What Do Leave-In Conditioners Really Do? Here's What We Know

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Is your hair feeling lifeless? Dry as a bone? Frizzy? Just generally beat-up-looking? Are you an athlete who doesn't want to give up your pretty tresses, but the sweat and movement are giving you breakage? Leave-in conditioner is a simple solution for good hair health, and it's not going to break the bank or take another half an hour in the morning. 


If you had long hair as a kid, you might have had a product called "detangler" sprayed in it to get out the knots. It saved our caregivers some time, letting the brush or comb slide through the hair rather than pulling it out. That was a leave-in by a different name. Leave-in conditioners protect the hair by adding hydration and moisture in the form of oils and other humectants, and can also help protect your hair from the elements. Also, while a leave-in isn't going to fix already damaged split ends, it can keep them together and prevent new ones.

What type and how to use it

There are many kinds of leave-in conditioners, including sprays for finer hair, and serums, creams, and oils for thicker hair. For curly or textured hair, SheaMoisture 100% Virgin Coconut Oil Daily Hydration Leave-In Treatment is designed to keep the moisture in without feeling heavy or pulling out your curls. Color-treated hair can use something like Verb Leave-In Mist, which helps prevent fading. (Look for color-safe and sulfate-free options.) For fine hair, try Luseta Rose Oil Leave in Conditioner. Additionally, if your product has silicone close to the top of the ingredients list, it's not the best choice for those who wash less than three times a week, as it can attract dirt after a while.


Your leave-in conditioner should be used in addition to your regular conditioner. You should still shampoo (or wash in whatever way works best for you) and condition as usual. Towel dry your hair and then grab your leave-in. Adam Federico, vice president of technical education at R+Co told Byrdie, "Work the product through with a wide tooth comb, part the hair, and allow to air-dry completely. Use fingers to break hair up for a smooth yet tousled texture." You'll want to concentrate on the ends first (this protects them from heat and styling damage), then move up toward the scalp. If your scalp tends to be oily, just keep the leave-in on the ends. For short hair, go with a dime-sized amount or a single or double spritz.


What if I have long hair? Do I do anything differently?

If you have long hair, you can use more product; a quarter-sized amount should do. Work it from the ends up toward the middle, or use several pumps over the area if it's a spray. After a shower is the best time to use a leave-in (when hair is damp). If you tend to shower in the evening, you might want to leave your hair wrapped in a towel or put one over your pillowcase. It's a good idea to put in the leave-in and then braid it to keep transfer to a minimum. You can also spray your hair with water in the morning to dampen it and use your leave-in then.


There are specific leave-in conditioners that are made for long hair. One great option is Marc Anthony Grow Long Biotin Leave In Conditioner Spray & Hair Detangler, which has vitamin E. It's a little heavy for shorter hair, but if you have long tresses, it's perfect. The spray makes it easy to get to the hard-to-reach middle of your hair, where it may swing back and forth in a ponytail, causing breakage. If your hair is dry or crunchy at the bottom, you might like a serum like Garnier Whole Blends Hair Honey Repairing Serum, which is great for split ends.

Protect your hair when you're working out

There is one other use for a leave-in conditioner, and this one is for the athletes out there. Chlorine water can damage swimmers' hair, so if you spend a lot of time in a pool, look for one specifically for that, like Ion Swimmer's Leave-In Conditioner. If you're a runner or cyclist with a swinging ponytail or braid, or you're doing a lot of jumping and movement in a HIIT class, you may be getting a lot of breakage. 


If this is the case, it's worth dousing your hair in a leave-in before you work out, even if you use it on dry hair. In this case, cover the entire head of hair from roots to tips, concentrating on the part that's swinging, like where the braid hits the back of the neck. If that sounds like you, JVN Complete Conditioning Mist is a great option. It's a spray, so you can grab and go. Protect those pretty strands. Go forth, and moisturize that hair!