Not too long ago, we wrote an article about how often you should wash your hair with shampoo. This has turned out to be pretty popular, so we're following it up now: how often should you use conditioner?
Shampoo cleanses the hair, which strips it of dirt and grime, yes, but also of natural oils and protective moisture. Conditioner, on the other hand, isn't meant for cleansing, but rather protection. As such, you might expect that it can be used much more often.
So, is that true, or is there more to the story?
The Types of Conditioners
Hair conditioner is a name for a broad category of different hair treatments, but all of those treatments have a few things in common.
First and foremost, conditioner is usually made up of chemicals, oils, and various ingredients meant to protect hair. Some of them are more organic than others, and the fully organic conditioners are often formulated to mimic the more synthetic versions.
Conditioner primarily serves to moisturize hair, keep moisture in the hair, add clean oil to the hair, and add a surface layer of protection that helps keep other oils, dirt, and grime off of it.
Conditioners come in many forms, with different levels of effect and protection.
- Traditional conditioners are primarily meant for adding moisture to hair and protecting it from external damage for a short time.
- Deep conditioners are meant to penetrate hair more deeply and are left in the hair longer before being rinsed out. They help repair some hair damage and protect it at a deeper level.
- Leave-in conditioners are like sunscreen for your hair; you put them in and leave them there throughout the day, for active protection.
- Dry conditioners are a sort of combination between conditioner and hair spray; they're more of a surface-level protective layer rather than deeper conditioning.
Different conditioners have different purposes, different formulas, and different ingredients. Some work best on frizzy hair, some on thin hair, and some on dry hair. In fact, successfully using conditioner depends a lot on your hair type.
The Many Benefits of Using Conditioner
Using conditioner on your hair has a lot of potential benefits, though which benefits you get depend a lot on your hair type and the contents of the conditioner itself. There are, after all, thousands of different hair conditioner products out there, many with different and unique formulations. Simply finding the right conditioner for your hair type can be a long and tedious process. Still, here are the benefits you can expect when you find the right one.
It helps keep your hair tangle-free. Conditioner moisturizes hair and adds a slippery, protective layer of oil over the top of its surface. There are many different hair treatments that do this, though, so you want to avoid over-conditioning your hair so that it doesn't become thick and sticky. When there's a moderate layer of protective oil over the hair, it easily slides over itself and thus has a harder time tangling and an easier time untangling.
It helps add moisture and keep moisture in. Moisture is the crucial core of life in each strand of hair. While hair is not technically alive, as such, it is moist inside, and when that moisture is drawn out of it, through sun exposure and heat treatment, it ends up thin, dry, and brittle. Conditioner helps keep that moisture in and restore it when it is removed, to avoid this damage and fragility.
It helps soften hair. Some people won't feel like this is a benefit, while others will enjoy how much softer their hair will feel after conditioning. This is particularly beneficial for those with stiff, thick, coarse hair, which resists most other kinds of treatment. Softening it helps make styling it easier, as well.
It adds shine to hair. One of the keys to healthy, vibrant hair is the lustrous shine it can contain. That shine disappears in over-washed, dry hair, and it leaves hair looking dull and lifeless. By conditioning hair, it restores and protects that shine, and leaves hair looking much healthier.
It can repair surface damage to hair. While hair cannot heal, treatments can restore small cracks and fissures, as well as restoring the moisture in the core of the hair. Conditioner helps to seal these fissures and keep hair healthier longer.
It makes hair stronger and more resistant to damage. By protecting hair from damage and restoring it from some of the damage it takes, it can be made more resistant to future damage. In particular, conditioner often helps protect hair against sunlight, heat, and UV radiation that would otherwise damage it.
It helps protect hair dye to keep colors vibrant longer. Some forms of conditioner are specially formulated to add an extra layer of protection specifically meant to seal in dye and color. If you dye your hair and want the color to last longer, using a conditioner with color-locking properties can help. Not all conditioners do this, but many are created solely for this purpose.
Are There Risks to Using Conditioner?
With all of the benefits, it's a wonder that anyone is avoiding or not using conditioner all the time. It makes you wonder: are there any risks to using conditioner? Can it damage your hair, hurt your scalp, or otherwise cause problems?
The fact is, there is very little reason not to use conditioner. There are a few small potential problems that might crop up, but they are typically quite rare.
- Very rarely, some people might be allergic to an ingredient in a conditioner. This is most common with organic conditioners that use plant ingredients. Allergic reactions to conditioners are typically itchiness or rash, called allergic contact dermatitis. Changing conditioners often solves this problem, once you identify the ingredient that's affecting you and find a conditioner without it.
- People with oily skin prone to acne might find that conditioner can cause breakouts where it touches, particularly on the face or neck. This is because conditioner is meant to lock in moisture, and locked-in moisture leads to breakouts on acne-prone skin. The primary solution to this is simply rinsing out and washing off the conditioner more thoroughly.
- Conditioner tends to be heavy on the hair, particularly leave-in conditioners. This can weigh down thin and light hair, and make hair have less curl and volume. Whether or not this is an intended effect is up to you. Some people find that it makes their hair look dull and lifeless, while others find it assists with straightening hair. If your hair looks dull and greasy after using a conditioner, the first step is to use less of it each time.
- If you use conditioner regularly and then stop, you may notice a sudden change in your hair. Without the protection and moisture, it's used to, your hair might end up dry and brittle and be more prone to breaking and other damage.
That's about it! Conditioner is not caustic and isn't going to damage or destroy your hair like heat treatments or bleaching can, and it's not going to make your hair fall out by damaging your scalp or anything of the sort unless you have an extreme allergic reaction. If you're prone to allergies and are concerned about that, test it on a different part of your body and see if your skin reacts first.
How Often Should You Use Conditioner?
How often you should use conditioner depends a lot on what kind of conditioner you've chosen and what kind of hair you have.
If your conditioner is a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner, you should avoid using it every day. Instead, follow our linked guide up above about how often you should use shampoo because the shampoo part of the shampoo and conditioner takes precedence.
If your hair is naturally dry: you should use a conditioner that focuses on moisturizing your hair. These conditioners tend to have more oils and protective chemicals in them to lock in that moisture. Go for a lighter shampoo in general, and use a creamy conditioner that infuses your hair with moisture. You may need to try out several conditioners before you find one that works best. In this instance, using a conditioner once per day is generally the best. If you use a wet conditioner, you will need to rinse your hair before using it, but you should avoid shampooing each time, as this will strip the protective layers and undo the benefit of the conditioner previously applied. If you're using a dry or leave-in conditioner that doesn't require you to wet your hair first, you can use it every day.
If your hair is naturally oily: you should avoid using a conditioner every day. A conditioner that uses moisture and oils to keep your hair thick and healthy will only exacerbate the problems of oily hair. Instead, restrict your conditioner usage to only times after you have shampooed to remove the oils already in your hair. In general, you will want to find a more natural kind of conditioner or one with fewer silicones and less oil that will infuse your hair and make it look greasy.
If your hair is naturally thin: this is similar to naturally dry hair, but you will want to find a conditioner that focuses more on thickening and protecting your hair than one that moisturizes it. Thin hair is not necessarily dry hair, but it is more prone to damage. A volumizing conditioner will work best in this situation, used daily or every other day. Make sure to keep an eye on your hair and use conditioner less often if you're starting to see it look greasy.
If your hair is naturally thick: you will want to use condition on a daily basis, but you will want to find one that focuses on adding protective layers rather than adding moisture because your hair will likely already be thick enough to retain its moisture. You mostly want to protect it from sun damage and from drying out. A thin conditioner used every day, or a thicker conditioner used every other day, will work best to keep your hair smooth and easy to manage.
If your hair is damaged by sun exposure or heat treatments: you will want to find a conditioner that has restorative properties. Conditioners that focus on moisturizing and protecting hair will be best. If you're exposing your hair to hours of sunlight every day, you can use this kind of conditioner every morning, similar to how you might use sunblock before going to the beach. Using a leave-in conditioner, possibly even one with SPF protection in it will be the best option for this situation.
Conversely, if your hair is damaged by a one-time event or treatment, you can use a strong and protective conditioner for just after the treatment to restore that moisturizer. Keep in mind that if you're having a multi-stage heat treatment that starts with bleaching or formaldehyde treatments for straightening, you will want to follow your stylist's instructions and avoid using and products that aren't recommended, otherwise you may disrupt the treatment. Only use conditioner once you're allowed to.
Keep in mind, above all else, that everyone has different and unique hair, which will react to different conditioners in different ways. The above guidelines are just that: guidelines. Experiment with conditioners and see how your hair fares with them.
We recommend using a conditioner for at least two weeks in a routine before you make your decision (unless there's a sudden and adverse reaction). Your hair will likely vary back and forth until you settle into a routine and it adapts to a new normal. Only then can you truly make a confident decision.