Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/4/2022
Conditioners: arguably the most essential — yet least understood — element of a great hair care routine.
Immediately after shampoos, conditioners are of profound importance to the visual and internal health of your hair; they’re crucial to how it looks and feels.
But what makes a good conditioner, and what’s the best way to use one? That’s a harder question to answer. The men in your life will shrug, point to a “2-in-1” bottle in their shower, and go back to shaving.
You know better, but how much better? What makes a good conditioner, and what’s the best conditioner for dry hair?
Whether you have frizzy hair, curly hair, straight hair or something in between, the key to understanding how to hydrate it is in knowing what dry hair really means.
Let’s dig in — and let you know more about how to find the best conditioner for your dry hair.
We all know what dry hair feels like. It’s brittle, straw-like, and maybe a bit thin. Dry strands are more likely to break, after all.
And they’re usually the result of a significant loss of sebum (or oil) that naturally protects your hair from the weathering that comes from daily life.
Dry hair can be the result of illness, malnutrition, or inflammation (which can also manifest as an itchy scalp), but in modern times the most likely cause (once you’ve ruled out illness) is actually your shampoo.
That’s right! We said it. Your shampoo could be stripping your strands of needed moisture.
Shampoos are profoundly effective — and decades of research has honed them into something that will clean every last bit of dirt, detritus and dead skin off of your hair and scalp.
Unfortunately, in many cases shampoos are so good at doing this they will also remove the necessary oils your scalp produces to protect your hair from friction and other sources of damage.
And dry hair is unprotected hair — clean, sure, but naked and exposed, and just a few aggressive brush or comb strokes away from more breakage than it should have to suffer.
Conditioners are the solution to this problem. The right one with the right ingredients can help fortify your hair.
Conditioners and their active ingredients are hair products designed to enhance the texture, fullness and general shine of your hair.
Interestingly, conditioners are a relatively new invention — and the result of shampoo technology, which led to that stripping of sebum (oil) from your hair.
This might be okay for those with naturally oily hair and scalp, but for those with normal or dry hair, cleansing your hair too much (and removing sebum) can cause some problems down the road.
Conditioners, then, are essentially a way to replenish sebum in your hair, with the benefits of boosting your hair’s shine, volume, and manageability. Read: less static.
Conditioners keep your hair soft, preserve extra moisture, and boost moisture retention. And they can be applied in a variety of ways.
There are deep conditioners, instant conditioners, creams for blow drying and “hair glazes” designed to coat the hair shaft and increase its diameter.
Surprisingly, conditioners work through electricity, and use a cationic surfactant (a big name for something with a positive electrical charge) to cling to negatively charged hair follicles.
This helps the conditioner cling to your hair, and it’s even more effective in areas where there’s more damage.
There are several common ingredients in conditioners designed to improve hair health, though depending on what kind of conditioner you use, and what specific problems you are treating with that conditioner, you may see slightly different formulations from one product to another.
The following are ingredients that will make a conditioner beneficial for dry hair:
These natural and synthetic ingredients include a variety of compounds. It’s not uncommon to see waxes, esters, jojoba oil, grape seed oil, olive oil, silicone derivatives and more in this space.
These oils are designed to replace the natural sebum that has been removed during shampooing, and they’re your first line of defense against dry, dehydrated hair.
As we mentioned, this complicated name represents an active ingredient whose ultimate purpose is simply to bind conditioning ingredients to the hair fiber. Cationic surfactants are an essential part of any conditioner (unless you want to make one that’s not very effective).
It’s common for a variety of other active ingredients to make their way into conditioners.
Besides the coloring agents and scents that are sometimes added to these hair care products, conditioners may contain bodying agents and thickeners, polymers like peptides derived from collagen or amino acids, as well as emulsifiers like fatty alcohols that all serve the ultimate purpose of increasing volume or shine, or simply boosting the effectiveness of the other ingredients.
You might also find more natural ingredients in your conditioner, like shea butter and coconut oil.
The best conditioner for your hair will include the aforementioned ingredients and address your specific hair care needs. You have dry hair, so will want something rich with emollients.
But perhaps you dislike fragrance, or have sensitive skin. Perhaps you would like extra shine or a boost in volume. The best conditioner for your dry hair will be what works best for you.
Hair conditioner is just one small piece in a complex equation to give your hair the healthy balance it needs.
Whether you have smooth hair, coarse hair, brittle hair, subject your hair to heat damage through heat styling or have intact, healthy hair cuticles, there are more ways to keep your hair healthy than shampoo and conditioner alone.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), you can prevent hair damage in a number of ways:
As mentioned above, shampooing can cause dryness and damage. While conditioners may help replenish oil on damaged hair, taking it off less frequently will have more lasting effects. (Wash your hair less often.)
The AAD also says that washing less aggressively is also good protection. One technique to try: Focus on cleansing your scalp, and let the length of your hair be washed by the soapy run-off.
Friction breaks follicles by roughing up your hair cuticles, leaving your strands vulnerable to dryness and damage. One of the easiest ways to reduce friction is by taking it easy with your towel post wash.
The AAD recommends squeezing and blotting your hair with a towel, rather than rubbing your hair to dry it. Of course, the best option is to simply let the air do the work, though this isn’t always viable if you have thick or long hair.
Heat styling tools are the way to make your hair behave in the short term and suffer in the long term. Burning your hair can dry it out – much the way it would your skin.
Chemical treatments can also cause damage and take a toll on your hair and scalp over time. Color-treated hair can get dry, for example.
Brushing your hair too rigorously or using hair ties can also damage strands. Even just styling your hair with clips and bands can cause damage. Try to be gentle with your locks as much as possible.
How bad is it really? If your hair is dry and showing signs of reduced growth, it may be time to talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns. Your dry hair may be a sign of something going on internally, like a vitamin deficiency or other health issue.
Hair loss can also start with symptoms like dryness and an increase in brittle hair. A healthcare professional might suggest the same changes we’ve mentioned above, and they might also suggest treatments like topical minoxidil, which has been shown to increase blood flow where your follicles grow.
They may also suggest certain products, even if it’s a good hair mask.
In a world of moisturizing conditioners and natural oils, it can be difficult to know what’s best for your hair.
We’ll level with you. Investing in a good conditioner is one of the best ways to add an easy, extra level of protection to your hair care routine.
Our advice? Talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns. They can help you determine if your hair is healthy, or they can help you isolate the cause or causes of any hair issues, and address them.
Preventing hair loss, hair thinning and of course, dry hair doesn’t have to be a solo job. An assessment from a healthcare professional and a good conditioner can help you on your way to fuller, shinier hair.