It's gonna get sappy up in here.
It’s official, conditioner has legitimately taken over as the naturally curly hair girl’s new creamy crack, and I’m on it.
Most people take one look into my bathroom closet and do one of two things: shame me by recoiling with disdain at my “unreasonable” amount of hair products, or light up with glee while they peruse for samples to take home and try for themselves.
In my defense, most women collect something, whether it’s scarves, shoes, nail polish or jeans. I happen to collect -- well, all of those things, plus hair products. So why would a person need that much conditioner? Well, let me ‘splain.
It started off innocent enough in a search for the perfect co-wash product. Although I wasn’t a newbie natural, I was new to the ways of curly hair care. I’d already grown out my relaxer and decided it was time to let my natural curls get some hang time. Unfortunately, I also had a severe case of heat damage, which seriously hated on my curly hair dreams.
At the time, I thought that if I conditioned my hair enough, my curls would magically reappear and I’d be able to just “wash and go” on my merry way. Which, by the way, turned out to be utter hogwash. It was completely preposterous to think that after years of straightening my hair that all it would take was a little conditioner and water to bring my natural curls back.
Completely oblivious to the science of broken hair bonds and cuticle damage, I went on a crusade for the perfect curl. I was at the beauty supply and the drug store seemingly every week reading ingredients and cracking open bottles of conditioner so that I could test the consistency of how slippery or creamy a product was and get a whiff of the goods. I was obsessed.
I pretty much went out and bought every conditioner that came with a glowing recommendation from my favorite hair vloggers on YouTube. It got to the point where I had to avoid the product section altogether if I wanted to escape the store without leaving with a new bottle of creamy crack.
If I was uncertain about a potential purchase I’d stand in the aisle and look up reviews on my phone to justify why I needed buy and investigate the promise of something new. After all, I could’ve been holding the holy grail of conditioner in my hands and would never know exactly how it would react in my hair if I didn’t give it a try.
Plus, at the height of my frenzy I had this theory that if I co-washed my hair with a different conditioner each week that it would get a little bit of the best of everything. Made total sense at the time, that is until I found out that there was no amount of conditioning that could or would bring my curls back.
Fortunately for you and me, while on my conditioner binge I found out more than the average person the real value of a developing a banging conditioning routine.
Coincidentally, many of the products that I tested actually turned out to be awesome-sauce in a bottle, each with a specific purpose that can generally be categorized into one of five conditioning categories: detanglers, protein-based, moisturizing, deep conditioning, and leave-ins. So, after getting over my wash and go heartbreak I decided to focus on the bigger picture: how to get a head full of healthy, shiny hair. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
When it comes to detangling conditioners, it’s all about the silicones. Conditioners with this ingredient generally provide good slip for unruly tangles and stubborn knots. Many curlies swear that ‘cones are the devil because of the potential for product buildup -- a legitimate concern.
Silicones tend to coat the hair with a slippery film that is great to loosen knots and tangles, but they can also block out moisture. So though the hair may look slick and feel moisturized on the surface (cuticle), that’s actually a Jedi mind trick. The actual inner layers of hair strands (the cortex and medulla) will be quite thirsty. It’s all very science-y.
However, there is such a thing as water-soluble ‘cones that are a friend to the curly girl. I have found that slathering my hair pre-wash with my go-to detanglers: Herbal Essences Hello Hydration or Aussie Moist (both which contain dimethicones) and sitting for at least an hour allows me to detangle with ease in the shower pre-shampoo. Plus I get a ton (ok, 32 ozs) of conditioner for about five bucks. That’s half of what I pay for some of my other fancier moisturizing conditioners.
Up next in the repertoire is the protein gang: silk, keratin, collagen, soy, wheat, vegetable and hydrolyzed. These seven are some of the more common types that characterize protein conditioners. My favorites include Nubian Heritage EVOO & Moringa Repair Conditioner and Aphogee 2 Minute Keratin Repair
While protein-filled conditioners are known to fortify the hair, I’ve found that too much, too often can result in hardened, brittle feeling strands that can snap, thus resulting in unnecessary breakage. Plus I heard that people who have a sensitive scalp sometime find protein-based conditioners irritating. I’m not one of those types, but I do know my limit and only use them as needed, about every other wash or so. Even then, I always, always follow it up with a moisturizing deep conditioner -- very important, write that down.
Speaking of moisturizing conditioners, like most curly girls, my hair is very dry by nature, so this type is the most commonly used in my arsenal. A close relative, but not to be confused with the moisturizing deep conditioner (I’ll explain later), some of these can also be used for detangling because of the slippery properties from ingredients like glycerin instead of silicones.
I don’t mind springing for a smaller and pricier $10-15 dollar bottle of Aubrey Organics Honeysuckle Rose or White Camellia because it’s not only better for my hair; it’s also good for the earth (I think). I’ve really got my priorities straight when it comes to those sorts of things.
Now back to moisturizing -- personally, I tend to try to avoid protein altogether when my intention is to focus on adding moisture. However, it is possible to go overboard. A good indication of hair with moisture overload is limp and spongy strands that seem kind of stretchy. No bueno.
No one likes a sad curl, so I really try to pay attention how my hair feels to determine what I need more of, protein or moisture. Other personal favorites for the latter are Shea Moisture Restorative Conditioner and Say Yes to Carrots.
Now we’re getting into the thick of things. Deep conditioners are their own brand of special that promise big returns. Most have a heavier consistency without much slip; that is unless it’s full of ‘cones, which is a no-no in my book when it’s time to DC. Hence these heavy hitters are not usually ideal for detangling and can also be protein based or moisturizing.
Although I have and use both, I tend to gravitate more towards my moisturizing deep conditioners (remember that from earlier?). When I don’t DC, the difference in shine and frizz control is considerably noticeable. Also, I like to add olive oil to my DC for good measure. My hair seems to like it that way, so that’s what I go with.
In the winter months I don’t even bother washing my hair if I think I won’t have the time or energy complete all of the steps of a proper wash routine. For me, deep conditioning is a non-negotiable part of the process and I have been known to go to the gym and even run errands under the guise of a hat over my plastic baggy. It’s real out in these streets.
Two of my staples are Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter Deep Treatment Masque for moisture and Aubrey Organics GPB for protein. It really only takes an extra 30 minutes to an hour to do it effectively and I have Shelly of Hairscapades to thank for helping me figure that one out.
After all of that, I seal the deal with a light, moisturizing and mostly natural leave-in conditioner, then style accordingly. I’ve deviated and tried other brands in the past, but I always come back to my Giovanni’s Direct Leave-in. My hair loves it the best, plain and simple.
One honorable mention is the Kinky Curly Knot Today, which I’ll admit I’ve under-utilized because my actual styling process has changed significantly since I first started paying attention to my hair’s many needs.
Based on my conditioning routine, the demands may seem extensive. However, I take my hair care pretty seriously so I don’t mind the effort that it takes to make sure my curls stay hydrated, healthy and happy.
Call it obsessive, vain or whatever. But when I reach in the cabinet to grab one (or three) of those 22 bottles of conditioner (plus other whatnots) and then I look in the mirror when I’m done all I see is a head full of rockin’, luscious, bouncy, shiny curls. Product junkie or not, I’m definitely all about that life.