What are hair conditioners supposed to do?
Remember that hair is dead! It’s a common misconception that hair can be healthy. Hair can be no more healthy than a shoe lace, a cotton blouse, or any other non-living fiber. The hair on your head is not living tissue. It is dead, keratinized protein. Hair cannot be healthy. Of course, it can look healthy or not-healthy but that’s not the same thing. Conditioners help give your hair a healthier appearance (and reduce breakage) by smoothing the hair.
The biology of hair (cuticle versus cortex)
Look at your hair under a microscope, or, if you don’t have a microscope handy, you can Google a picture of it. You’ll see it’s covered by small scales, known as cuticles, that look a little like the shingles on a roof. As the hair grows, the cuticles form in such a way that the leading edge is facing toward the end of your hair shaft.
When you back comb, you’re scraping the edge of the cuticle in the opposition direction. This action causes lifts the cuticle up and makes it stand away from the hair shaft. The more cuticles you lift up, the more volume your hair will have because each little piece of cuticle will push away the hair shaft laying next to it. You can create tons of volume by combing this way.
The bad news is that back combing is very bad for your hair. When you lift up those little pieces of cuticle, they never return to their nice flat arrangement, no matter what you do to your hair. Instead, they become increasingly loose and eventually break off. Once you remove enough layers of cuticles, you’ll expose the inner core of the hair called the cortex. This section contains the protein bundles which give hair its strength and once it becomes damaged the hair can break off. Just like shingles, when cuticles lay nice and flat they form a protective barrier on the roof that keeps the rain out of your bedroom. But when the shingles become loose, they break off and the next thing you know, the roof leaks and you’ve got a water stained carpet. That’s how cuticles work on your hair. Except for the part about staining your carpet.
Best conditioner ingredients
Hair follicles (the living tissue below your scalp that makes hair) do need vitamins, nutrients, and other critical elements that it gets from the foods you eat. This is why it is important to eat a healthy diet to have healthy looking hair. But those vitamins and natural ingredients don’t do much for hair (especially from a rinse off product.)
Conditioners work by smoothing the cuticle layer. There are two main kinds of ingredients that work the best:
- Quats which is short for quaternium ammonium compounds. These are chemically modified to stick to the damaged spots of your hair, even after rinsing.
- Emollients are oil like materials that coat the entire hair shaft, thereby smoothing the cuticles. Not all oils will work the same way though – silicones are among the best even from a rinse out product. Natural oils will work well if left on the hair but if applied from a rinse off product they’ll just be lost down the drain.
*Important note: Don’t be tricked into thinking a conditioner will work better because it claims to restore, rebuild, revive, rejuvenate, repair, rebalance, or re-hydrate your hair. These terms are all just synonyms for conditioning.