Demystifying Hair Products: What is a leave-in Conditioner?

We see the leave-in conditioner on every bi-weekly trip to the beauty supply—standing on the shelf in all its glory adjacent to the shampoo and conditioner. Its brightly colored labels and promising slogans practically call to us, I mean who doesn’t love a good Jamaican Black Castor Oil and Cocoa Butter mix?

But, despite its rich texture and reassuring ingredients:

  • What exactly is the leave-in conditioner?
  • Why and when should we use it?

In this article, we will be answering all the burning questions you may have about leave-in conditioner, including why you should make it a part of your hair washing routine.

What is a leave-in Conditioner?

A leave-in conditioner is a hair product made up of humectants—or ingredients that retain as much moisture within your hair as possible. These humectants, along with other materials, are deposited on the surface of the hair to reduce friction when combing through it. In turn, this allows for an easier time with detangling. Typically, the leave-in conditioner is much lighter than regular conditioners.

Examples of these humectants include dimethicone, amodimethicone, and fatty alcohols, which all provide a thin film to the hair to assist with combing through it when it is wet, more specifically.

The Difference Between Leave-In Conditioner And Moisturizer | Hair Care Tip

Other ingredients in leave-in conditioners, such as cationic polymers and cationic surfactants, are used to neutralize the residual negative charge that builds upon the surface of your hair. These cationic materials, or materials that consist of positively-charged ions, help to reduce frizz and that squeaky-clean feeling on your hair.

The silicones within leave-in conditioners help to add gloss and shine to your tresses by leaving a smooth and highly reflective film on the surface of your hair after conditioning it. Likewise, glycerin is used in leave-in conditioners to add hydration and lubrication to your locks.

Leave-in conditioner vs. Rinse-out conditioner

Unlike conditioner that you rinse out, leave-in conditioner supplies your locks with an additional layer of moisture and conditioning until your next washing, making styling your hair all the easier post-wash day. the leave-in conditioner also functions to soften, shine, and smoothen out your hair.

As a result, leave-in conditioners are generally the third step in people’s washing routines. Lastly, to prevent gradual build-up, leave-in conditioners have a more watery and lighter consistency than rinse-out conditioners.

Though they also ultimately add softness to your hair, rinse-out conditioners also mainly function to repair the damage done by harsh shampoos. To do this, they coat the outside layer of the hair with various fatty alcohols, proteins, plant oils, surfactants, and high molecular-weight silicones. This, in turn, causes rinse-out conditioners to have heavier and thicker consistencies than leave-in conditioners.

The thickness of rinse-out conditioners helps the product stick to the strands of your hair even after rinsing it out, particularly your ends which tend to be the driest. However, due to the heaviness of rinse-out conditioners, if left in your hair for longer than a couple of minutes without being rinsed out thoroughly the product will weigh down your hair and cause a lot of build-ups.

What are the Benefits of a leave-in Conditioner?

If you could not already tell, using a leave-in conditioner comes with a multitude of benefits. From softening hair to protecting it from the elements, leave-in conditioners really do it all! But let’s take a closer look at all of these advantages using the product can lead to:

1. Moisturizes Dry Hair

As mentioned before, leave-in conditioners’ main purpose is to provide your hair with more moisture and lasting hydration. This is especially vital for kinkier hair types, such as 4A, 4B, and 4C type hair, because they typically require more moisture than regular rinse-out conditioners can provide. Water-based leave-in conditioners are best for getting well-nourished hair when compared to oil-based products because the latter penetrates the hair shaft with greater ease.

2. Detangles Knotted Hair

Several ingredients within leave-in conditioners add lubrication and shine to your hair, which works to make the detangling process much easier—especially for knotted and tangled hair. Should your hair knot easily, leave-in conditioners are great to use when attempting to comb or brush through your unruly locks. leave-in conditioners help your hair become resistant to breakage, reduces shrinkage, and smooths out split-ends.

3. Helps Hair Become More Manageable When Styling

Leave-in conditioners soften the hair follicles, making them much easier to manage and style as you please. Leave-in conditioners are great for reviving curls, as you can reapply the product as needed up until your next wash day to touch up old twist-outs, braid-outs, and many other styles.

4. Protects Hair from Environmental Damage

Be it the extreme cold or scorching heat, harsh environmental elements can easily dry out your hair, causing it to become brittle and more susceptible to breakage and split-ends. Leave-in conditioners help to replenish and coat the hair in rich nutrients that such severe weather may strip from the hair.

5. Acts as a Barrier Against Heat

A leave-in conditioner is a great heat protectant against electrical thermal appliances, such as flat irons and blowdryers. To protect your hair from heat damage, be sure to use a leave-in conditioner before adding heat to your locks given the extra layer of protection it provides from such things.

6. Combats Frizz

Leave-in conditioners provide great frizz control given that they enhance the hair’s softness and locks moisture in the hair shaft. Adding a quality leave-in conditioner to your hair care routine will greatly reduce fly-a-ways and give your tresses a smooth and shiny look.

Who Should Use leave-in Conditioner?

Everyone—including those of us with frizzy, dry, coarse, and thick, fine and thin, or damaged hair— should use leave-in conditioner. Think of leave-in conditioner as that nice cold glass of water your hair all but devours on a hot summer day.

Hydration is essential for the hair, especially after washing out many of the oils and nutrients within it with shampoos. Leave-in conditioners have replenishing properties that are vital to supplying lasting moisture to your hair. But what type should you use? To answer this question, let’s break down the three main types of hair porosities.

Not to be confused with hair type, hair porosity describes your hair’s ability to absorb and retain moisture. The three main levels are:

  1. Low porosity
  2. Medium (normal) porosity
  3. High porosity

A quick way to test for which level of hair porosity you have is to put a strand of your hair into a glass of water. If it floats at the top of the glass, then you have low hair porosity. If it sinks only to the middle of the glass, then you have medium, or normal, hair porosity. And finally, if it sinks all the way to the bottom of the glass, you likely have a high hair porosity.

Low hair porosity

If you have low porosity hair, your hair does not easily let moisture in or out. Characteristics of low porosity hair include sealed hair cuticles, which cause the hair to become heavy and/or oily over time.

Low porosity hair is also more susceptible to product build-up given how hard it is for water to penetrate the hair shaft. When using a leave-in conditioner, is it best to also apply heat, such as by sitting under a dryer, to open your hair cuticles and lock in as much moisture as possible.

Medium hair porosity

This hair type can absorb and retain moisture with relative ease. If you have medium porosity hair, you have healthy and open cuticles that simply suck up and retain the amount of moisture it needs to stay hydrated.

Typically, medium porosity hair is more manageable when it comes to hair care. It is recommended to simply lather leave-in conditioners on medium porosity hair when wet or damp to maintain hydration.

High hair porosity

This hair type allows moisture in just as quickly as it lets it out. This hair porosity level gets wet fast and can get dry and tangled if not cared for properly. Typically, high porosity hair is damaged, be it from harsh chemical treatments or excessive amounts of heat, and has wide gaps or large openings in the cuticle.

It is best to avoid using harsh chemicals and heat on your hair to allow it to recover. Using protein-rich leave-in conditioners with healthy hair oils will help to strengthen your hair porosity level and seal in moisture.

How to Implement leave-in Conditioner into Your Hair Care Routine

Now that we have an idea of the different types of hair that should be using leave-in conditioners, let’s go over how to make the product a part of your regular hair care routine.

The first step to incorporating leave-in conditioners into your hair care regimen is to identify what your hair needs most from the product. Do you have thick but chronically dry hair? Or maybe your hair is thinner and easily breaks. Or perhaps you have heat damaged hair, or even colored hair lacking its original luster and shine.

Regardless, figuring out what issues you would like your leave-in conditioner to combat the most is vital to choosing the right product for you.

Next up is choosing the right leave-in conditioner! A general rule of thumb is that if you have thinner and/or lower porosity hair, you want a lighter leave-in conditioner to avoid excessive product build-up on your locks.

Likewise, if you have thicker, higher porosity hair then you would want to go for creamier or heavier leave-in conditioners to better handle your hair’s volume and need for more moisture.

Now that you have some general tips for finding the perfect product for you, let’s go over a few important notes on how to properly use the leave-in conditioner. On freshly-washed hair, leave-in conditioner should be used after initially conditioning and detangling your hair (with either your fingers or a wide-tooth comb) with a rinse-out conditioner.

In other words, leave-in conditioners are typically the third step to a hair washing routine, after using a shampoo and rinse-out conditioner.

While additional conditioning is great for strengthening your hair, it is important to avoid using a leave-in conditioner every day. Doing so will cause the product to build up on your hair. Instead, use the product about once or twice a week until your next wash day.

Suggested leave-in Conditioners

Best leave-in Conditioners for moisturizing low porosity hair

Some of the best protein-free and light leave-in conditioners to use for lower porosity hair come from the Shea Moisture product line. The Shea Moisture Baobab and Tea Tree Oil Low Porosity Protein-free leave-in conditioner is great for preventing product build-up and removing knots and tangles when detangling low porosity hair.

The Shea Moisture Manuka Honey & Mafura Oil Intensive Hydration leave-in conditioner is also great for moisturizing low porosity hair.

Shea Moisture Baobab and Tea Tree Oil Low Porosity Protein-free


The Shea Moisture Manuka Honey & Mafura Oil Intensive Hydration


Another great product for hydrating low porosity curls is the Camille Rose Naturals Curl Love Moisture Milk. This leave-in conditioner helps to reduce shrinkage and revitalize curls.

Camille Rose Naturals Curl Love Moisture Milk


Best leave-in Conditioners for moisturizing medium porosity hair

Medium porosity hair requires the least amount of maintenance due to its normal-sized cuticles and ability to absorbed and maintain the appropriate amount of moisture. Some products great for this porosity level hair include:

Lotta Body Moisturize Me Curl & Style Milk


Innersense Organic Beauty Sweet Spirit Leave-in Conditioner


Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Style Milk


All these products are great for maintaining a healthy hair porosity, rather than attempting to adapt a healthier hair porosity like products used for high and low porosity levels.

Best leave-in Conditioners for moisturizing high porosity hair

High porosity curls need thicker cremes to lock in maximum hydration given their damaged hair cuticles. Some of the best leave-in conditioners for high porosity hair include Crème of Nature Moisture Recovery Leave-in Curl Milk, which is great for frizz control, luster, and instant hydration. Other great products to use for high porosity hair are:

Cantu Shea Butter leave-in Conditioner


Ouai Leave-in Conditioner