The Right Way to Use Leave-In Conditioner for Your Softest Hair Ever

woman with curly hair and glowing skin looking at camera


Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Condition. Rinse? Those simple instructions have been so deeply ingrained that the mere thought of missing a step sends us for a spiral. Enter: leave-in conditioner. Its self-explanatory name shouldn't be such a difficult concept to grasp. And yet, here we are—not grasping. Because what the heck does "leave-in" actually mean?

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.

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.

Don't Throw Out Your Normal Conditioner

Leave-in conditioner is like calling in for backup, not substituting your usual lineup. 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.

Wait Until You're Out of the Shower

Rule number one of applying leave-in conditioner: Wait until 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 damp hair before bed so it absorbs while you sleep. "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).

Concentrate on the Ends

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.

Brush Through

Brush through with a detangling brush or comb to disperse it evenly throughout your hair, then leave it be—no rinsing required. "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." 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.

Leave-in conditioner has detangling properties, too, and protects hair from heat damage—making it the perfect product to use before styling.

Understand Your Needs

Every single hair type can benefit from the right leave-in conditioner. Depending on the formula, leave-in conditioner protects hair from a multitude of factors, including the sun, environmental damage, heat damage, and pollution. But, some formulas will target specific issues associated with different hair types (like color damage, split ends, frizz, fine hair, or major coarseness) 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."

Consider the Formula

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.

Look to the Ingredients

With so many conditioners on the market, it can seem like they're all the same. As long as it has some kind of creamy consistency it'll get the job done, right? Actually, not every leave-in conditioner is created equally. Generally speaking, 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.

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