What is a conditioner?

Cocoa Frappuccino Collage

Shampoo and conditioner go hand in hand like bangers and mash, cheese on toast, ackee and saltfish, bun and cheese, rice and peas, blah blah blah – you catch my drift. You rarely have one without  the other.  But what is the purpose of a Conditioner? and why are we conditioned to condition??

When we use shampoo, we strip the hair of grime, dirt and unfortunately our natural oils. Shampoo also raises the natural pH and thus lifts our cuticles, causing friction to the strands. Therefore, the main purpose of a conditioner is to restore moisture and smooth the cuticles of the hair follicles, generally making our hair more manageable.

What is a conditioner?

 A hair conditioner is a positively charged (Cationic) product whereas our hair is negatively charged. A conditioner needs to be  positively charged to adsorb (accumulate on the surface of the hair) to the hair strand. No positive charge = no conditioner. If a ‘conditioner’ doesn’t contain a cationic or positively charged emulsifier, then it isn’t a conditioner.  For instance, ACV (apple cider vinegar) rinses are great for closing the cuticle and restoring our hair to the correct pH, but doesn’t contain a cationic quartenary (positive charge) so therefore cannot adhere to our negatively charged hair.

Because the cationic quaternary compound is hydrophobic – (scared of water”), it will resist removal by water alone.  The cationic/conditioner clings on to the surface of our hair keeping it smooth etc until we next wash our hair with shampoo and repeat the process all over again.

What makes a conditioner, conditioning?

There are various types of conditioners; leave in, rinse out, deep conditioning treatments etc.

Moisturising conditioners help retain and/or add moisture, i.e. water, to hair. These types of conditioners routinely contain humectants such as glycerin to attract moisture to the hair, fatty alcohols *(Cetyl), oils such as **Coconut,   and can also include vitamins such as panthenol (which is additionally a humectant). Oils are essential in conditioners as they form an occlusive film on the surface of the hair, preventing moisture loss.

*Fatty alcohols increase the substantivity of the conditioner by adsorbing to the hair fibre  and encouraging more adsorption by the quaternary compound (emulsifier/conditioner)

**Coconut oil can actually penetrate the hair shaft,  reducing lost proteins. This makes it ideal to use as a pre-wash and indeed in a post-wash leave in product.


Leave in conditioners are generally lighter in consistency than rinse off and deep conditioners and contain a greater amount of water but less conditioning agent which deposit small amounts of materials on the surface of the hair, which in turn minimises friction when combing the hair. Humectants are often used in these formulations for their moisture attraction and retention properties. My Hair Latte would be an example of a lighter leave in conditioner which contains less conditioning agent than the more intense concentrated Cocoa Frappuccino Leave In Conditioner.

Deep conditioners and reconstructors all generally contain proteins, hydrolyzed proteins, and amino acids, which can penetrate through the cuticle and absorb into the hair, adding strength inside the hair shaft. Additionally they adhere to the surface of the hair and act as patches much like a plaster, over areas that have been depleted of protein.

Deep conditioners also contain oils, esters, or fatty acids (emollients). These help to soften the hair and add elasticity to it. This counteracts the dry, brittle feeling you can sometimes get when proteins are being used.

Ingredients that form a smooth film on the surface of the hair and  provide lubrication, easing the force required for combing through wet hair are beneficial whether the conditioner be a leave in, rinse off or deep treatment etc

Who needs to use a conditioner?

Anyone with hair really!! Seriously, the use of a conditioner is essential for anyone with dry or/and damaged hair caused by heat damage, colour or chemical treatments. These types require heavier, intense conditioners to help repair and restore damaged hair. Afro hair by its very nature is dry so it is par for the course to use conditioners, whether they be leave in or deep conditioners. When hair is moisturised, it is less likely to be subject to breakage and the rigours of day to day manipulation. Obviously if you have fine, reasonably healthy hair, you can still benefit from a hair conditioner but choose one with less conditioning agent like a spray conditioner with a higher water content.

How long do you need to leave a conditioner on for it to be beneficial?

This is a hotly debated topic! This excerpt is taken from a previous post; The Basics of Hair care:

I know there are ongoing debates as to whether the hair benefits from using a conditioner past 15 minutes. Some say that because most conditioners/ deep conditioners, only condition the outside of your hair (they coat your hair so it will feel soft), using heat for extended periods of time does not help the conditioner coat your hair, nor does it help the conditioner penetrate into your hair. So in essence, habitually applying heat to your conditioner is probably not damaging to your hair, but it does not provide any real benefit….in essence. Personally I feel  better giving my hair a good ole pampering session which involves deep conditioning for anything upward of 45 minutes. That’s just me. I could be wasting valuable time leaving that conditioner in my hair for those extra minutes, but what’s the damage?? unless your over moisturising (too much of a good thing, isn’t a good thing), then I don’t think it’s a problem….but remember, everything in moderation.

So what do you Kinky folk use to condition your hair? and do you notice a difference in your hair if you omit conditioner? Do you couple conditioning with heat or a steamer and is there a difference in doing so?  Please comment below.

One response to “What is a conditioner?

  1. Thanks for posting and I loved the detail! I condition my fro like my life depends on it : ) …… wasn’t to sure what it did exactly, but now I do

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