November 29, 2022

Woman in a neutral top combing wet hair

With hair so oily I can slick it back sans product just two days post-wash, I’ve spent my fair share of time questioning the merits of conditioner. I cringe when I see phrases like “deeply hydrating,” “moisture repairing,” and “shine inducing” on my haircare labels, and I am in an eternal search for the world’s greatest dry shampoo. If we’re being completely honest, I’ve even tried cutting conditioner out of my haircare routine a few times.

One of those anti-conditioner moments came early in my beauty career, way back in 2018. I happened to be meeting with a particular haircare superstar and when I confessed about my current haircare routine (or lack thereof), he made me swear right then and there I’d never skip conditioner again.

And while I’ve stuck by my promise in the years since (and my oil production has definitely improved), I still had a lot of lingering questions about the point of conditioner altogether. Luckily, a few of my favorite hair experts—trichologist William Gaunitz, hairstylist Kristin Ess, and hair expert Gaby Longsworth, Ph.D.—agreed to answer my many, many questions. Read on for why conditioner is a must, no matter how much you might be tempted to skip.

 

What Is the Purpose of Conditioner?

To keep it simple, Gaunitz says the purpose of conditioner is to hydrate the hair and coat the cuticle, which helps provide moisture and shine to the keratin that makes up the hair shaft. At a glance, conditioner benefits include:

  • Moisturizes and softens hair
  • Balances scalp and hair pH
  • Detangles knots and tangles
  • Protects and coats the hair cuticle

To keep it not so simple, we need to talk about the pH of the hair and scalp to really explain the purpose of conditioner. According to Longsworth, a healthy scalp should have a pH of around 4.5 to 5.5, and a healthy hair shaft should have a pH of about 4. That’s always the goal. (The pH scale ranges from 0, the most acidic, to 14, the most basic; 7 is neutral).

Certain products and ingredients can disrupt that preferred pH range. As she explains, every hair product you use has either an acidic, neutral, or alkaline pH, and the hair reacts to that pH by raising or tightening the cuticle layer. Shampoos are typically somewhere on the higher side of the acidic range all the way up to neutral, with pH ranges of around 6 to 7 (this does not include sulfated shampoos, which often have higher pH ranges). Conditioners are even more acidic with pH ranges between about 4 and 6, which help bring scalp and hair shaft pH levels back to that ideal range.

And today’s conditioners do a lot more than just that, adds Ess. “With all the advances in haircare, some conditioners can add significant shine, strengthen bonds in the hair, temporarily seal split ends, protect from heat, improve dandruff, add color, stimulate the scalp—the list goes on and on,” she says. “Basically if you have a hair issue right now, it’s highly likely that there’s a conditioner on the market that can help in some way.”

Can I Skip Conditioner?

All three experts agree: Conditioner is pretty much always a good idea. While Gaunitz notes that you can theoretically skip conditioner if you want, over time it will break down the firm layer of the cuticle and create an even more unmanageable hair situation. To sum up all three experts’ opinions, he says that “for the average person, conditioner should be mandatory.”

“If you feel the need to skip conditioner, you might be using the wrong one,” Ess says, explaining that someone with finer hair, for example, might be tempted to skip conditioner to avoid hair feeling “too heavy.” Rather than omitting the step altogether, she suggests switching to a lighter-weight conditioner.

Who Should Never Skip Conditioner?

Depending on hair type, it can be even more critical for some people to use conditioner. Gaunitz notes that any with a wave, curl, coarseness, or gray color to their hair (even if it’s just the slightest amount) should use conditioner after every single shampooing.

“The cuticle of the hair resembles the scales of a fish,” he explains. “When you shampoo your hair, it will dry out the edges of those scales. You must rehydrate the edges and the exterior of the cuticle to help create strength, durability, and shine.”

As an oily scalped human, I’ve considered skipping on conditioner more than one time—I can’t possibly need to add more shine and moisture to my hair, can I? Apparently I can. While people with very oily or very healthy straight hair may be able to skip conditioner every so often, it’s still not recommended since even a small amount can help reset hair and scalp pH, says Longsworth. And, as she points out, conditioner is rinsed out anyway, so it’s not going to do all that much in terms of increasing oil production.

Alternatives to Conditioner

While all three experts agree conditioner is almost always a good idea, there are a few, very specific instances in which one might be able to skip conditioner, or rather swap it out for an alternative.

Folks who use a co-wash instead of shampoo can actually skip conditioner since too much moisture can be detrimental to hair. The same goes for those using a conditioning wash, says Longsworth. She also notes that you can likely skip conditioner when using a deep conditioner or conditioning hair mask, as they’re typically formulated at a similar low pH. When in doubt, check the product’s instructions.

Other than that, Gaunitz says there’s really no reason to cut out conditioner from your routine. In fact, doing so can actually contribute to damage.

The Final Takeaway

Ess puts it best: “It really is beneficial to the overall health of the hair to condition after you shampoo—in my personal opinion, you should never skip conditioner.” Conditioning isn’t just about adding shine and moisture, it’s an imperative step in restoring hair and scalp pH as well as helping to rehydrate, strengthen, and protect the hair.

And she makes another great point, one that bears repeating: If you feel the need to skip conditioner, consider the type of conditioner you’re using and switch to something that more closely aligns with your hair’s needs.

As for a TLDR, it’s this simple: Use the conditioner.