Most of us with curly hair are pretty well-versed now in the need for our hair to be very well hydrated and conditioned. But what exactly does this mean? There are so many products on the market that claim to be the solution for our dry, frizzy tresses, but which do we really need? Plentiful also are the words used by marketers and hair care experts when telling us what we need for our hair to be healthy and beautiful. Among these are humectant, moisturizer, emollient, detangler, reconstruct/repair, and color protecting. What do these terms really mean, and what ingredients should we be looking for if we desire some of these properties?

There are numerous types of conditioners available in the marketplace, so we will examine some of the more common categories. My hope is to aid the consumer in understanding what the proposed benefit of a particular type of conditioner is and also what ingredients can be expected to help achieve the desired outcome.

Types of Conditioners:

Moisturizing

Moisturizing conditioners are ones that help retain and/or add moisture, i.e. water, to hair. These types of conditioners rely heavily upon the properties of ingredients such as humectants, fatty alcohols, light oils such as aloe or jojoba, and frequently vitamins such as panthenol (which also act as humectants). Oils or polymers that form an occlusive film on the surface of the hair are also often found in these products, as they aid in moisture retention in the interior of the hair shaft.

Some ingredients you might see in a moisturizing conditioner:

  • glycerol
  • propylene glycol
  • panthenol
  • erithritol
  • sodium PCA
  • hyaluronic acid
  • sorbitol
  • fructose
  • fatty alcohols
  • polyquaternium polymers
  • cationic surfactants (cetrimonium chloride, dicetyldimonium chloride)


Deep Conditioners

Deep conditioners, repairing conditioners, and reconstructors all generally have a few properties in common. They contain significant amounts of proteins, hydrolyzed proteins, and amino acids, which can penetrate through the cuticle and absorb into the hair where they can add strength to the existing complex protein-based composite inside the hair shaft. These ingredients can also adhere to the surface of the hair and act as patches over areas that have been depleted of protein.

Well-formulated deep conditioners also contain oils, esters, or fatty acids, called emollients. These ingredients help to soften the hair and add elasticity to it. This is especially important when proteins are being used, as they can make hair very hard and brittle.

Hot oil treatments contain only or mostly oils, which penetrate into the hair after topical application by placing the client under heat. Some people enjoy the result they get from treatments such as these. However, the use of heat on hair should always be undertaken with caution, in my opinion.

Key ingredients in deep conditioning products:

  • Proteins
  • Hydrolyzed proteins
  • Amino acids
  • Plant oils
  • Mineral oil
  • Silicones (dimethicone and derivatives)
  • Esters (glyceryl stearate, isopropyl palmitate)
  • Fatty acids (coconut fatty acid, stearic acid, lauric acid)


Acidifying

Acidifying conditioners have a pH in the range of 3.0 - 4.0, rendering them slightly more acidic than most other conditioners (which are typically formulated to have a pH in the range of 4.0-5.0). These types of conditioners have a few benefits. Acidifying rinses or conditioners lower the pH of hair to or slightly below its isoelectric point (estimated to be at a pH between 3.0-3.7), which is its ideal state. At the isoelectric point the cuticle is tightly sealed, the keratin proteins possess no residual electrostatic charge, and the hair shaft is thought to be harder and in the state most protected from the environment.

Some ingredients used in acidifying conditioners:

  • Behentrimonium chloride
  • Stearalkonium chloride
  • Amine oxides
  • Cetrimonium chloride
  • Citric acid
  • Ascorbates
  • Citrus extracts


Detanglers and Leave-in Conditioners

These types of conditioners are generally lighter than moisturizing and deep conditioners and contain a greater amount of water in the formula than do other products. Heavy oils and proteins are not typically part of these conditioners, but instead they rely upon lighter ingredients.

Detanglers and leave-in conditioners work by depositing small amounts of materials on the surface of the hair that act in a variety of ways to minimize friction when combing. Humectants are often used in these formulations for their moisture attraction and retention properties. Other ingredients are selected because they neutralize residual negative charge at the surface of the hair (cationic polymers, cationic surfactants). Some of the ingredients are included because they form a smooth film on the surface that provides lubrication and eases the force required for combing through the wet hair (dimethicone, amodimethicone, fatty alcohols). Silicones have an added benefit of leaving a smooth, highly reflective film on the surface of the hair, which imparts a high amount of gloss and shine.

Typical ingredients found in detanglers and leave-in conditioner:

  • Amodimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone
  • Propylene glycol
  • Panthenol
  • Botanical extracts
  • Glycerin
  • Glucose/sucrose
  • Panthenol
  • Cetrimonium chloride
  • Polyquaternium-11
  • Fatty alcohols


Color Protecting

Color protection conditioners typically will contain moisturizing agents, protein (or derivatives thereof) for filling in gaps left by damage from the coloring process, oils or fatty alcohols, and compounds that act as UV absorbers. Both UVA and UVB radiation can cause damage to hair and loss of color, so many products will try to include ingredients that can absorb in both regions. UVA protection is critical for those with chemically colored hair, especially red hues, as it is most susceptible to these rays.

UV absorbing ingredients found in hair care products:

  • Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate
  • Benzophenone
  • Polymers, such as Polyamide-2
  • Salicylates
  • PABA
  • Dimethylparamidopropyl laurdimonium tosylate


Thermal Protection

Some conditioners are designed to protect hair from heat damage that can occur when blow drying or styling with flat irons and curling irons. These products almost always rely upon the thermal insulating properties of silicone polymers.

Ingredients that protect from thermal damage:

  • Dimethicone
  • Dimethiconol
  • Amodimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone


Many conditioners will combine different categories of ingredients, in order to have multiple attributes. Many leave-in conditioners will have sunscreen additives in them. Color protection conditioners may also contain silicones meant to impart gloss and also provide added protection against heat damage. Daily conditioners may include proteins or protein derivatives in order to combat day-to-day damage. So, when choosing a product, really look at the label and determine what the major components are and what you can expect the primary function of that product to be.

The role of conditioning agents, emollients, moisturizers, humectants, and proteins are to fill in the gaps where structural damage has occurred to the surface and interior of the hair, to bring moisture into the hair or to increase moisture retention, to impart suppleness and elasticity, and to provide lubrication along the hair shaft. All of these functions help to minimize mechanical and environmental damage that occurs through daily combing, styling, washing, and exposure to the elements. Thus, conditioners are powerful and essential products that make the hair more attractive, softer and more manageable, and less likely to incur new damage. As the hair is protected by daily use, new hair can grow in and remain healthy and strong, so while conditioners may not be able to truly repair and reconstruct a damaged hair strand, they do indeed provide much benefit.