Hair conditioner

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Hair conditioners protect the hair, make it smooth and easier to manage. They also improve the texture, body and appearance of hair. Hair conditioners came into vogue as commercial preparations in the 1950s after Jheri Redding introduced the Crème Rinse Conditioner. Prior to that people used a variety of oils and creams after drying to keep their hair under control.


Why should I be aware of this?

Most of us use hair conditioners as it adds body to our hair and makes them look healthier and shinier. There is a need to know if the choice we make regarding out hair conditioner

  • Has an impact on our health
  • Impacts our environment
  • How to make an informed choice for conditioning our hair.

How does this affect me?

  • There are different kinds of conditioners that suit different types of hair.
  • Some ingredients of hair conditioner are chemicals which might have an adverse effect on both our health and the environment.
  • If hair conditioners are used frequently on thin hair, then the hair might get too softened.

All about hair conditioners

Hair conditioners perform as temporary filler which smooth out chinks in the cuticle layer. This keeps strands from tangling around each other as you brush and style your hair.

Conditioner also develop a protective seal around hair, which forces the cuticle to lie flat - this flat surface reflects light and makes hair shine.

How does a hair conditioner work?

Hair is made from a protein called keratin, which in turn has a high percentage of those amino acids that have negative charges. These negative charges make the hair 'frizzy'.

Most hair conditioners contain positively charged molecules called cationic surfactants. Soap, shampoo, and other cleaners contain surfactants (also called detergents) that are negatively charged. These cleaners are very effective at removing dirt, but they also remove natural oils and positive charges from the hair.

The positively charged surfactants in hair conditioner are attracted to the negative charges in the hair, and do not rinse out completely with water. When the hair dries, it is coated with a thin film, which adds weight, makes the hair easier to comb, and prevents static electricity from building up and 'frizzing' the hair.

Types of hair conditioners

These are different types of hair conditioners. Ordinary conditioners have a balance between pack and light conditioners.

Pack Conditioner

  • These are heavy and creamy in consistency.
  • Contain high percentages of 'fatty' surfactants
  • Used for damaged hair
  • If left in the hair for a long time, these will virtually 'glue' split ends and stripped scales into place.

Leave-in conditioners

  • These are lightweight, and contain lighter-weight 'oily' surfactants
  • They add little weight to the hair.

Hold conditioners

  • These are combination products that provide the benefits of conditioning while also holding the hair in place like a mousse.
  • This effect is achieved using cationic (carrying a positive electric charge) polymers.

Shampoos plus conditioner

  • Conditioning shampoos do not have cationic (carrying a positive electric charge).
  • These do not offer the best results, but they have benefits of their own.
  • These stick to the hair in useful quantities.

What is hair conditioner made of?

All hair conditioners have the first three ingredients. They may or may not have the other ingredients depending on what the conditioner aims to achieve. Some ingredients improve luster, add comb-ability, and assure that the conditioning ingredients stay mixed in the bottle.

  • Protein
  • Water
  • Oils
  • Esters
  • Growth stimulants
  • Exotic natural ingredients
  • Chemicals -- These include
    • Acidifiers
    • Antistatic agents
    • Essential fatty acids
    • Fragrances
    • Glossers and light-reflecting chemicals
    • Hydrolised proteins
    • Lubricants
    • Moisturisers
    • Polymers
    • Preservatives such as parabens
    • Sequestrants
    • Thermal protectors

How to choose a conditioner?

  • Dry hair -- Opt for a rich, moisturizing conditioner. These replace the oils removed by the detergents in shampoos. Moisturizing Conditioners or deep conditioners contain humectants. Look for products that contain cetyl or stearyl alcohol, panthenol and methicones, silicone or dimethicone, or essential oils and botanicals such as avocado, jojoba oil, or shea butter. Oil-Based Conditioners are those that usually contain EFA's. The oil glands located in the scalp produce natural body oil known as sebum. EFA is a lubricant similar to sebum. This type of conditioner works very well on extremely dry and porous hair.
  • Limp and fine hair -- Go for a volumizing hair conditioner. Conditioners These are often labeled re-constructors. Protein conditioners simply coat the hair shafts and ends with a layer of protein that gives the appearance of thicker hair. It can fill in gaps if the outer cuticle is damaged, giving the hair a smoother look and adding shine, but contrary to popular belief, they do not reconstruct or strengthen the hair.
  • Unmanageable and tangled hair - Conditioners that reduce static charge in the hair make it more manageable. After shampooing, the hair is usually tangled and unmanageable. Acidifier Conditioners have a low pH of 2.5 to 3.5. This type of conditioner basically closes the cuticle layer of the hair, which in turn allows each individual strand of hair to remain separate from others.
  • Healthy and shiny hair -- A normal conditioner will do for your hair.

Useful tips

  • Conditioners are generally used after shampooing.
  • If the conditioner is not rinsed off well, the hair may appear greasy.
  • Sometimes the conditioning agents are incorporated into shampoos.
  • The conditioning performance of such combination shampoos is inferior to the performance of the two stage process of shampooing and conditioning.
  • The term "balsam" is frequently mentioned in connection with creme-rinses. The term is applied to conditioners which contain plenty of oils and protein.
  • Exotic natural additives such as collagen, gelatin, allantoin and henna are also being used in the conditioners.
  • For fine hair, rinse off the conditioner immediately
  • The drier your hair, the longer you need to apply a conditioner.

Hair conditioner and environment

The chemicals in hair conditioners are biological hazards lurking in our waste water. Though in several countries waste water is now being treated for this. However, some chemicals can persist and present a threat to the wider environment. Fragrances are a particular concern, especially musk ketone and galaxolide.

These commercially manufactured conditioners travel long distances to reach retail outlets, consuming energy both during their manufacturing and transportation. The plastic container used for packaging in most cases ends in our landfills. Those that are recylced also remian on our planet and add to our carbon footprint.

What can I do?

  • Buy a simple conditioner with mainly natural and organic ingredients.
  • Use it sparingly and recycle the pack carefully.
  • It can be more cost effective to buy a large pack and decant some into smaller bottles for use.
  • Avoid products with artificial fragrances and parabens especially as these are some of the more damaging chemicals both for the environment and for your health.
  • Buy products in clear bottles. It is easier to see that your finished bottles are thoroughly empty and clear of product residues before you toss them into the re-cycling bin.

Natural alternatives

  • Cider vinegar -- Put one or two tablespoonfuls into a pint or more of water. This helps the acidity of hair, leaving it shiny and silky.
  • Treatment with oils helps the softness and manageability of hair.
  • Rosemary oil is also useful. Add one or two drops of rosemary oil to your final rinse.
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa) can also be prepared as an infusion to add to rinse water.
  • Tea is another slightly acid hair rinse which has a conditioning effect.
  • Henna powder is also good for the condition of hair. Buy the kind which has had the natural colourant removed if you don't want to end up with red hair.


  • Hair conditioners advertised as natural are chemical free -- This is not true as most commercial hair conditioner products use chemical preservatives, chemicals that lend fragrance and add color and texture to the product. Some might even contain toxic chemicals such as SLS.
  • Most deep conditioning products are not much different from normal conditioners -- The majority deep conditioners have the same ingredients as regular conditioners but are packaged without as much water, thus making the packaging smaller. Usually, when we see a deep conditioner on the shelf in a tiny package, we think that it must be beneficial for our hair because the packaging is smaller.
  • Rinse out conditioners do not help as they are rinsed out -- Rinse out conditioners applied to your hair right after washing will leave a deposit of moisturizing proteins and other ingredients on the hair shaft providing hair that feels softer, shinier or better conditioned.
  • Hair conditioner can alter the structure of the hair -- Many conditioners may claim to change the structure of the hair, but their action is only superfecial. Conditioners may coat the hair with a protein or polymer and this gives the simulation of thickness; but conditioners do not penetrate the hair and improve the internal fiber structure.


  • Avoid hair conditioners containing alcohol. This holds true for all hair types --dry, oily and normal; as alcohol results in dries the hair and might cause hair loss.
  • Never apply a hair conditioner to the scalp, it will buildup and create a limp look. Because the hair at the shaft and ends are "dead"; it is chemically inert and insoluble.


  • Focus: Hair Care
  • Homemade Hair Conditioners
  • Hair care: the best ingredients for hair conditioners
  • How Hair Conditioner Works
  • Best Shampoos and Conditioners for All Hair Types
  • How to Choose a Hair Conditioner
  • 25 Hair Myths: Fact Or Fiction?