How To Use Leave-In Conditioners: Tips & The Best Options For Each Hair Type
A conditioner that you leave in? Well, the name says it all, no? Certainly, the concept of this hair care product is simple enough: Rather than rinsing all the rich, creamy nutrients down the drain—you can layer some on the hair post-wash for softer, healthier hair.
And, yet, in practice, so many seem to struggle. We wager that leave-in products start to get a bit confusing when you are looking for options that work for you, your hair type, and styling needs. Don't worry, hair care lovers, we did the work for you.
Here, a leave-in conditioner breakdown.
What is leave-in conditioner?
As far as keeping your hair hydrated goes, you have many options. The most famous is perhaps your tried-and-true conditioner. This can help moisturize and nurture your strands post-shampoo—leaving it silky and soft for styling. Well, its natural pair, the leave-in conditioner, goes a step further.
"A leave-in conditioner locks the moisture in the hair strands for a longer period than a conditioner you rinse out. You might want to use this type of conditioner when you get your hair wet and after you shampoo. The role of these conditioners is to refortify the cuticle with a protective coating and add additional moisture to the cortex, allowing the hair to keep growing without breaking," says author and hair care expert Sarah Roberts about the various types of conditioners.
The best natural leave-ins for hair type.
Straight hair tends to be more hydrated naturally, as your scalp's oils are able to travel down from root to tip with more ease. This means those with straight hair don't need to lean on leave-ins as regularly—and should also opt for lighter, less occlusive versions.
- We love this leave-in conditioner blended with aloe, a lightweight and fast-absorbing natural botanical that has lots of healthy hair benefits.
- In a bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of fresh aloe vera juice, 3 tablespoons of water, and 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil.
- Stir the mixture until it's evenly mixed, then pour it into an old spray bottle.
- Thoroughly shake the spray bottle before use, and then, on damp hair, spritz the mixture all over, evenly distributing the tincture.
For the full how-to, see this guide.
For wavy hair, you're going to want something that adds conditioning but won't weigh the hair down and will allow for movement. Wavy hair will likely also benefit from a touch of grit—you know, like a wave spray—to add some texture. Try this leave-in texture-spray hybrid.
- Boil ½ cup water, removing from heat once it boils.
- Add 1 tablespoon sea salt, stirring until dissolved.
- Let the mixture cool completely.
- Add 1 tablespoon aloe vera juice or gel and ½ teaspoon argan or jojoba oil.
- Once it's all incorporated, pour the mixture into a spray bottle; shake and spray into hair.
For the full guide to DIY texture sprays, see here.
Curly hair needs moisture—lots of it. You should use leave-ins post-shower on damp hair, before your styling curl cream so the nutrients penetrate the shaft prior to being sealed in and styled from the defining product. We love one that combines multiple effective duty hydrators.
- In a bowl, mix together 1 part coconut oil, 2 parts aloe vera gel, 3 parts water, and a splash of avocado oil.
- Mix together until blended evenly.
- Transfer to a spray bottle.
For more info on coconut oil for hair, see here.
Coily hair is the driest of all the hair types and can be breakage-prone when not tended to correctly. That's why it's so important to find leave-ins that strengthen the hair and offer protection. We love butters, like this whipped shea number.
- Take your raw shea butter (unrefined or refined are fine), like this option from Atharva. Place it in a medium metal bowl.
- In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Place your bowl of shea butter onto the pot so the shea is heated from the steam of the boiling water.
- Once melted, remove from the pot and add a generous tablespoon scoop of coconut oil. You can play around with proportions.
- Using a stand mixer—yes, like you might with cooking—begin whipping the mixture together. You can take this process 5 minutes at a time, checking the consistency throughout. Eventually, after about 15 to 20 minutes of this, you'll get a light, fluffy consistency.
- Store your butter in a cool, dark place.
What about porosity?
Now, not to confuse things (hey, we love nuance here), but hair porosity does play a role in selecting a good leave-in for you. Porosity refers to how susceptible your hair is to water: essentially, to what degree the outer layer of the strand takes in or keeps out water.
"Hair porosity describes how the hair's cuticle absorbs and holds on to moisture in its pores—hence, the term porosity," says hairstylist Miko Branch, co-founder of hair care brand Miss Jessie's. This can affect your hair care choices, as you may need to find something that is more fast-absorbing or occlusive.
If you don't know your hair porosity, here's our test. Once you know where you fall on the spectrum of high versus low porosity, here are some additional tips:
- For higher-porosity hair: If you have more porous hair, it means water tends to flow more freely in and out. So, hair absorbs water easily, but it also means it evaporates easily. Because of the fragility of the hair, you'll want to make sure you are regularly coating it with hydrating products to help reinforce that outer cuticle and help seal in moisture. Look for occlusive oils and butters, like coconut and shea.
- For lower-porosity hair: This means your hair is less porous and doesn't drink in water as easily. Thus, you'll want to encourage it to absorb hydration with light-weight nutrients. Look for water-based products with butters, lightweight oils, glycerins, and honey.
How do you use leave-in conditioner?
Luckily, the core how-to step of a leave-in conditioner is right in the name: "A leave-in conditioner is to be used after washing your hair to replenish and maintain moisture. They are not rinsed out and are useful for controlling frizz, detangling strands, and keeping curls smooth. These conditioners are normally light lotions, creams, or liquids. Leave-in sprays are also effective; they are easy to apply to the ends of hair that need special attention and protection for retaining length," says Roberts.
But for more specific uses, here are our best tips:
- If you want more volume, be sure to towel dry your hair prior to applying your leave-in. This will help make curls appear larger and pillow-soft.
- For tighter, more defined curls, apply your products on sopping-wet hair. That's because, as hairstylist and founder of Hair Rules Anthony Dickey tells us, these hair types have a shorter window once they step out of the shower—those curls are prone to frizz as soon as they're exposed to air.
- You can also use it as a detangler pre- or post-shower. "Leave-in conditioners and detanglers are pretty much synonymous," says hairstylist and cosmetologist Faith Huffnagle, director of education at Prose.
- Use it on your ends to help mask split ends. You can't repair damaged hair, but with conditioning products, you can help mask damage temporarily. Leave-ins make hair appear healthier, shinier, and softer, which will help tattered ends blend in.
- Use it as a styler refresher. Leave-ins can come in handy between washes (especially for those of us with extremely dry hair). You can apply them to revamp curls, add shine to a slick-backed updo, and help keep tresses manageable.
- It can multitask as a heat protectant. Most leave-ins have some level of heat protection built in. Therefore, if you apply it before taking a blow-dryer to your hair, the hot air won't be as damaging.
Why should you use leave-in conditioner?
The role of leave-ins comes down primarily to hair health and styling. Here are some of the top benefits you can expect from using one:
Of course, the primary reason you're using a conditioner is to keep strands moisturized and healthy. Environmental stressors, shampoo, water, and styling can all dehydrate hair, leaving strands parched. For those of us who notice this is a major problem, we can lean on leave-ins to add that extra hydration support we need. Think of them as hydrating serums or boosters for hair.
2. Physical protection
Physical wear and tear—be it from detangling, brushing, styling, heat, breading, and so on—can cause breakage and splitting. Leave-in conditioners form a light film over the strands so it has better manageability.
3. Antioxidant properties
Most natural leave-ins are going to have some level of antioxidant protection—as they are often made with botanicals like plant oils, aloe vera, vitamins, and so on. Your hair, like your skin, needs antioxidants to help mitigate free radical damage. With free radical damage comes premature graying, aging, and dullness. (So leave-ins aren't just about immediate benefits; they have long-term ones, too.)
Since most leave-ins contain glossy ingredients, they often leave a light sheen on the hair. While purely aesthetic, we're never one to shy away from vibrant strands.
Perhaps one of the most multitalented hair care products in your arsenal, leave-in conditioners do so much more than the name suggests.
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