein, so we need to use both, depending on the individual needs of our hair," says Roberts.
With these, you'll want to apply them post-shampoo, like a regular conditioner, except you'll want to make sure you give it ample time to set. (Most hairstylists recommend a range of 10 to 30 minutes.) They should ideally also be applied with heat. In a pinch, it's totally fine to stay in the shower and let the steam do its thing (use the time to shave or exfoliate!). But if you want to really amp up the efficacy, wrap your hair in a shower cap, turn off the water, exit the shower, and use a blow dryer set on low speed and warm. After, you'll rinse out as usual.
Apply a leave-in.
Leave-in conditioners are specifically designed to gently coat strands without being too tacky or heavy. They provide hair with the long-term moisture so many crave. Anyone could benefit from a leave-in conditioner; you'll just want to find one with the right blend of weight, nutrients, and texture for your hair type. (Here's a good list of leave-ins to start with.)
As for application, you'll want to use it post-shower while your hair is still wet. This way, the conditioning oils and emollients will help trap in the water and seal down the strands' cuticle (which is naturally raised from being exposed to water).
According to hairstylist and founder of Hair Rules Anthony Dickey, if you want more volume, you'll want to towel dry first; if your concern is more about curl definition and ridding hair of frizz, apply it when hair is sopping wet (keep the leave-in in the shower, even, to remember to do this).
Consider a pre-shampoo treatment.
Some people with thin or flat hair have a hard time with a conditioner, no matter how light of an option it may be. If you feel that conditioners weigh down your roots, stretch out your curls, contribute to a buildup-prone scalp, or just generally make your hair feel oily, consider reversing your application order. Yes, really. Simply apply your conditioner first, all over, and let it soak in. Rinse the conditioner out, and then apply shampoo only at the roots. This will make sure the rest of your strands are hydrated, but you'll get the lift, lightness, and clean feeling on the scalp.
If all this conditioner talk has you pulling up your Sephora or Amazon cart, just remember: Sometimes the best options are right in your kitchen. So if you're looking for a deeply nourishing treat for your hair, consider trying one of our DIY masks, which use items commonly found at home.
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Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.