Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/24/2022
Hair conditioners offer many practical benefits for hair health, and for people with certain types of hair, those benefits can be essential to maintaining the look they want.
Unfortunately, for all the clamoring to make the most promises, not many conditioners or their ingredients have been scientifically proven to deliver.
In fact, it’s fair to say that while conditioning your hair does have benefits, few people understand what’s really going on.
If you have curly, voluminous hair, you have more than your fair share of extra hassles to keep it looking beautiful. When it comes to picking the right conditioner, there are certain things you should look for.
You can tell when something’s not right with your hair. Brittle, dry, crackly, full of split ends — with or without curly hair, these are hair health problems that anyone can face.
Curly is just one of several hair types, and it’s arguably the most difficult to manage. Curly, wavy hair is beautiful, but it also requires a bit of upkeep and can also be more prone to damage.
If not cared for correctly, curly hair can also become dry, which is a problem because without those natural oils to lubricate and protect your follicles, they’ll literally rub against each other and damage themselves.
Shampoo is great at getting rid of dirt, but it can also remove those crucial oils (also called sebum) that protect and lubricate.
Dry hair is essentially unprotected, and in the case of curly hair, it’s at a higher risk of cuticle damage, breakage, split ends and other issues when compared to straight hair.
What conditioners do is address this problem by replacing those natural oils with another protective layer. That layer might also be a natural oil or other compound designed to protect from external damage (from chemicals in your water or towel friction, for instance), as well as more immediate sources of damage (like the follicle next door).
Conditioners are simply hair treatments with active ingredients meant to improve or enhance your hair texture, lubrication, fullness and other vital characteristics. They’re also a sort of response to those modern shampoo issues—taking away too much sebum or natural oil is a problem that conditioners can address.
It would be understandable for you to wonder whether your hair type should influence the type of conditioner you use — or how often you use it, or in what way.
And those are definitely fair questions to ask.
It’s also one that the scientific community really hasn’t answered confidently yet—conditioner research is a fairly new field, all things considered.
There isn’t much data on curly hair and conditioners, in part because defining things like a “curl type” is still a relatively new field.
There isn’t a universal standard for what constitutes curly hair — as opposed to things like wavy hair, frizzy curls or looser curls — and while we may feel comfortable identifying them ourselves, the most recent research says we still have many questions to answer.
What we do know, however, is that all conditioners work the same way, with a two-part system: the conditioning part, and the part that helps the conditioner cling to your hair follicle.
Conditioners function through a sort of electricity. They contain what’s called cationic surfactant, which gives the conditioner a positive electric charge. When coated to the negative charge of your hair, it gets deposited onto the hair, bringing whatever natural or synthetic ingredients the product claims will help your hair’s health with it.
Because of this, conditioners can also help decrease other problems like static, and help your follicles preserve moisture that would otherwise be lost to evaporation and the elements throughout the day.
Conditioners can come with many qualifiers. You may see terms on the bottle like “lightweight formula,” or “deep conditioner” or “for color-treated hair,” and they may include ingredients mango seed butter, coconut oil, shea butter.
Here’s the issue, though. There’s no real regulation for any of these terms, and while you can assume that they’re designed in part for the benefit of certain hair types or to access the benefits of certain emollients, there aren’t significant volumes of study that these companies can point to to prove that grapeseed oils are they star ingredient frizzy hair, versus aloe vera for wavy hair.
All conditioners work the same way regardless of hair type, and while one product might be better for your hair than another, there’s no real empirical set of standards that has been proven in clinical trials to say that one ingredient or formulation does better for any group of people or specific hair type than another.
We’ve all seen the advertisements. You know, the ones that claim that so-and-so company’s specially formulated patent-pending whatever-the-hell sauce can keep your hair looking its best while “fixing” the damage done by endless products, tools, blah blah blah.
The problem with this is that, for the most part, the ingredients on these lists tend to have scant medical backing.
We’ve covered this previously, but to cut to the chase: further and more extensive research is needed on just about every oil or other ingredient in these products.
So, picking one oil or herbal ingredient out of the lot is unnecessary, unless we can fund a few more years of study to see what’s really going on.
What we do know is that conditioners do offer benefits, and while the specific ingredient may or may not affect the results, any good conditioner should have the following:
If you’re looking for the most important part of any conditioner, it’s here. These natural and synthetic ingredients coat the hair shaft in a protective layer of natural or synthetic oil—basically a replacement for your sebum—in turn, preventing further damage and moisture loss.
There aren’t any official rules for what qualifies as an emollient or oily compound, and you’ve probably seen a fair number of options in the beauty and hair care aisle.
Fish oil, olive oil, grape seed oil, jojoba oil, synthetic versions and other oil replacements all are designed to lube your hair follicle like it’s part of an efficient engine, ensuring that the wear and tear is reduced and you don’t do damage just by moving your head.
Cationic surfactants may sound like the year’s hottest nerd rock band, but as far as your hair is concerned, they’re really just tiny tiny magnets. These cationic surfactants bond to the oily compounds in the conditioner, and then in turn bond to your hair through an electric charge.
In a very literal sense, they’re what puts a stop to all the negativity in your hair. They’re an essential part of the process.
We’re lumping “everything else” into one group because truth be told, there isn’t a scientifically backed organization of conditioner ingredients.
Coloring agents, natural or artificial scents: this stuff isn’t for your hair so much as it’s for your enjoyment, and that’s fine.
Everything doesn’t need to be in service of your lush, voluminous curly locks.
Conditioners may additionally contain polymers, peptides, amino acids, thickeners and bodying agents claiming to serve certain purposes, like boosting hair health or increasing the nutrients in your scalp.
There’s scant evidence to suggest this has significant effects.
And emulsifiers, fatty alcohols and any other miscellaneous pieces of the formula are there to do things like stabilize the product or enhance things like shine and volume.
That may be great, but they ultimately don’t add to the protection of your hair.
Finding the right conditioner for your needs may be a question of trial and error, and at the end of the day, you’re your own best judge about what looks better, feels, better, and feels healthier,
For people with curly hair, there’s more to the haircare routine—the strategy—than just a few guidelines about conditioners. We get that.
And the truth is, there’s more you can do to protect your gorgeous curls and make them work for you than simply identifying the right bottle of product.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), you can further protect your hair and prevent damage in several ways:
One way to protect curly hair types is to simply reduce the amount of wear and tear it experiences throughout the week. The best way to do that is to simply wash it less.
As we mentioned, washing your hair takes away those natural hair oils that protect the follicle. And with curly hair, that can mean even higher levels of friction damage.
Let your hair take care of itself—keep it from drying out.
While conditioners are typically known for their post-shampoo shower power, conditioning your hair doesn’t have to be relegated to one section of your routine.
Conditioning your hair can be done with hair masks and natural treatments, even if you’re not finishing up a scrub down.
Hair becomes damaged by friction.
When hair follicles rub against things like towels, hats, pillowcases or even other follicles, they can break and damage the follicle’s protective armor, leaving it vulnerable to breakage.
Blotting your hair dry rather than rubbing it can cut down on friction, as can air drying. It’s not ideal for every situation, but any time you can reduce your aggressive drying habits, you’re potentially saving a few follicles.
We understand the curly hair urge to straighten things out from time to time, but as you likely already know, the flat irons, hot irons, chemical relaxers and other products used to straighten, style or otherwise modify your hair are not good for it.
Chemicals literally burn the texture out of your hair, after all.
The toll can be serious, and long-term in some instances. Save the extreme looks for special occasions.
Noticing more and more barren scalp real estate? Already seeing a toll from past hair care mistakes? It may be time to seek professional advice.
A healthcare professional may have suggestions for dietary or lifestyle changes that you can make to improve your hair health, but they may also suggest medication for signs of thinning.
Curly hair is not without its unique challenges, and we understand that there are countless ways in which people with curly hair can have a harder time keeping their hair health on track.
In the big picture, that may mean that you’re on the hook for more than the bare minimum.
It’s a struggle that can be frustrating, but ultimately there are tools available to you beyond conditioners to help keep your hair looking shiny and healthy.
Conditioners are just one of them.
A word to the wise: if you’re filling your shelves with new products and still not seeing the results you want, it may be time to take the next step and contact a healthcare professional about your needs.
In a world of butters, oils, extracts and infusions, the products on the shelves really mean nothing without the proper guidance of a healthcare professional.