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Conditioner – The Science

Why is conditioner used on hair?

To improve the feel, texture, and manageability of hair. Conditioner works by reducing friction between hair strands meaning you can brush your hair easily without causing damage. Other benefits are usually advertised such as repair, strengthening, or reducing split ends. These are big claims as hair cells are dead and therefore can not regenerate or technically repair themselves. 

How does conditioner work on hair?

The chemistry going on here is so interesting, that’s why I’m sharing it with you. To understand how conditioner works we must first consider the structure of hair strands. The outermost cells of the hair are like scales and are called the cuticle. These cuticle cells are composed mostly of a protein called keratin. Keratin is made up of many amino acids that have a negative charge (1) sticking out. All these negative charges repel each other (looks like the hairs on a nettle) making the hair strands tangle and prone to breakage.

Most surfactants (2) that are used to clean hair, however gentle and effective at removing dirt, are also negatively charged so may increase the “nettle” sticky-upness (real word) of the cuticle cells. 

Conditioners contain cationic surfactants (positively charged). This balances out the negative charge at the hair cuticle and helps to smooth the cells. A tiny amount of positively charged (3) conditioner stays with the hair even after rinsing out and provides that slippery feeling. The hair can now pass over another strand without getting all tangled up.

Conditioners are also slightly acidic (low pH) which helps to encourage the cuticle scales to bind together more tightly. This helps the smoothing as well. 

What types of conditioners are there? 

Solid – made of some cationic surfactant and butter or waxes to make them solid. 

Cream – Often thickened form of the liquid. Thickeners are usually Xantham gum or guar gum. 

Liquid – In a bottle and super easy to use. Contains lots of water (approx 75 % to 90%).

Types of use include treatment, leave-in, rinse-out, refresh, and cleansing.

When should a conditioner be used? 

Once the shampoo has been rinsed out of your hair use conditioner to detangle and brush hair. 

Refresh your hair if it gets frizzy and tangled. A light conditioner spritz is best for this. It is simple and easy and you haven’t had to do a shampoo which can cause unnecessary drying out. 

Treatment when your hair gets dry. Leave in for up to 20 min after using shampoo then rinse out. 

Can I just use conditioner and no shampoo on my hair? 

Yes! Cleansing conditioners are on the market if you’d like to try this. To start with you may notice your hair gets greasy quite quickly if you’re normal routine is to shampoo often. After a few weeks this should level out and you’ll have happy healthy hair. This technique is not for everyone. If your hair gets greasy regularly or if you need to cleanse your hair from other things (chlorine for the swimming pool for example) then shampoo is needed. 

What should I look for in a conditioner?

It depends. For me, I like to know that all the ingredients are included for function and not just to make the product pleasing to look at and feel. 

I prefer a scent that is natural and not synthetic. 

No sulfates because this makes my hair cuticle more sticky-up and prone to damage.

Some people like to use conditioners with silicone, it gives shine and silkiness which feels lovely and can protect hair. I prefer to avoid silicones. It feels great for the first few uses but after a while, it builds up and coats my hair preventing any oils and proteins from getting in to help hair strand health. Silicones are not easily broken down in the environment, so washing them down the drain is not so friendly to the environment.

I have tried several solid conditioners and have had a go at formulating my own as I couldn’t find one that worked well. It turns out that everything that helps make the product solid also weighs down the hair strands. Gah! 

Why I made Rich Conditioner Cream.

After failing to make a solid conditioner that worked really well I decided to make a great conditioner that just had high-quality ingredients and see what consistency it ended up with. This rich super thick cream is the result.

Water is needed because hair needs moisture to be healthy. The liquid consistency makes the product so much easier to distribute where you need the product.

Minimal water content means only a tiny amount of this conditioner is needed for each use. For my shoulder-length fine hair, I use approx half a teaspoon, that’s all. Minimal water content – enough to make it a great product but just the necessary amount. Any more water and the shipping weight would be more, the product would be bigger and I’d need to use unnecessary thickeners to make the same gorgeous consistency. 

There are only high-quality ingredients in rich conditioner cream that need to be there. Here is a list of ingredients and what they’re there;

Cetearyl Alcohol and Behentrimonium Methosulfate (BTMS) – Cationic surfactant (described above) 
Water – Described above
Cocoa butter, argan oil, and jojoba oil – are all amazing for protecting your hair and nourishing your scalp. 
Panthanol – Also known as vitamin B5. Helps to increase hair elasticity and reduce breakage as it is able to penetrate the hair and moisturise it. It also makes hair softer and shinier.
Wheat Protein – Helps to improve hair health by repairing damaged hair follicles. It is also known to attract water and moisture, adding volume and fullness to your hair.  
Isoamyl Laurate and Isoamyl Cocoate – a biodegradable replacement for silicones that do not build up in your hair. It helps disperse the other ingredients and helps to protect hair from damage.
Glycerin – Derived from rapeseed, coconut, and soybean (not palm oil). Helps to disperse ingredients. 
Parfum – A broad-spectrum preservative that makes sure the product does not go rancid and is formulated according to IFRA recommendations. 
Essential Oils – For a lovely natural scent. 
Lactic Acid – to reduce the pH to a level that your hair likes. 
Pentylene Glycol – Palm-free, PEG-free, and COSMOS approved. Moisturiser that helps to solubilise and stabilise oils. Also has antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. 

1 – Negative Charge. The electrical property of a particle on a teeny-tiny scale. An object is negatively charged if it has an excess of electrons.

2 – Surfactant. A shortened version of a surface-active agent. Such as a detergent that works by lowering the surface tension between oils and water increasing the spreading and wetting properties. 

3 – Positive charge. The electrical property of a particle on a teeny-tiny scale. An object is positively charged if it has fewer electrons than protons.