What is the difference between a conditioner and a moisturizer?

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So how do you apply all of this information to real life (i.e., looking for products)? I know that different hair properties, climates, sensitivities (do we know the science behind sensitivities to protein, certain ingredients, etc, btw?) and the like determine our needs, but how do we use this science to help us find the right products for us and stay away from the wrong ones? How does a person know how many fatty alcohols or cationic surfactants (did I get those right?) make a "true" conditioner, or how many butters/oils are excessive? Also, is there a list of what common ingredients are (emollients, fatty alcohols, etc.)? I think I need to read this thread a few more times to really grasp all of this lol.
Originally Posted by Aktmama
It's as much the order of the ingredients that you want to look for and the overall balance of the formula and your routine. Be aware that the first five or so ingredients are the most important because they make up the bulk of it. In Europe all products will be in order of how much of each ingredient is present, not sure what the US rules are but certainly the big players follow this system.

Check out the 'curl chemist' series of articles by Tonya McKay hereon NC for ingredients lists and further explanations. If you get totally confused feel free to start a thread linking to an ingredients list and asking for comments - there are a few of us 'geeks' here that quite like analysing ingredients.

Many products the first is water, then in a 'true' conditioner you'd see perhaps two to five of the major emollients (fatty alcohols and/ or cationic surfactants) the next few ingredients. Further down the list there might be proteins, humectants or oils. Anything that is after fragrance or preservatives is likely present in very small amounts.

In a product that is more of a moisturiser you might see a major humectant high up the list, perhaps as the second or third ingredient. If a product had two or three oils or butters and one fatty alcohol in the first five ingredients again you might consider if it is a true conditioner, more of pomade or finisher (like a CG serum) or how heavy/ greasy it is.

Some products are more of a detangler, these might be a spray or watery liquid product containing a lot of silicones or film formers. One CG example is Kinky Curly Knot Today.

There is no magic number and there is an element of personal judgement/ subjectivity. Even when you choose a product based on ingredients there is no guarantee you will like it, you are just aiming to narrow your options and giving yourself an increased chance of success. It also helps you understand why a product doesn't work for you, or only works for you in certain dew points/ humidity. Don't forget that even if you had identical twins with an identical routine, one might prefer softer more volumised waves and the other more clumpy well defined curls.

Protein craving/ sensitivity: personally I think it's more of a spectrum and the the polarising is unhelpful, we too often see people claiming ingredients are proteins or act like proteins when that is is not the case. There are good science-based articles on hydrolysed proteins on both Natural Haven and by Tonya McKay. Hydrolysed proteins patch repair, can penetrate, strengthen, act as film formers conferring shine and helping the cuticle lay flat, are mild humectants (can draw water to and out of the hair), volumise, can build up and stiffen or dehydrate the hair.

Those with damaged hair benefit (patch repair, strengthen, film former), also those with fine hair (strengthen, stiffen, volumise). Those with coarse hair tend not to do well - that hair has plenty of its own protein and don't need stiffness or volume. If the coarse hair is either dry or low porosity then dehydration or build up may be a particular issue. In very low dews any humectant, including protein, may draw too much water out of the hair, in very high ones any humectant may draw too much water into the hair. This obviously interacts with the hair properties.
artemis513 likes this.
2a-2c, medium texture, porous/ colour treated. Three years CG. Past bra strap length heading for waist.

CO-wash: Inecto coconut/ Elvive Volume Collagen
Treatments: Komaza Care Matani, coconut/ sweet almond/ fractionated coconut oils, Hairveda Sitrinillah
Leave in: Fructis Sleek & Shine (old), Gliss Ultimate Volume, various Elvive
Styler: Umberto Giannini jelly, Au Naturale styling gelee
Flour sack towel, pixie diffuse or air dry.
Experimenting with: benign neglect
Ok, I have read this thread a few times and felt inspired to bump it up and post my take on things, which is basically concurring with the overall tone and direction of the thread (which is AWESOME, by the way!)

Also in reference to Dr. Ali Syed—yes, he is the master chemist for Avlon Industries, who makes Keracare products. He has quite a few published research articles in cosmetic chemistry journals, and he specializes in the needs of textured hair. Just another reference in addition to The Science of Black Hair (which is a great reference no matter what kind of hair you have), and Jc at the Natural Haven, which both have already been mentioned here.

Okie dokie…

Conditioning: the process by which a product nourishes the hair and maintains the natural intact state of the cuticle layer of hair. At minimum temporarily replaces lost nutrients resulting from everyday wear and tear; at maximum, mimic the look and feel of “healthy” hair in hair that is damaged. This includes the moisture levels, but also protein and lipid levels. The whole environment and basic needs of hair are managed through “conditioning” and there are varying levels of conditioning for this reason. Very general term.

When a product conditions the hair, it is improving and maintaining the natural environment of the hair. A hair in “good condition” has the proper balance of elasticity and tensile strength. What properties are integral in maintaining elasticity and tensile strength? Water, protein, and lipids. All three are needed, not just one, not just two. Every person’s hair has to maintain this balance, and each head of hair’s ratio is going to vary; let us not forget—our hair is in constant contact with the environment and needs of the hair can vary at any given moment. Some hair types/textures more than others, but especially curly hair (porosity plays into that but that’s for another time).

Moisturization: the process by which a product improves and/or maintains the hair’s natural moisture levels. Most often, a system used to treat the condition of dry, damaged hair. Hair that is not lacking moisture will not yield the same results of strategic moisturizing as compared to dry dehydrated hair. Dry or dehydrated hair is a symptom to be treated to resolution. This makes it a more specific term.

As you can see there is a slight difference in what the expectations should be.

Here’s where the overlap begins:

A conditioner will contain water (and often water-binding humectants such as glycerin), proteins (or a fortifying ingredient such as panthenol to reinforce proteins already present in the hair), and lipids (such as oils that mimic sebum--or support for lipids, which cationic surfactants, fatty alcohols, and emollients are most known for doing quite effectively). For general understanding, because a conditioner contains water, it does provide moisture quite efficiently, therefore it is moisturizing by design.

A moisturizer can condition the hair IF it contains water (+supporters), protein (or supporters), and lipids (or supporters). If the product is formulated well, it will most likely have the same or similar ingredients list as a hair conditioner, give or take whatever proprietary ingredients the manufacturer wishes to include to amp it up, so to say.

If it is not formulated as such, it may only provide specific properties depending on the need the product formulator was trying to address ( eg. protein-free, humectant-free, oil-free, etc). Once again, a moisturizer’s sole function is to address depleted moisture levels in dry hair, to treat a temporary symptom. Not all hair types need moisturizers, but all hair needs conditioning. Hair that is dry or damaged is in that condition due to a) lack of water or b) lack of lipids, or c) lack of protein. It is up to the user to determine which is needed based on their symptoms and select their product accordingly.

So, a moisturizer could be a conditioner, but it might not be. My point in saying all of this, however, is that one should not really look for a moisturizer to condition the hair. A moisturizer in the consumer sense of the word is an auxiliary product, meant to support the already diligent conditioning efforts of the user. If you are not conditioning your hair effectively, a moisturizer will not correct what needs to be corrected unless your goal is to specifically treat dryness or dehydration. In that case, best practice would be to combine your efforts and use both until the issue is resolved.

Further, it will only provide secondary levels of water. If you look at most hair creams or milks, for example, they are often so packed with emollients or occlusive ingredients they really don’t do much in terms of hydration anyway—the water in those products are just meant to be a base for the ingredient. IMO moisturizers are optional “nice-to-haves” if your conditioning is up to snuff; more useful if you have issues with your hydrolipidic barrier, such as on the ends of hair or on chemically treated hair.

Now…oils. Oils are important in that they provide nourishment and can provide conditioning effect, if used in the proper way. Due to varying saturation levels and nutrients naturally present in oils, best practice is to use them in conjunction with conditioners and moisturizers. What I mean is that oils are most effective for “conditioning purposes” when they are formulated in a conditioning product.
For a specific treatment, let’s say if the hair is ok on moisture and protein but is still “missing something” usually flexibility and natural shine/sheen, pre-wash or pre-wetting oil treatments can be used as effective conditioning support in that sense—they are maintaining what the user has going on in the hair, regulating the hydrolipidic balance as needed, and also (in the case of coconut oil and the lauric acid it contains) reduce/prevent protein or natural lipid/CMC loss in the cuticle layer. Again, most effective results are seen when used pre-wash or pre-wetting. Otherwise this oil acts like every other occlusive.

Oils can be effective sealants—I know a lot of curlies use them to seal in moisture to combat humidity. I hope that they recognize that this is a temporary fix. To best combat humidity for long-term, one needs to condition more effectively, so all 3 factors need to be addressed in the hair. Again, just as a moisturizer alone is an auxiliary product, so is oil. Same thing goes for silicones, if one chooses to use them. They are simply man-made oils and perform similarly (albeit much more effective in fighting humidity-focused frizz). I personally don’t think that oils are that effective at sealing, but I am low porosity only seal for the purpose of lubricating my ends to prevent snags and fraying.

One other note I wanted to bring out is that a humectant alone will try to bind itself to moisture in the air, but if it is in a water-based conditioner with the other necessary ingredients in the formula as mentioned earlier, it reaches its appropriate saturation within the product. This is why product formulation continues to matter. Humectants bound to the effective moisture environment created within well-conditioned hair do not go looking for more (Jc @ Natural Haven has a lovely blog post on this). So if your hair is frizzing and you suspect glycerin to be the issue, the real issue is that your hair is under-conditioned for the environment you are in. Hair that is healthy and/or effectively conditioned is less likely to react to environmental changes.

Ok I'm done...sorry so long
4a/3c, fine strands, low porosity, medium density
Last relaxer: Jan 2010 - BC'd: 2/27/11
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