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How long do you have to leave conditioner in your hair?

Li longs to learn: Does it matter how long you leave in you conditioner/hair treatment/hair mask? From what I’ve read it only coats the hair anyway so is it better if you leave it on longer?

The Right Brain respectfully obliges:

You’ve nailed one of the minor myths of hair care, Li. Conditioners DO NOT need to be left on as long as the companies tell you they do.

How conditioners work

That’s because 90% of the benefit from standard conditioners come from coating the surface of the hair. That’s not a bad thing – in fact, the best thing you can do for hair is to smooth and protect the cuticle (that shingle-like layer that covers your hair.) Yes, you have to take the time to work the product through your hair to make sure it’s evenly distributed (especially if you have a lot of hair.) But once the conditioner has had a chance to spread through your hair, leaving it on longer doesn’t make it do anything better. This part is very important – YOU HAVE TO WORK THE CONDITIONER EVENLY THROUGH YOUR HAIR! That process may take you a few minutes. But once you’ve done that part well, you can rinse.

Marketing madness

Then why do companies tell you to leave it on? In part, to make their products seem more special (and so they can sell more of them) manufacturers started making different types of conditioners that had to be left on different lengths of time. It goes something like this:

Does your hair just need “regular” conditioning? Use this product and rinse it off right away.

Does your hair need deep conditioning your hair? Use a different product and leave it on for 10 minutes.

Does your hair need a complete restructurizing makeover? Use this other product, leave it on while you shave your legs, get out of the shower, eat breakfast, walk the dog, drive to work, go on vacation… Well, you get the picture.

Telling you to leave conditioner on longer is primarily driven by marketing claims and is not based on how well the product works. One possible exception, though, are the oil-type treatments we’ve discussed before. If you’re applying a coconut oil type product to your hair you may need to give it time to penetrate. But other than that, any rinse out conditioner can be rinsed out right away.

The Beauty Brains bottom line:

In reality, once you’ve got the conditioner worked through your hair it works almost instantly. Letting it “soak in” longer doesn’t improve the way it works. There’s nothing WRONG with leaving treatments in longer, but if you’re in a hurry you can save yourself some time in the shower by not waiting that extra 10 minutes for your conditioner to kick in.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Holly Parker December 21, 2013, 2:24 pm

    Wow, I love the insight you impart to everyday consumers! This makes me want to use my “deep conditioners” MORE often. I’m often crunched for time and don’t want to waste an expensive product by only using it for 2 min. instead of the full 20 min. suggested, so its often skipped. They might be loosing money because of this scam.

    • Randy Schueller December 22, 2013, 12:47 pm

      Thanks Holly. Let us know how your experiment with increased usage of your deep conditioner works out for you.

  • unop July 23, 2015, 4:02 pm

    I have hair down to the middle of my back and have cut down to washing every other day. I use the Somaluxe Exotic Conditioner from just below my neckline and down through the ends. It rinses out nicely and I can comb through my hair nicely (I use a wide tooth comb and the “wetbrush”). I love that it has argan oil already in it, so I dont have to spend so much money buying an extra argan oil!


  • Hair Care June 21, 2016, 9:29 pm

    I love your insight in using conditioner. I never leave conditioner for a long time in my hair, and I still get the nice result. Thank you for sharing.