How to Use Leave-In Conditioner for Healthier Hair

black woman holding her head upside down and scrunching her curls

Stocksy / Design by Zackary Angeline

When I first discovered the concept of leave-in conditioner, I had a lot of questions. How long do I "leave" it in for? Do I apply it in the shower? Do I need to wash it out afterward? Or do I just... leave it in?

It really isn't a difficult concept to grasp, I know, but I wasn't well-versed in hair care products at the time—and was simply searching for a solution for my suddenly drier, more brittle hair. (Goodbye, effortlessly lustrous locks of my youth.) Either way, once I realized the benefits of an amazing leave-in formula (of which there are many), I never looked back.

Meet the Expert

  • Leo Izquierdo is a former salon owner, hair care entrepreneur, and co-founder of IGK Haircare.
  • Adam Federico is the vice president of technical education at R+Co.

All of the answers to your frequently asked questions about leave-in conditioner—because I know I can't be the only one—below.

What Is Leave-In Conditioner?

Leave-in conditioner is an optional, added step after washing and conditioning hair that isn't meant to be rinsed out. It offers a level of detangling, moisturizing, and heat-protection with a number of formulas existing to target specific needs, so almost any hair type can benefit—although dry, thick, and curly hair will benefit the most.

Think about it: Between blow-dryers, curling irons, towel updos, the wrong pillowcases, brushing, and potentially bad dye jobs, we put our hair through a lot. Leave-in conditioner is like calling in for backup.

It shouldn't replace the conditioner you use in the shower post-shampoo, nor should you use it everyday—rather, it's there to give a little extra TLC: When your hair feels dry and unruly or needs some love, leave-in conditioner is the best possible reinforcement.

Unlike regular conditioner, you don't rinse it out when you use it. Leave-in conditioner is formulated to be—as the name implies—left in your hair to lock in moisture and drench your strands in nutrients, leaving your tresses soft, healthy, silky, and nourished. No rinsing required—like the moisturizer you put on your face, you don't want that going down the drain.

Leave-in conditioner has detangling properties, too, and protects hair from heat damage—making it the perfect product to use before styling. (See why you should have one in your arsenal?)

How to Apply Leave-In Conditioner

1. Towel-Dry Hair

"Towel dry hair first," says IGK Hair Care co-founder Leo Izquierdo. Just use a towel to pat the head and dry it just slightly (you still want the hair to be damp while you apply the product).

2. Distribute Leave-In Conditioner Through Hair

When your clean hair is damp or towel-tried, smooth the conditioning product thoroughly throughout, while focusing on the shafts and ends of your hair. Adam Federico, vice president of technical education at R+Co, turns to R+Co BLEU F-Layer Conditioning Serum ($64). "Distribute a dollop of the product through the mid-lengths and ends," he says.

3. Brush

Brush through with a detangling brush or comb to disperse it evenly throughout your hair, then leave it be—no rinsing required. If you have curly hair that you prefer not to brush through, try a leave-in conditioner cream that you can scrunch into your ends.

Which Hair Types Can Benefit From Leave-In Conditioner?

In short: All of them. Every single hair type can benefit from the right leave-in conditioner. (If you don't think you could benefit from an extra boost of hydration, think again.) Depending on the formula, leave-in conditioner protects hair from a multitude of factors, including the sun, environmental damage, heat damage, and pollution.

Of course, when it comes to more particular hair conundrums, not every leave-in conditioner is created equally. Some formulas will target specific issues associated with different hair types (like color damage or split ends) better than others.

For a product that works on a range of hair types, Izquierdo turns to IGK’s Thirsty Girl Coconut Milk Leave-In Conditioner ($32), which he applies "from root to tip for weightless hydration on all hair types."

Essentially, there's a leave-in conditioner for every hair type, whether you're dealing with damage, frizz, fine hair, or major coarseness.

What Should I Look For in a Formula?

It really depends on your individual hair type, and leave-in conditioners come in an array of formulas, like sprays, creams, oils, balms, and more. If you have naturally fine hair, choose a lightweight spray or foam that'll leave your hair silky rather than greasy. If you have dry, damaged, curly, or over-processed hair, it's a good idea to find a creamy, nutrient-rich formula with hydrating properties. The R+Co product recommended by Federico, for instance, is ideal for dryer hair types. "This product is great, because it weightlessly hydrates, repairs and preps the hair thanks to a vitamin and mineral infused fruit water extract and nourishing oil blend," Federico says.

For color-treated hair, look for a leave-in conditioner that's sulfate-free and color-safe.

Generally speaking, though, there are some key, potentially hair-boosting ingredients you'll want to look out for, like vitamins, antioxidants, natural oils, botanical extracts, and heat-protectant properties just to name a few.

When to Apply Leave-In Conditioner?

It's easy: after the shower. (Not in it.) Since you don't need to wash leave-in conditioner out after, you can simply apply it to your wet hair before bed, for example. "Work the product through with a wide tooth comb, part the hair and allow to air-dry completely," advises Federico. "Use fingers to break hair up for a smooth, yet tousled texture. "

Let your strands absorb it while you sleep, or apply it before blow-drying or using heat styling to offer a layer of protection.

The Best Leave-In Conditioners

These are a few of team Byrdie's favorite leave-in conditioner formulas for every hair type, texture, and concern.

For Dry Hair

adwoa beauty Deep Conditioning Treatment
adwoa beauty Baomint™ Deep Conditioning Treatment $39.00

Vegan and sulfate-free, Adwoa Beauty's bestselling treatment boasts a number of impressive ingredients, including those aforementioned natural oils, botanical extracts, and numerous vitamins and nutrients. Its deeply penetrating, ultra-moisturizing cream formula is suitable for all hair types, but if you're looking for a solution for frizz, breakage, damage, and split ends—this one's for you. Also, the cooling and soothing properties make it amazing for those dealing with dry, itchy scalps.

For Damaged, Color-Treated Hair

Jane Carter Revitalizing Leave-In Conditioner
Jane Carter Solution Revitalizing Leave-In Conditioner $10.00

Jane Carter Solution's leave-in conditioner is the perfect option for those of us who frequently put our hair through the ringer. The unique formula creates a heat barrier, and it protects from coloring and chemical abuse, making it a great "bodyguard" for your strands. It locks in moisture for extra shininess and luster while also being lightweight enough that it won't build up, so you can even use it twice in one day if you so choose.

For Fine Hair

Davines Volu Hair Mist
Davines Volu Hair Mist $38.00

Some people with fine, thin hair might worry about buildup or grease when considering a leave-in conditioner—and this Davines miracle mist is exactly what you need to put your mind (and locks) at ease. The ultra-lightweight formula primes your hair for styling by creating a base for bouncy, fuller-looking hair for ultimate shine and softness. It's the volume boost your hair needs—without having to worry about it getting weighed down.

For Textured Hair

Cantu Shea Butter Leave-In Conditioning Repair Cream
Cantu Shea Butter Leave-In Conditioning Repair Cream $7.00

When you need the heavy-duty stuff, Cantu Beauty's rich, ultra-thick formula is exactly what you're looking for. Infused with pure shea butter and other natural oils, it is designed to repair split ends, mend breakage, reduce frizz, and—most importantly—leave your hair next-level moisturized. Simply let your hair absorb the luxurious formula overnight and you'll wake up with bouncier, softer tresses.

For Loose Curls and Waves

Ouidad Moisture Lock Leave-In Conditioner
Ouidad Moisture Lock Leave-in Conditioner $10.00

Another one on the lightweight side is Ouidad's leave-in conditioner, formulated by the curl experts themselves. If your waves are feeling dull, frizzy, and a little disappointing, this one will give 'em a major boost by creating a balanced moisture foundation for better style hold. With hydrating botanical extracts and antioxidants, it promises to get your hair to a more manageable, gorgeous place than ever—without any greasy residue.

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