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Hair Conditioning 101

By Andrea Douglas
Hair Conditioning 101

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Published Date

August 2, 2021
Hair Conditioning 101
Hair Conditioning 101
April Summers

By April Summers

Why All the Fuss About Dead Cells?

Hair is a valuable possession for many people.

How we care for and style our hair can tell others about our personality and create first impressions, whether we like it or not.

A "bad hair day" has become a well-known description of having a tough time because we all know what it feels like to have a battle with thousands of unruly strands in the morning.

All three layers of our hair are made of protein-rich dead cells. They are:

  • Cuticle – the outer layer
  • Cortex – in the middle
  • Medulla – baby dead cells

The cuticle has a scaly structure that protects each strand and makes it shine.

The cortex is the colored part that makes us blonde, red, or gray, and the medulla is the inside of the hair burrito.

It's fresh from the follicle and hasn't yet had much exposure to heat and chemicals that can damage the cuticle (1).

Glands near a hair follicle coat the hair in oil to protect the cuticle and absorb dirt and styling products.

We need to cleanse our hair frequently to keep it bouncy and fresh.

Shampoo gathers up the gunk that doesn't mix with water and separates it from the scalp and cuticle to keep it feeling and looking clean.

Using conditioner protects hair by coating it to fill in damage and making the strands softer, shinier, and smoother.

This helps our locks slide around and not get tangled up when we comb through them.

Conditioner is also formulated to decrease static electricity and add luster (2).

How Does a Conditioner Work?

As they say, opposites attract.

Hair is negatively charged naturally but is insulated by lipids that protect it from static.

Damaged hair has even higher negativity causing strands to separate from each other, creating frizz (3).

Shampoo cleans off sweat, dead skin cells, and hair products, while positively charged molecules in conditioners reduce negative charges, soften and protect hair from damage, and make it easier to manage (4).

If you look at hair through a microscope, it looks like a frayed rope.

The flakes are part of the cuticle, protecting the fragile cortex and baby medulla.

Over time, the molecular bonds that create this hold weaken and become loose.

They break off as they get caught on other strands.

Conditioner helps the frayed parts lay down snugly.

Cationic surfactant molecules have positive charges that bind to negative charges of the hair strand and surround the cuticle flakes, like a hair double burrito (5).

Who Should Use a Conditioner?

Any hair owner and washer should also use conditioner.

Our heads make their own natural conditioners called sebum, but shampoo removes it.

Dry, frizzy, flat, or dull hair, especially if it's frequently styled with heat, permed, colored, pulled back into ponytails, braids, or a headband wants to be treated with conditioner.

This daily stress damages hair shafts, and they need lots of TLC (6).

Even if we don't want to shampoo every day, which can cause split ends, we don't have to skip conditioning.

We can hop in the shower after a workout, rinse our hair, and slick on some conditioner to protect it from breakage during styling (7).

What Conditioner Does

Besides protecting hair from damage by smoothing out the cuticle and shielding it from heating implements, conditioners can treat our locks to some pampering.

  • Detangles – Fewer strands are yanked out by the roots before they're ready.
  • Moisturizes – Oils stripped away by shampoo are infused to keep hair soft and shiny.
  • Strengthens – Locks are fortified to withstand dry, heated styling.
  • De-frizzes – Covering hair with moist protection keeps it smoother and tamer (8).

Even without the effects of styling, cold winter months and windy, dry climates can create more flakes and frayed strands.

Applying a deep conditioning mask once a month can do wonders and leave hair soft and sleek (9).

As well as fatty alcohols, humectants, and oils that make hair flexible, some conditioners have proteins that temporarily bind split ends and thickening agents for a fuller feeling (10).

Leave-in conditioner is formulated to replace what you use in the shower, but it can also promote healthy hair growth by keeping it protected all day.

Natural or more textured hair can use the extra moisturizing provided by a leave-in conditioner (11).

Matching Shampoo and Conditioner

It isn't always necessary, and sometimes not recommended to use the same brand or pairing of shampoo and conditioner that we see on the store shelves.

But using the same brand of shampoo and conditioner can provide the best care system that works in harmony with each other.

The most important thing is to choose a pair that matches our hair type or condition, like dry, permed, colored, fine hair, or dandruff (12).

Sometimes, rigidly matching our shampoo and conditioner brand can prevent our locks from being their most fabulous.

It helps to look at hair as unique from one half to the other.

An oily scalp needs a shampoo that works best for its roots, and if the ends are dry, we want a conditioner that hydrates the outer part of our shafts.

If the best matches are from different brands, they might work better than pairing products.

We can prescribe for our hair whatever takes care of it right.

Conditioners can be moisturizing or cleansing, smoothing or volumizing, and can be selected individually to see what hair responds to the best.

If dandruff or an itchy scalp is the problem, using a paired formula can ensure optimal care (13).

Chemical and Natural Conditioners

Conditioners add nutrients and shine to hair.

Silicone-based products can strip hair of its natural nutrients while adding the coating that locks out humidity, reduces frizz, and makes hair shiny.

If you want to go au-natural, look for labels marked "silicone-free" (14).

What's the Best Way to Use a Conditioner?

Our roots don't usually need conditioning.

We gently massage shampoo into our scalp but start the conditioner halfway down the length of our hair and work through to the ends to hydrate strands where they need it most (15).

Conditioners can provide our hair with too much of a good thing.

We might notice that we're over-conditioning if our hair is:

  • greasy
  • not bouncy
  • lacking volume
  • too shiny
  • difficult to style.

Any of these signs can alert us to cut back on our conditioner use and start to adjust how often we condition and what type we use for the right balance of shine, buoyancy, and smoothness (16).

Just as our hair can be over-conditioned, it can lack condition too.

Signs of under-conditioned hair include:

  • brittle strands that break easily
  • excessive tangling
  • dry, frizzy ends
  • dull color

Applying conditioner more often and deep conditioning our hair periodically can help maintain the moisture in our hair (17).

Can Conditioners Help with Hair Loss?

It may sound backward, but conditioning before shampooing can improve the body in hair.

Since we usually don't get ALL the conditioner rinsed out, it may weigh down our hair and reduce its volume.

Some experts recommend reversing the procedure and conditioning first, followed by shampooing to create extra bounce (18).

For thin hair, a volumizing conditioner can also do wonders no matter what order we use them.

Using a leave-in conditioner and scrunching hair while wet can produce curls that last all day if we refrain from combing or brushing them out.

For a lovely, gentle body, comb a small amount of leave-in conditioner to damp hair and braid it for thick waves, even for thin hair, which dries quickly (19).

For those with very dry hair, co-washing (not shampooing at all) can be gentler on hair prone to breakage.

It does allow the product to build up on hair, though making it heavier and flatter.

A clarifying shampoo every two weeks will clean the scalp and hair for another round of conditioning (20).