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How do hair conditioners work? – the Beauty Brains Show Episode 07

In this week’s show we find out that Perry was a “lackey” early in his career. We also explain why it’s almost impossible for us to tell which is the “best” conditioner for you to use. 

Click below to play Episode 07: “How do hair conditioners work?” or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

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.
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Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • chamane December 7, 2013, 6:17 pm

    you did forget the amphotenic tensio actives in an acid solution, which action is a cationic tensio active like

  • Rozy December 7, 2013, 6:17 pm

    Great article!

  • kate January 16, 2014, 9:03 pm

    What about esters? Do they work like silicones (if so, which would be the best for conditioners) or are also lost down the drain?

    • Randy Schueller January 17, 2014, 7:12 am

      Esters (like isopropyl palmitate) are good emollients in skin care because they help the other ingredients spread across the skin and they give a silky smooth feeling. They may have a similar benefit in a leave in hair product but from a rinse out conditioner they’ll just end up down the drain as you suggested.

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