Hair Conditioner 101: How They Work, Benefits, And Ingredients

WrittenbyLuat Duong
Last updated

Conditioning is usually the step that follows shampooing in a hair care routine and its main goal is to make hair smoother and more manageable. Some argue that it’s not necessary for healthy hair, while others say they can’t live without it. While some people may be lucky enough to get away with no conditioning, most of us need and can benefit immensely from this step.

We demand a lot from our hair. The everyday wear and tear of styling products, hot tools, pollution, and other environmental factors can make it dry and prone to damage. That’s what conditioners are meant to help with to keep our locks soft and strong for as long as possible.

There are many types of hair conditioner products aimed at different problems and hair types, and it is important to choose the right one to get the best results. Below, we will give you a comprehensive overview of conditioner basics, how they can benefit you and what ingredients are essential in them.


How do hair conditioners work?

Hair conditioners contain cationic surfactants which give them a positive electric charge. This positive charge is attracted to our hair’s negative charge, resulting in the conditioner getting deposited on the surface of the hair, making it smooth, more manageable.

Note: Damaged hair is even more negatively charged, so conditioning products can be especially beneficial if your hair is extremely dry or chemically processed.

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Benefits of hair conditioners

Hair conditioners have a variety of benefits for the hair which makes them an essential step in a hair care routine. Let’s take a look at some of the main benefits below!

Reduced static electricity

If you don’t use a conditioner in general or if you skip this step, you may notice that you have a lot of flyaways and frizz. Our hair is negatively charged, and if you add combing, brushing, or hats on top of that, it can make it even worse. As discussed above, conditioners deposit positively charged ions on the hair shaft, thus neutralizing the electrical charge and minimizing frizz and flyaways.

Improved manageability 

A conditioner works by smoothing the surface of the cuticle, the outer layer of the hair shaft. It fills the gaps around and between the cuticular scales. When the cuticle is smooth, the hair shafts are less likely to rub against each other, reducing friction and damage to the hair.

Enhanced hair shine

Light reflects off individual hair shafts to create hair shine. The smoother the hair surface, the more light reflects. Conditioners increase hair gloss by increasing the adherence of the cuticle to the hair shaft and adding a thin coating to each hair.

Reduced split ends 

Split ends happen when the protective layer on the hair, the cuticle, gets damaged. It leaves the delicate inner layers exposed to environmental and styling damage. These internal structures become weak and can split. Conditioners can help by temporarily mending the split ends and improving their look. However, this is only temporary. The real benefit of using a conditioner regularly is that it can help you prevent these split ends by restoring moisture to the hair.

Increased flexibility 

Conditioners can improve hair's flexibility, which is the hair's ability to withstand bending without breaking. Flexibility is a key factor in keeping your hair more resistant to trauma and preventing breakage.


Types of conditioning products

The abundance of different types of conditioners available on the market might be overwhelming. If you’re unsure which one is the most suitable choice for you, the best place to start is to examine your hair. Your hair type, its overall condition, and your main goal will all influence your choice.

To help you decide, let’s now take a look at the main types of conditioners!

Instant conditioners

Instant conditioners are designed for application directly after shampooing to help restore the moisture your hair might lose after washing. As the name suggests, you have to leave it for a short period of time (1-5 minutes) before rinsing it out.

Instant conditioners are ideal for daily use with minimally damaged hair. Although more serious damage might need additional nourishment, instant conditioners are the most popular type for both home and salon use thanks to their ease of use. 

Deep conditioners 

Deep conditioners are similar to instant conditioners but have a more concentrated formula and should be left on for longer (usually 20 to 30 minutes). In addition to conditioning, they are also designed to penetrate deeper, aiming to provide more moisture and strength. Therefore, they are ideal for extremely dry and chemically treated hair.

Leave-in conditioners

Leave-in conditioners should be applied to towel dry hair, and as the name indicates, should be left in the hair until the next wash. They are intended to help with combing and styling and often have heat-protectant properties as well.

Leave-in conditioners can be a great option for curly and coily hair, improving manageability and restoring moisture. However, they might leave your hair limp and oily if you have fine, straight hair.

Hair rinses

Just like instant conditioners, rinses are used after washing the hair, however, it is usually recommended to only use them once a week. 

There are different types of rinses you can use depending on the results you’re looking for. For example, clear rinses are an excellent way to remove buildup from the scalp and hair. Another option can be a cream-based one, which helps to make hair an extra boost of shine and softness. Rinses can be particularly useful to maintain hair colour.


The formulation of conditioners

Hair conditioners are typically formulated with a combination of ingredients that work together to provide the benefits mentioned above. Some of the main ingredients found in hair conditioners include:

Cationic surfactants

Cationic surfactants are considered the backbone of conditioners. They are positively charged, thus neutralising the negative charge of the hair, reducing static electricity and improving manageability. 

Cationic polymers

Cationic polymers can have a number of roles in a conditioning product. They can act as film-forming conditioning agents that coat the hair shaft with a thin layer of polymer. This coating fills in hair shaft defects and missing areas of cuticular scale to create a smooth surface, which reflects more light, improving hair lustre and shine. Additionally, the polymer coating helps to reduce static electricity, improving hair manageability.


Hair is made up of a protein called keratin and it’s responsible for its physical properties and strength. The bonds that hold keratin together often get damaged due to everyday wear and tear, making hair lose its shine, strength, and elasticity. Protein-containing conditioners aim to penetrate the damaged hair shaft and fill those holes, helping to restore the hair’s vitality.

One of the most widely used proteins in hair conditioners is keratin. However, if you are looking for plant-based alternatives, look for ingredients like hydrolysed rice or quinoa.

Lipids, emollients, oils

Lipids, emollients, and oils are also common ingredients of hair conditioners. They create a barrier on the hair shaft and thanks to their water-repellent properties, they help to lock in moisture and protect the hair from damage. 

Our hair naturally has a lipid barrier that has a protective role. Cleansing agents can cause a loss of lipids – that’s what conditioning products containing them aim to restore. 

Emollients, such as glycerin and panthenol, and oils help to smooth and soften the hair, reducing frizz. 


Silicones are a type of synthetic oil. They have been one of the most widely used ingredients in conditioning products for a long time. They are popular thanks to their ability to create a protective barrier on the hair shaft and to make hair soft and shiny.

However, in recent years, silicones have become controversial. While there is nothing inherently wrong with them, their long-term use might lead to buildup for some hair types. Natural oils such as argan, jojoba, or olive oil have similar benefits and can be good alternatives.

Note: Silicones can have different names on labels such as dimethicone, dimethiconol, amodimethicone and cyclomethicone. If you don't feel like unraveling endless ingredient lists, we have chosen not to include them in our products. Why not take a closer look at them below?

Hair Strength & Recovery Bundle | For Women
Hair Strength & Recovery Bundle | For Women
Developed to help balance scalp and restore weak strands

Hair Strength & Recovery Bundle | For Men
Hair Strength & Recovery Bundle | For Men
Developed to help balance scalp and restore weak strands

Final words

In conclusion, hair conditioners are essential to the hair care routine. Choosing the correct type of conditioner is necessary based on your hair type, texture, and specific needs. It's also important to remember that overusing certain ingredients can lead to buildup on the hair and ultimately damage it. Hence, it's always a good idea to consult a hair expert or a dermatologist to find the best conditioner.

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The information we provide is not intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, cure, or diagnose any disease or condition. If you have any concerns about your health, please consult your doctor.


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Luat Duong

Luat Duong is a Copenhagen-based writer and content strategist specializing in hair loss and health. His work has been featured in MyHealthGuide, The Right Hairstyles, and Woman's Era. He is a graduate of Vaasa University. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.