How to Use Hair Masks to Achieve (And Maintain) Healthy Hair

It's time for hair masking 101.

Portrait of young woman against sky touching her hair

Getty Images / Westend61

Face masks have infiltrated our daily lives. How many times have you seen people wearing face masks in movies and TV shows? The answer is too many to count. More proof: Seeing someone on a plane sporting a sheet mask no longer turns heads. For some reason, hair masks haven’t caught on in the same way—but they should. Granted, a hair mask requires a bit more time and energy since having a shower nearby is practically a requirement. But even with that extra maintenance moment, hair masks are well worth the effort. And these days, you can find a hair mask to address any need, from hydration to repair.

If you still need to be swayed on the greatness of hair masks, we’ve gone to the experts for some hair masking 101. Ahead, they break down how, when, and why to use them. Get ready for your loveliest locks yet.

Meet the Expert

What Is a Hair Mask?

Let's back up and cover the hair mask basics, starting with exactly what a hair mask is. "A hair mask is a replenishing treatment for your hair, just like a face mask, to give it an extra boost of what it needs," says Angela Onuoha, certified trichologist and Rhyme & Reason expert advisor. 

Anabel Kingsley, consultant trichologist and brand president at Philip Kingsley, adds, "A hair mask is a concentrated formula, usually with a thick, creamy consistency, that is left on the hair for a minimum of 10 minutes to overnight."

Who Should Use Hair Masks?

Anyone who has—or is prone to—hair damage should use a hair mask, according to Onuoha. That criteria covers loads of people. Luckily, hair masks are suitable for everyone and all hair types. 

"As soon as hair grows past scalp level, it is exposed to external aggressors, like UV rays, pollution and brushes, and perhaps heated styling tools, hair dyes, bleach, and chemical straighteners," Kingsley says. "These things weaken strands and negatively impact their moisture balance and strength." 

Kingsley advises that even if your hair is unprocessed and in good condition, masking can help keep your strands as healthy as possible. "However, those with dry, damaged, chemically processed hair, or people with unprocessed long hair will see the most difference," she says. "They're also essential if you heat style your hair." 

What to Look for in a Hair Mask

When shopping for a hair mask, there are a few factors to consider. "The most important thing is to look at your hair and what state it is in," Onuoha says. "Ask yourself: What does it look like? How does it feel? What is my weekly grooming routine?

Once you've narrowed your hair concerns, shop for a mask that targets your specific needs. "Look for a focused and concentrated mask," Kingsley says. "Pre-shampoo treatments are also helpful, especially if you have fine or thin hair."

If you have multiple hair concerns, alternate between different masks to address your needs. "Just like one skincare product won't address all your skin concerns, one mask won't cure all hair woes," Kingsley notes.

If you're looking for new masks to test, she has a few recommendations. For dry, brittle hair, she suggests the Philip Kinglsey Elasticizer Deep-Conditioning Treatment ($30). Those with heat or chemical damage are ideal users for the brand's Bond Builder Restructuring Treatment ($42). And if you've been dealing with dull strands due to pollution or hard water build-up, Kingsley encourages trying the Vitamin C Detoxifying Jelly ($42).

Some hair masks claim to moisturize and build bonds, but Kingsley cautions that they won't be as effective as using separate, highly concentrated formulas. "Heavy moisturizing actives stop bond-building actives from penetrating effectively," she warns. "Almost always, dryness and damage go hand in hand, so incorporate both into your weekly hair care routine." 

How Do You Use a Hair Mask?

The best way to use a hair mask varies. Some require just five minutes, while others need to sink in overnight. "Every hair mask is formulated differently, and the instructions will tell you how long to leave it on," Onuoha says. "This has been tested by the brand and will reassure you that if you leave it on as long as instructed, you'll get the best benefits and results of the product."

Though following the label is the best bet, these step-by-step instructions for using a hair mask will help make the most of the treatment:

  1. "Start with shampoo," Onuoha says. "This will remove all of the additional products and excess oils to ensure you have a clean base to start with and that the products you apply afterward can do their work."
  2. Apply your conditioner, leave it on as long as instructed, then rinse.
  3. "Apply your hair mask on towel-dried hair," Onuoha says. "Your hair is like a sponge: first come, first served. If the first thing is water, everything after that will have less room to absorb. Leave it on as long as instructed and rinse thoroughly."
  4. Kingsley recommends applying the mask to your mid-lengths and ends, working it in with your fingertips. "If you wish, comb through with a wide tooth comb, starting at your ends," Kingsley says. "This will ensure the mask is coating every strand."
  5. If the formula works better under heat, pop on a shower cap or a hair towel, like the Tirbie Twist.
  6. Apply your leave-in conditioner and follow up with a styling product if needed.

As for how often you should use a hair mask, follow Kingsley's general guidelines:

  • Unprocessed, shorter than shoulder length hair: Once every 2-3 weeks
  • Unprocessed hair past shoulder length: Once every 1-2 weeks
  • Processed, heat styled, or damaged hair: Once a week
  • Very damaged, processed, heat-styled hair: Twice per week 

The Final Takeaway

Hair masks are a great tool to keep in your hair care routine. But Onuoha says that they're only part of the equation for maintaining healthy hair. She believes using conditioner every time you shampoo, and a leave-in is even more beneficial. Need a refresh on the differences between them? "Hair masks are treatments to focus on certain 'problems' or to prevent them," Onuoha says. "Conditioners coat the hair, help smooth the hair surface, and protect against damage from grooming habits. Leave-in conditioners are similar to a conditioner, but this is a non-wash-out product that helps to moisturize the hair throughout the week until your next wash day. The Rhyme & Reason Quench & Curl Leave-In Conditioner ($9) is my hero product for ensuring my hair is moisturized and soft to the touch all week." 

Ultimately, Onuoha recommends sticking to a simple routine. "Consistency is the most important thing to ensure you can maintain healthy hair and see results," she says. "Keeping your routine simple will ensure that it's sustainable and make it easy to notice if there is something else your hair needs."

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