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Conditioners 101: Five Key Ingredients

My last Hairvember blog post is dedicated to the most magical of all products in our showers: Conditioners! Every woman knows what miracle workers they are 🙂 Read below which five steps and active ingredients you shouldn’t be missing out on in your conditioning routine!  Water

(Creative Commons Water pour 2 by Kenny Louie is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

  • 1. Draw moisture (back) into the hair

If your hair is dry, it might well be because the cortex of your hair is constantly losing a certain amount of the water it naturally contains: Therefore, it is important to keep your hair moisturized by replenishing the moisture levels in the cortex. First of all, let me just put it out there that drinking more water is going to do strictly n-o-t-h-i-n-g for your hair! Keep in mind that your hair is dead and that there are no vessels transporting any substance whatsoever from your body to your hair shaft. The proper and efficient way to moisturize your hair consists in using humectants (not oils!), which are highly hydrophilic molecules that are able to attract and hold water molecules from the surroundings and make them available inside the cortex. Humectants should aways be used on wet hair, i.e. under the shower, so that they can react with the moisture right there and then: They bond with the water on the cuticle, which then penetrates into the cortex, where it will be stored and help to fill back up your hair’s moisture levels. Examples: Glycerin, Aloe Vera Juice, Honey, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Proteins, Sorbitol, Urea, Collagen, Butylene / Dipropylene / Capryl / Propylene / Hexylene / Triethylene Glycol, Triols (1,2,6 hexanetriol, Erythritol, Phytantriol) and Diols (Hexanediol or -triol beeswax), Sodium PCA, Glycogen

  • 2. Draw lipids (back) into the hair

Over the past few years, overnight oil treatments using coconut, olive or argan oil have become hugely popular, and for good reason: If you give the oils enough time, they might indeed penetrate into the cortex and stock your hair back up with lost lipids. However, keep in mind that an oil treatment is not going to moisturize your hair! Apparently, coconut oil is the exception to the rule and can add both moisture and lipids to your hair, but I still have to look that up in more detail. For now, let’s just note that there is a difference between moisture and lipids, and that your hair needs both. Lipids don’t only play a key role inside the cortex, but they also make up around three percent of the cuticle, acting as a kind of “cuticle cement” and keeping the hair’s scales in place. As a consequence mainly of heat styling and chemical treatments, these particular lipids called ceramides and sterols can disappear almost completely, leaving your cuticle raised or even porous and your hair looking dull and brittle. In conditioners, ceramides can penetrate underneath the cuticle and ever so slightly into the cortex and replace the lost “cement”.

  • 3. Add back protein to your hair 

Proteins in conditioners serve two different purposes and therefore act in two different ways: On the one hand, they can patch breaks and chips in the cuticle almost like a band aid, ad(!)sorbing or sticking to the outside of the hair. Some kinds of protein like the one contained in egg white are simply too big to form these temporary bonds, which is why you can stop as of now to put mayo in your hair. Except if you enjoy the feel of it 😉 Amino acids on the other hand are water soluble and will be washed down the drain. The ideal kind of protein to use on your hair is hydrolyzed protein of the right size. If your cuticle is open, small hydrolyzed protein may even penetrate all the way down to the cortex and help build up your hair from within. However, finding out whether your conditioner contains the right size of protein to adsorb to patches or to be absorbed into the cortex is going to be guesswork, because manufacturers unfortunately don’t state the molecular weight.

  • 4. Make your scales lie flat and close to one another

Whilst you are refilling your cortex with water, lipids and protein, it is quintessential that your scales are “open”, so that substances can penetrate through the cuticle into the cortex. Therefore, make sure to use your deep conditioner (which is usually the one taking care of the refilling part) before your regular, every day conditioner, which mainly just locks the cuticle. I have been doing this wrong for all of my life, so I thought I’d spread the knowledge 🙂 Once you are done with the “refilling” steps however, it is really important to close your cuticle again and make the scales lie nice and flat. First of all, this step will instantly make your hair look soft and shiny, and secondly, a closed cuticle protects the cortex and keeps the water and lipids from getting lost again. Conditioners therefore contain a small amount of acidifiers or acidity regulators that make the cuticle flakes or scales fall flat against each other, as I have stated in a previous blog post. Oil

(Creative Commons Soybean Oil Poured by United Soybean Board is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

  • 5. Sealing the cuticle

Ingredients that coat or seal the hair are called sealers or occlusive agents. Examples: Oils, waxes, silicones (recognizable by the -cone or -conol suffix), Polyquaternium Ammonium Compounds, Incroquat BTMS, Incroquat CR, Centrimonium Chloride Sealing the cuticle is crucial both for keeping moisture and lipids inside the cortex, and for preventing humectants from drawing in too much moisture and thus making your hair look frizzy: Sealers therefore act as anti-humectants. One of the most important group of occlusive agents are cationic surfactants, i.e. molecules with a hydrophobic tail and a positively charged, hydrophilic head. With their positive charges, these substances bind to the negative charge of the hair and properly coat or envelop the shaft, leaving it all nice and smooth even after you have washed out your conditioner. Silicones, oils and waxes do the same job in terms of enveloping your hair: As far as oils are concerned however, keep in mind that you risk to wash them down the drain by shampooing your hair after the cure. (Thumbnail: Creative Commons 1966 Beauty Ad, Raveen Hair Conditioner with Beautiful Woman, “Be the Star in His Life” by Classic Film is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 / Annotations by myself)

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4 thoughts on “Conditioners 101: Five Key Ingredients

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